Can we feed Africa the Sunday Special?

Posted on August 1, 2011


On nearly every sunny Sunday afternoon, Ghanaians flock to “chop bars” and restaurants and kitchen tables to enjoy a meal of omotuo, or groundnut (i.e. peanut) soup with balls of mashed rice. It’s just the food you want to eat on a lazy Sunday, and it is direly missed when not enjoyed on such a day. It’s the Sunday Special.
But as my husband and I were preparing our special Sunday meal this week, I wondered, what is the “Sunday Special” in Somalia? The news reports of famine spreading through the Horn of Africa have really struck me this time around. My heart aches when I scroll through pictures like the one below from a recent photo essay posted at The Big Picture. I think my empathic response to the crisis stems from a few factors, among them the fact that food has become a central theme in my life as well as that Africa is a continent to which I have developed some personal ties.

A Somali girl being treated for severe malnutrition pushes away a cup as a woman tries to feed her at a hospital operated by the International Rescue Commission, at Hagadera Camp outside Dadaab, Kenya, on July 9. (Rebecca Blackwell/Associated Press)

 But I’m wondering how far my empathy can take me. Empathy is certainly a powerful psychological response, prompted by some sense of affinity with the experience of another person. Empathy is considered by some to be a key advancement in the history of human evolution because it tends to encourage prosocial behavior.

One such empathy-prompted behavior that is being heavily promoted as a proper response to the Horn of Africa famine is to donate money to organizations such as the World Food Program and UNICEF, that are serving people in these drought-stricken areas. I’m certainly moved to help by providing short-term relief in this way, but I also wonder if this response goes far enough.

Because while I trust that relief workers on the ground are doing their best to provide food, water, and shelter to those in need right now, I’m also wary of the fact that funds donated to large international aid agencies are difficult to track and often end up in the wrong hands, whether within the organization or outside of it, such as is the fear in this case, where the militant group Al Shabab is in control of large tracts of land affected by the famine.

But furthermore, I wonder what will happen after today’s hunger is delayed. In addition to short-term relief, what long-term efforts are being employed to improve the quality of life for next generations? How can such wide-spread famine be prevented in the future? How is global climate change being addressed? How is political unrest going to be settled? How is cultural knowledge going to be passed on?

I think questions likes these are beginning to be asked around the globe by those involved in organizing for changes in food policy. Such complex questions sometimes seem not be related to food at all, but actually get to the heart of the matter, which is that food is more than just food. It is not only an integral part of daily life, but of cultural life. It is as important for physical survival as it is for psychological well-being. Anyone who has enjoyed a home-cooked meal, seasoned with nostalgic memories and the honest nutrition cultivated over time by generations of cooks, can testify to the fact that such a meal satisfies hunger in a way no other can.

So what is the Sunday Special in Somalia, and how can we go about helping ensure that they can enjoy theirs as much as we do ours? While the  proverb that says “Give a man a fish, you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, you feed him for a lifetime” encourages a long-term perspective, I don’t think it quite solves the problem. I want to set aside the notion that I’ve even got anything to teach. In Somalia, after all, I’d be a fish out of water. I wonder what instead they could teach me if only they had the chance.

I got my first lesson on nkatenkwan, or groundnut (peanut) soup from one of my host moms after church one Sunday during the year I spent in Ghana as a high school exchange student. I learned so much from her and other members of my host family.

These days my husband takes the helm in the kitchen when it comes to Ghanaian cooking, and I am his happy sous chef. After many years of observation and lessons from impressive cooks, I think I have come up with a fairly accurate recipe for Ghana’s special Sunday dish. I haven’t found a Ghanaian cook yet who actually pulls out measuring cups, let alone repeat the cooking process with the exact same ingredients or in the same steps as the first time, so keep in mind the recipe below is quite flexible. “Let the soup speak to you,” as my husband has counseled…

And by the way, this soup, after flavors have marinated together all night, is quite delicious on Monday as well!

The Sunday Special: Omotuo ene nkatenkwan
Rice Balls with Groundnut (Peanut) Soup

For the soup:
3 lbs bone-in meat (chicken, beef or pork hoove or belly, goat), chopped to pieces
1 large red onion, diced
2 medium tomatoes, whole
2-3 habanero peppers, whole
3 cloves garlic, minced
1-inch piece ginger, minced
1 to 1-1/2 tablespoons tomato paste
about 1 cup peanut paste (fresh ground peanuts, or natural peanut butter)
Water, as needed
Salt as needed
Steamed greens, such as kale, collards, or spinach (optional)
Cooked black eyed peas (optional)
Boiled egg (optional)

Place meat in a large stock pot over medium-high heat. (Use goat alone, or combine chicken with other flavorful pieces of meat such as cow hoof as we did here.) Season with salt, then add 1/4 of diced onion, whole tomatoes and habanero peppers. Cover and steam for 15-20 minutes, stirring occasionally.

After steaming, use a large slotted spoon to remove tomatoes and peppers, then place in a blender (or mortar and pestle) with remaining onion, garlic, ginger, and tomato paste. (If desired, reserve one or two peppers to cook in the soup whole to allow for extended release of the spice, or to serve for someone who likes additional heat.) Blend until combined, adding a little water if necessary to allow blender to work.

Pour blended tomatoes over meat, which will have released some liquid. Use 1/4 to 1/2 cup water to clean out blender and add to soup. Stir to combine, and reduce heat to medium. If needed, add an additional 1/2 to 1 cup water in order to reach the consistency of a thin soup.

Place peanut paste in a separate sauce pan and place over medium heat. Add about 1 cup of water, stirring to combine with a wooden spoon. Increase heat to medium-high, and gradually add in an additional 2 to 3 cups of water, stirring to fully incorporate each time, until sauce becomes thin and turns a light cream color.

Allow peanut sauce to come to a boil, then simmer for 2-3  minutes, stirring constantly, then add to soup. Stir to fully incorporate peanut sauce into soup. Taste and adjust for salt and spice. (Add whole habanero peppers to the soup here for increased heat or to serve to someone who prefers more intense spice.) Increase heat to medium-high.

Bring soup to a boil and allow to simmer for 25-30 minutes. During this time, the soup will begin to foam, then the foam will subside and red oil will appear over the top of the soup.

After the oil appears, allow the soup to simmer for an additional 5-10 minutes before serving with steamed greens, beans, and boiled egg if desired.

For the rice ball:
About 2 cups long-grain rice

Add rice to a large saucepan, then add water until rice is covered by about an 1 inch of water. Season with salt. Cover and cook over medium-high heat, until water comes to a boil, then reduce heat to medium-low and cook until rice becomes tender enough to eat. Then add an additional cup or so of water, and cover and cook an additional 10 minutes, until rice becomes soft and mushy.

Use a wooden spoon to mash rice over low heat until individual grains can no longer be seen, adding additional water by tablespoonfuls as necessary.

To form rice ball, fill a small bowl with mashed rice. Covering the top with one hand, shake the bowl in order to mold rice to rounded sides.

Wrap the rice ball in plastic wrap and set aside in covered bowl to keep warm while forming remaining rice balls. Serve with soup.

If you would like more vegetables in the soup, also try adding large chunks of chopped carrots to the soup! My friend tried this once with amazing results!

If you are looking for more Ghanaian recipes, see also:
Are those cow feet going into your Light Soup? (Light Soup with Banku)
Is eating #Unprocessed a privilege choice? (Tomato Stew with Goat meat)