A look at traditional Ghanaian spices

Nowadays, many people in Ghana have stopped using traditional West African spices, in favour of more international spices like Maggi cubes, cumin, or bay leaves. This may be to do with globalisation, as it is becoming easier and easier to buy products from large companies, and harder to buy authentic ingredients from local farmers. However, 100 years ago, most of these spices weren’t used, and if they were, they would have been used along with a variety of more traditional spices.

Calabash nutmeg:

Called wedeɛ aba in Twi, a local Ghanaian language, this spice is quite similar to the nutmeg known by most people in the West. However, Calabash nutmeg has a stronger taste, and is often used when cooking soups and stews. People also use it to cure headaches, or for pregnant women to ensure a quick recovery after birth. Due to the orchid-like flowers on the tree on which the calabash nutmeg grows, it is also grown as a decorative tree in gardens.

Grains of Paradise:

These small, pepper-like seeds were popular in Europe in the Middle Ages. Camel caravans would cross the Sahara desert with this spice and it was sold in Europe as a replacement for black pepper – it was even mentioned by Pliny the Elder, a well-known Roman author. In Ghana, where it is known as efom wisa in Twi, it is used to give food a strong, peppery, almost citrus-like flavour. 

Aridan pods:

Although these large, hard seed pods do not look like they are used in cooking, they have always been used in Ghana (locally known in Twi as prɛkɛsɛ) to give soups and stews a sweet taste and a pleasant smell. In fact, the smell of Aridan pods was so well-known that it became a symbol of power – just as the King’s power would be present in all houses, so would the smell of prɛkɛsɛ. Some say that prɛkɛsɛ should be given to new mothers, as it may increase the quality of the breast milk they produce. 

Grains of Selim:

Called hwentea in Twi, a little bit of this spice gives stews a nice, spicy flavour – too much, however, results in the food being too bitter! Among other uses, Grains of Selim are often cooked whole in cornmeal porridge, to add a spicy, nutmeg-like flavour. Interestingly, in Senegal, they are the key ingredient in a famous coffee called café Touba. The part of the tree used is the dried version of the fruit – the seeds on the inside are what can provide a bitter flavour in food, so they are commonly used whole.

Waakye leaves:

Technically known as dried red sorghum leaves, these leaves leave a pretty red colour and a unique flavour in what is known as Waakye, rice and black-eyed beans cooked with the leaves (hence the name). The leaves are also rich in antioxidants, helping protect cells in the human body from damage.

Dried African locust beans:
Known locally as dawadawa, this spice is made from processing the seeds into a pulp-like texture. Dawadawa plants grow more in the north than the south of Ghana, and so the spice is used more in the north. The strong and distinctive fragrance it provides is often replaced by fermented fish in the south of the country.

Joshua Kirkhope-Arkley


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