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Anthony Bourdain in Accra

Anthony Bourdain is an interesting dude. A chef in the northeastern US – mostly New York City – for many years, he made a name for himself with an excellent book called Kitchen Confidential. It’s both an expose of high-end restaurant kitchens and the tricks chefs use to keep their restaurants going and making money, as well as a confessional about Tony’s bad habits, which have, over the years, included cigarettes, cocaine, heroin, alcohol and the really scary parts of pigs.

Recently, Bourdain has become a popular TV host, running a show called “No Reservations”, where he travels the world encountering interesting food and the people who cook it. My wife and I are addicts, and have watched him eat his way from Quebec to Malaysia. I was talking about Bourdain with an Indian friend recently, and he mentioned that Bourdain’s shows on India were being broadcast in Bangalore, to great interest and acclaim.

The episode that aired on Monday night was near and dear to my heart – Bourdain made his first trip to Africa and began his explorations of the continent in Ghana. Given that my addiction to Africa began fourteen years ago in Accra, it’s great fun for me to watch this crazy chef encounter one of my very favorite nations.

Bourdain does an awfully good job of experiencing the best Ghana has to offer, both foodwise and culturally. He starts in Makola Market – the biggest market in Accra, and one of my favorite places on the planet. His camera crew does an excellent job of capturing the chaos, color and rhythm of the place, introducing the host to street food and the wonders of akpeteshie, Ghanaian moonshine distilled from palm wine. He visits one of Ghana’s best loved chop bars – Asanka Local – where he starts his culinary journey with Omo Tuo, my single favorite Ghanaian meal (pounded rice balls served with palm or groundnut soup.)

The government of Ghana clearly sees the tourism potential of Bourdain’s visit – he travels throughout the country on a military helicopter, which certainly makes it easier to have a trip that spans the full length of the nation. And he has a beach seafood barbecue with the minister of tourism, Jake ‘Otanka’ Obetsebi-Lamptey, who proves to be a remarkably mellow and cool guy, walking Bourdain through culinary miracles like shito, pepper sauce made by frying dried fish and pepper in palm oil.

Some aspects of Bourdain’s trip are ones that any lucky Ghana visitor will be able to replicate – a trip to Osu Night Market, a visit to the bush to see (and drink) palm wine being tapped. And some are experiences you only get to have when you’re a TV host – he gets to hang out with Koo Nimo, the leading artist of “palm wine music” and a living legend in the world of African folk music. The Asantahene gives him a beautiful piece of kente, and he generally gets treated like a king.

But he does his part as well, and manages to get an awfully good picture of what’s good about Ghana in the course of his visit. He points out Ghana’s role in inspiring Pan-Africanism and the post-colonial movement, the political and economic stability the nation’s enjoyed, and the remarkable creativity and resilience of the people. He’s clearly amazed by the generosity he encounters, and his camera crew does a good job of capturing the fact that any day in Ghana – good, bad or indifferent – involves a lot of laughter, both at yourself and at each other. It’s an extremely respectful portrait of the nation, both in terms of national character and in admiration of the food.

I was especially pleased that Tony made it to the far north of the country, to Mole Game Reserve and to a Dagara village to eat a meal with his guides. My dear friend Bernard Woma comes from the area near Mole, and I got a linguistics lesson about a food I learned to cook years ago to serve when Bernard comes to visit me in the US. Almost all Ghanaian food involves a pile of starch covered with a spicy or strongly-flavored soup. The starch in the Dagara region is primarily maize, and is something like a loose polenta. Bernard had told me the starch was called “tee-zert” and I’d proudly served it with my groundnut stew to him and other guests. Bourdain points out that the name is really “T.Z.”, short for “tua zafe”, which means “very hot”. Pronounced in British English, it comes out “tee zed”, more or less the term I’ve been using for the last decade or so.

If you can get your hands on the episode and are excited about Ghana (and especially Ghanaian food), it’s very much worth your time. I have high hopes that Bourdain sparks a new wave of tourism in Ghana, and am psyched that his travel schedule this year also appears to include Namibia and South Africa.

25 thoughts on “Anthony Bourdain in Accra”

  1. Oh, wow. This sounds amazing. I’m really psyched to watch this on the Tivo when I get home — and the Iceland one you saved for me, too! :-)

    Man, now I want Ghanaian food.

  2. The wife and I are Bourdain devotees, too. My main regret is that he seemed to have missed out on Tro-Tros. They taught me to be grateful for factory-made seats, seatbelts and well-maintained roads.

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  4. Mike, the other thing he misses by not taking tro-tros or long-distance buses is the art of bus eating – putting together a meal by selecting a subset of the amazing delicacies offered to you through the bus window when you stop in a town. My all-time favorite road meal is hard-boiled eggs with pepper sauce, yam chips with shito and fresh mango, all delivered to my window by women balancing kitchens on their heads…

  5. Ethan, your affinity for tro-tros is a testament to your heart. I could barely squeeze into those seats and I think you’re a little larger than I. You were probably better at negotiating the front seat.

    I guess it would be mundane for someone like Bourdain, but I was intrigued by the codified vendors. The young girls sell ice water. The ladies who make tea will also make you a fried egg sandwich. The guys on bikes sell frozen “dairy” treats. There was a method to the madness.

  6. I whole-heartedly concur with your astutue analysis of both Bourdain’s segment on Ghana and the inhabitants and culture of the country itself. It’s a remarkable country, in ways that are difficult, if not impossible, to explain. But Bourdain’s concise “Hard life, nice people, good food” tag sums it up better than I certainly could. While away from my home in New York I spent so much time thinking I was missing pizza. But now that I’ve returned home, I’ve realized that lacking pizza pales in comparison to being bereft of fufu with groundnut soup.

    I admittedly was sitting on the edge of my seat for him to visit the central market in Kumasi, the largest in all of West Africa, which he didn’t. A small oversight in the scheme of things.

    And I hear you on the tro-tros. Bourdain may have covered a lot more ground by copter, but I found traveling by tro-tro in Ghana to be highly rewarding as it’s a chance to mingle with, or at least travel amongst, the locals. I would also just like to mention one important and relevant word – pineapple!! 2,000 cedis (the equivalent of 20 cents) for a fresh, sweet, crisp, and cut up (right in front of you) pineapple, the best 20 cents – or 20 dollars for that matter – could buy. Ghana is renowned for having the best pineapples in the world. But all in all, thanks to Bourdain for highlighting Ghana on his trip. Meda ase.

    With the 50th anniversary of Ghana’s independence from British rule just around the corner (two months from now), I hope that Bourdain’s segment and these postings will help communicate to others in the world what a special and worthwhile place Ghana is to visit. And as pretty as the beaches and rainforest might be, it is most definitely the people and food that will remain in my heart for months and years to come.

    What is it about Ghana that makes it so special? The people are modest and hide behind their ingenuity, high level of intelligence, and deeply ingrained efficiency and organization – that much we know. But beyond that, it’s up to the Ghanaians to let us into their secret world, and, even further, into their secret lives. But it seems doubtful they will let us into these realms…and I quite like that they won’t. It’s a welcome and stark contrast to what American culture has become.

  7. Ohhhh..my heart hurts! Did I really miss this episode?? THAT’S WHAT I GET FOR NOT HAVING TIVO!! I hope they air it again. I love Ghana and I love Mr. Bourdain. He be the man. In any case, I’m glad I ran across your website. It’s always great to meet another Ghana enthusiast.

  8. I heard Anthony Bourdain enthusing about Ghana and its food on NPR several months ago, and I’m truly sorry I missed his show. For any of you in love with Ghanaian food, or seriously curious about African food and culture, you might check out my website BETUMI: The African Culinary Network (www.betumi.com). Incidentally, I’ll be speaking in Chicago in April at the International Assoc. of Culinary Professionals annual conference and doing a tasting session on Ghana’s food (“The Good Soup Comes From the Good Earth: Cooking of Ghana, Gateway to West Africa”). Ghana’s culinary star is rising!

  9. This country is dear to my heart and I would like to see this presentation. Does anyone know where I can watch it (download it) online?

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  12. i would love to buy a copy of the episode. where and how can i get the copy. please email me.

  13. All his episodes are interesting. I get the impression that he wasn’t as excited about this trip as he was on others but still glad to be there. Ghana was presented as a place of unique cuisine but in a stereotypical version of third world Africa – friendly people, vibrant but a bit infrastructurally backward – something which may not be Mr. Bourdain’s fault.

    With respect to Africa, I prefer the Namibia show as he ate some unusual stuff and had me laughing something which the Ghana programme lacked.

  14. This post absolutely reminds me of my 5 trips to Ghana,the Osu market, Makola Market, the great food. And my wonderful Ghanian friends. BTW the best potatoes and onions I have ever tasted were in Accra-potatoes from Cote I’voire and onions from Mali.

  15. tonight was my first time l saw this program l really loved becausi my sweet heart is from ghana and l really loved all things there l want to know more abt it l loved Antony he is so cute and wonderfull congratulation for your wonderfull programa in Africa am from Brasil and l also love that people they are like brazilian people very heppy. l love African people.

  16. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this, made me smile a lot. There’s so much more to see and experience. Ghanaians are a truly remarkable and hospitable people. Proud to be one and thank you for putting this up.

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  18. Hey everyone, you can get this show via iTunes – it costs $1.99 and you’ll download and save it to your computer. You could also look for Season Three of the show via Amazon or another vendor.

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  21. I’m off to Ghana later this year and have been trying to get my hands on this episode. I saw the episode when it aired but I didn’t pay much attention to it as I never imagined I’d be in West Africa. Our charity is based in Uganda and we were invited to begin a branch in Ghana. Thank you for posting this. I will write down the info and take it with me.

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