In Celebrating 400 Years of African Resilience, I Found a Culinary Masterpiece
When I flew to Ghana during the Year of Return, I hoped to learn more about Ghanaian dishes. My search for one thing on my list — koobi egg stew — led to my discovery of one I hadn’t heard of: palava sauce, which ended up being one of my favorite meals in the country.
Upon my arrival in July, I found myself celebrating 400 years of African resilience in many ways — but mainly in search of dishes I had heard about. I rode in numerous taxis or walked along the red roads of Accra, eagerly searching for koobi egg stew in every corner of the city. I questioned everyone: a bartender at a bar favored by locals, a food stall owner in Accra’s lauded Osu Night Market, my Uber driver, my Airbnb host’s cousin’s friend — everyone.
And the responses? Uncertainty, signals that they’d ask a friend for suggestions, and most notably, a confused look that said, “Why this dish?” Of all the Ghanaian meals to indulge in, like red red, waakye, and banku and fish, why bother with this one?
It was a worthwhile question. Having visited Ghana before, I’d tried my share of Ghanaian dishes. With this return, though, I wanted to broaden my knowledge of Ghanaian cuisine by searching for certain foods that went beyond what I’d had on a study-abroad trip six years prior. Koobi egg stew, a dish I’d found while researching Ghanaian cuisine, seemed to be a meal that could address this mission. In addition to utilizing common ingredients like yam, pepper, and eggs it featured a dried, salted fish known as koobi. It seemed like the perfect fit for my palate, so I was especially disappointed when acquaintances laughed with confusion as I searched for it.
After traveling through Accra — Ghana’s capital — and Keta — a fishing town in Ghana’s Volta Region — I found myself weeks into my trip still not having tried the dish.
When I returned to Accra, I realized it was probably time to accept that finding the koobi egg stew was a failed endeavor and lean into the suggestions others had given me in response to my search. One was from Ishmael Kpetseku Sowah, a young, kind, and ridiculously knowledgeable Ghanaian food industry worker. While talking to me in a coffee shop, Sowah recommended palava sauce, a stew that used a traditional native ingredient called kontomire.
“Kontomire is the native name for the cocoyam leaf derived from the Akan language,” Sowah explained. “It’s not only known to Ghanaians but Nigerians as well; I’m quite sure other African natives also know how to use it for their traditional delicacies.”
I walked over to the restaurant he suggested with dueling feelings of curiosity and a persistent grudge. Even his descriptions of the abundant seafood in palava sauce couldn’t wholly excite me because I’d failed to find what I was looking for in the first place.
Still, when I strolled into the quiet restaurant nearby, I smiled at the waiter and took a look at the menu to search for palava sauce. The ingredients were listed underneath: tuna, crab, wele (cowhide), and egg. I straightened my shoulders a bit, my mind immediately intrigued by the crab and egg. When my waiter brought my meal, I looked down at an emerald green stew with a boiled egg poking out. I took a bite, unsure of what to expect from the taste of kontomire.
What I found was one of the most elegant, rich dishes I’d had in Ghana. The kontomire was startling: spinach-reminiscent but somewhat stringy greens that transcended into a comforting, earthy stew. The garlic and pepper overtook me, and the egusi balanced the vibrant, almost combative spices against one another. I bit into the ghost crab, a type of crab common in certain parts of Africa. The combination of crab, boiled egg and greens transformed into a culinary masterpiece. Having all but forgotten about the koobi egg stew, I realized that through my failed search, I’d found something that exceeded my expectations and redefined the boundaries of Ghanaian cuisine.
Palava sauce, or palaver sauce, is eaten throughout West Africa and is a delicacy in Ghana. While mine included tuna, crab, and wele, it varies by region. Other variations feature beef and cassava.
The word palaver has roots in Portuguese and refers to a lengthy debate or quarrel. The definition of the word led to speculation about how the dish got its name, from Fran Osseo-Asare’s theory of the mingling of the intense stew spices resulting in raised voices in an argument to the belief that people eating the stew would start fights with each other by slapping one another with the stew’s long, ropey greens. The spices and ingredients in the stew certainly cause heightened senses and make the speculations plausible.
While the flavor of palava sauce alone makes the dish a standout meal, the native elements make it all the more meaningful. Kontomire is native to Africa; the stew is likely a result of an exchange between European colonists and the people of Elmina, a town that’s now known as the site of the first Western settlement, Elmina Castle. The various meats and seafood are reflective of West Africa’s experimental use of different flavors, and the meal highlights the vibrancy of a culture whose food thrives on spice, sustenance, and feelings of community.
Palava sauce stands out as an example of the incredible spectrum that is Ghanaian cuisine. Africa as a continent has long been viewed as a singular place by Western audiences. This reality exists on the shoulders of a persistent Western tradition of vilifying African life and culture for hundreds of years by failing to understand it, respect it, and value the diverse histories that span country, tribe, ethnic group, and religion.
Visiting Ghana during the Year of Return served as a critical reminder of the diversity of African, specifically Ghanaian, culture and food, and how much work we have to do in learning the variety of meals and culinary traditions that sustained diverse, radiant, and relentless societies. My trip back to Ghana has been a whirlwind of twists and turns in understanding what “returning home” really means for me. Eating palava sauce reminded me that much of it means accepting how much I don’t know, and the value of committing to learning as much as I can about the region at every step I take. Having eaten palava sauce several times now, I’m reminded that the failed journey to find one thing can allow you to reach exactly what you’re looking for — a journey that was particularly meaningful this visit.
This journey took me directly to Elmina, the town that holds claim to the dish. Against stunning views of a blue, thrashing waves in the Gulf of Guinea, stands Elmina Castle. A somewhat chilling stone white building embedded between the Atlantic Ocean and colorful, vibrant Ghanaian markets, Elmina in the site of Portguese presence and Ghana, as well as the horrors they inflicted on African slaves who were captured, dehumanized, and shipped to nations not their own.
In this town, the more positive interactions that Africans had with the Portugese resulted in palava sauce, a reflection of the lively, rambunctious talks that took place between the two groups. Now, the dish is commonly eaten at home, and even taught in West African cooking classes, one of which I took during a trip to the town.
Esi’s cooking class stood in a neighborhood about 15 minutes from the Elmina Castle. Slightly shorter than me and somewhat reserved, Esi immediately had me wash my hands before touching her ingredients. I washed the kontomire leaves, huge vegetables that reminded me of the collard greens I’d help my mother prep as a child. I chopped onions and stirred tomato paste. I added the bouillon cube, which, at the size of a hershey’s chocolate treat, added a needed heartiness to the stew. I marveled at the egusi — mashed pumpkin seeds that seemed to hold the secret to the dish’s magic.
Initially, I was confused. The palava sauce I’d found in Accra resembled a seaweed green. Was I doing it wrong? Should it have simmered longer? No, Esi informed me. The dark green color occurs when a cook allows the stew to sit for two or three days. We didn’t have that kind of time today.
We did have time for is, what I’d imagine, the creators of palava sauce had had time for: conversation.
We exchange banter about my perspective on Elmina town; we laughed about the differences between West African food and Black American food; we playfully quarreled over the perennial, global argument of who makes the better jollof rice in West Africa (perhaps unsurprisingly, Esi had very strong opinions on this one).
In short, Esi and I — split by hundreds of years that encapsulated colonialism, forced migration, and racialized slavery — came together in the land that has seen the most unfathomable parallels of beauty and horror to complete two of the most innately human actions: cook and eat.
When I left Esi, I departed with her palava sauce recipe. I walked across the red dirt road back to the car. As we left, the taste memory of palava sauce permeated through my mouth as I drove pass Elmina one last time, off to return to my home and culture, filled with the tastes and increased cultural understanding of the place that influenced it centuries before.
Palava sauce represents my own expanded understanding of what Ghanaian food is. No country’s cuisine can be defined in a few recipes — certainly not one with as much rich history, diverse ethnics groups, range of religions, and numerous cultural identities as Ghana. Though some dishes seem to span regions and reach audiences outside of Ghana, finding and understanding the importance of palava sauce relied on having conversations with locals and going beyond what prior research can tell you about a place. Sometimes, you just have to go to the source.
Kayla Stewart is a freelance journalist based in Harlem and a graduate student in NYU’s International Relations and Journalism Program. She’s contributed to a number of outlets, and her reporting interests include human rights, race and gender issues, food politics, travel, and culture.