Eating in a foreign country can be a delicate process. As you travel to a new part of the world it is incredibly important to watch what you eat in order to avoid getting sick. If you stick to this mantra, “cook it, peel it, or don’t eat it”, then you should be ok. Right?
Well considering my diet is typically 70% raw fruits and vegetables this makes eating in another country somewhat difficult. Being vegan, I pay close attention to what I consume. If you are unaware, a vegan is someone who does not eat or use animal products. In the United States it is quite easy to live this way and I encourage others to adopt this lifestyle. However only 1% of the world’s population is vegan and most of these people do not live in the third world. When I discovered I was traveling to Ghana, I knew I would need to be careful about what I ate as my diet would become greatly restricted. I did some research before I left the United States but I did not find much information about being vegan in West Africa. If you’re a vegan and are planning a trip to West Africa, then this information may be incredibly useful for you!
Why did I travel to Ghana? I am an amphibian biologist and I am the Advisory Committee Chairman for SAVE THE FROGS!, a non-profit organization dedicated to amphibian conservation. Ghana’s frogs are under serious threat from habitat destruction, pollution and pesticides, and from over-harvesting for the frog meat and frog bait trades. With so many factors contributing to the decline in amphibian populations, on April 11th, 2013 I traveled to Ghana to meet with politicians, tribal leaders, and academics in order to further SAVE THE FROGS! GHANA message of amphibian conservation. I gave presentations to hundreds of people around the country to grow Ghana’s network of students, academics and biologists interested in amphibian conservation efforts and worked towards the creation of the Atewa Hills National Park, home of the critically endangered Togo Slippery Frog. I taught field courses to undergraduates, advised the students of our five university chapters in Ghana, and assisted with Save The Frogs Day events.
Taking it to the street: What is that and can I eat it?
During my time in Ghana I was always on the move. Therefore most of my food came from markets, street vendors, and shops. I’ll be honest, some days I ate nothing but bread, peanut butter (called groundnut paste), and bananas. These items were cheap and easy to eat on the go. Plus I did not have to question whether or not the food was vegan. As I was only in Ghana for one month I feel I barely scratched the surface of things I could have eaten while in the country. Luckily I have friends in Ghana and they helped me find food to eat. One of my friends explained to me that most Ghanians are mostly vegan, but they do not realize it. There are many varieties of food to eat, but you just have to find them!
While in northern Ghana I saw a girl walking by with a box of strange, brown cubes. Perplexed I inquired to her what the food was and to my surprise, it was fried tofu! They call it “soya” and it is commonly sold in any street market. The soy beans are created very similarly to tofu but the meat is a bit firm and chewy. The golden in rule while being vegan in Ghana: When in doubt, simply ask and you will be rewarded with the information.
In northern Ghana the food is considerably heavy. Meals usually consist of meat from some animal, yams (or cassava), spices, and lots of bread. Therefore my food choices were limited as I discovered there was not much for me to eat in restaurants. When I saw these wonderful women selling mangoes, I seriously lost myself! While purchasing mangoes I started to get really excited and photos started being taken. The wonderful mango lady wanted to have her photo taken and I was happy to oblige! I am still so excited about this discovery. How do they taste? They are sweeter than any candy and the texture is better than any cake, pie, or custard combined.
On the street you can also find avocados (called pears), bananas, plantains, fried yams, pineapples, and much more. Look around and you are bound to find something to eat.
So, can’t find food? Then just find fruit! So what about Breakfast?
In the morning you will see many people sucking a corner from a bag of this brown liquid. It’s porridge! It is spicy, sour, and may be considered an acquired taste. However it is very common on the street and it is totally vegan.
The bread? Some bread might have butter or milk in it, so look for tea bread! This bread contains no animal products.
At the Restaurant: What can I order?
When I had time to visit a restaurant I found that most of the food was already pre-made so my options were limited on what I could eat. Therefore I found the need to be flexible and have patience.
Vegan cakes, freshly brewed coffee, and a fruit smoothie. Paradise, right? You can find such delicious treats at Baobab Vegetarian Moringa Restaurant in Cape Coast. Being a tourist destination, Cape Coast caters to those preferences of western civilization. However you are truly dreaming if you plan to eat like that for the rest of your time in Ghana!
If the restaurant has a menu, you may be lucky to find some vegan dishes. Here are some examples of dishes that can be eaten by vegans:
Red Red: Fried plantains, beans, and spices. Delicious and commonly found in larger cities and towns.
Yams and Palava Sauce: Palava Sauce (also called Palaver Sauce) is a mixture of greens, palm oil, onions, and meat. In Ghana, this dish is also called Kontonmire, Kentumere, or Nkontommire, named for the leaf of the cocoyam (taro) plant which is used for the greens. It is possible to find this dish without meat, as pictured above, but you have to ask before you order. It should also be understood that food is prepared early in the day, so substitutions may not be possible at restaurants. Depending on who cooks it, there may be fish in the sauce. Ask about fish before ordering! Fish is not considered meat in Ghana and sometimes is offered to unaware vegans or vegetarians.
Jollof: Not pictured, but this is rice mixed with spices. It is very similar to Spanish rice. It is important to ask if there is meat stock added to the rice.
Banku: Banku is a combination of cassava and corn flour that is formed into a ball. Normally banku is served with a stew that contains meat. To avoid the meat, order the banku and ask for a side of beans, plantains, or soya. Banku usually comes with pepper (the red sauce pictured) and shito sauce. Pepper is quite spicy and consists of onions, chiles, and tomatoes. The shito sauce is not vegan! It contains fish or shrimp. Try not to be offended, push it to the side, and keep eating.
Note: Most restaurants are very happy to accommodate your diet and will cook specially requested items for you. For example, in the photo above there is some soya (fried tofu) next to the banku. I bought this on the street and brought it into the restaurant for them to cook. I have also had restaurants cook canned baked beans, peas, etc.
Fufu: The holy grail of my culinary quest in Ghana! Fufu is a stew that contains a ball formed from cassava and plantain flour. The stew typically contains meat, tomatoes, onion, and spices. I heard about this interesting dish before arriving to Ghana, but unfortunately I could not find any vegan fufu. One day I stumbled across Saarnak Vegetarian Food and Health Shop in downtown Kumasi and I ate so many bowls of this delicious dish. Using your hand, you soak up the stew with the ball of flour. It’s really good so be sure to try it out!
When you visit Kumasi, you must see the Saarnak Vegetarian Food and Health Shop. The woman who owns the place has been vegan for 30 years and continues to promote a vegan lifestyle in her community. At Saarnak they hold educational events on why it is important to be vegan and how people can make the transition easily. How to get there? I have no idea what the address is but it is across the street from the post office in downtown Kumasi. It is very close to the “European Markets”. Once you get to the post office, ask someone where is “Saarnak Vegetarian” and they will tell you!
This is a sticker outside the restaurant. ❤
Thirsty with your meal? Try a bag of water.
Many restaurants around the world serve you water with your food, but in Ghana the water quality is so poor that even locals do not drink tap water. At restaurants you are often served a bottle or a bag of water. Obviously this has a disastrous effect on the ecosystem as disposal of these bags is not effectively executed. Not sure how plastic harms the environment? Find out here.
Lastly, in Ghana there are about 49 different languages but the most commonly spoken languages are English and Twi. So, after you’ve ordered your meal and eat, please remember to say medase. Pronounced “meh-daa-say”, it means thank you!
Now that you are prepared to be vegan in Ghana, eat up! Thank you for your interest in traveling to Ghana and thank you for being vegan! Medase!