Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Kenke


Kenke is the big leagues of Ghanaian food.  Fufu ain’t got nothing on kenke.  You think you can handle Ghana?  You want to know for sure?  Then grab a handful of kenke, obruni, and chomp it down.  Currently described as one of the worlds “weirdest foods”, kenke is not complicated, but it is a shock to the senses. 

Kenke is made from one ingredient; corn.  It’s rather like a tamale, for those of you who are familiar with Mexican food, or polenta, for those more accustomed to Italian cuisine.  Like tamales, kenke is typically eaten with a spicy sauce.  And we all like tamales, right?  So how could kenke be so challenging to eat?  The difference is all in the preparation, my friends.  Let me take you on a history of kenke.

Corn was first introduced to Ghana by the Portuguese in the 15th century.  Corn is not indigenous to Ghana.  In fact, corn is not indigenous to Africa or even Europe for that matter; the Portuguese brought it over from South America.  But like pretty much everywhere else on earth, the Ghanaians found that corn was easy to grow, at least in the southern part of the country, and it was fairly nutritious, so the Ghanaians included corn into their diet rather quickly after being introduced to it.

Now as we have seen with the fufu, Ghanaians seem to have a fondness for mashed-up foods.  So the preferred Ghanaian method of preparing corn is to harvest it, grind it up into corn flour, and boil it into a paste or mash before eating it.  I have just basically described tamales, once again.  So what differentiates kenke from tamales, or polenta for that matter?  In a word, fermentation.

Yes the Ghanaians prefer to ferment the corn before mashing it up.  This is of course the first step to creating bourbon as well, but without the added step of distillation.  Fermenting corn is actually quite simple.  Just soak the corn kernels in water for a couple of days in the heat.  I never saw it prepared but I presume the corn kernels were placed in a sealed container and left outside in the heat.  I’m fairly certain that proper fermentation requires the absence of air.  That’s what they keep telling me on the O’Dell brewery tour, at any rate.  Maybe there are different rules for corn fermentation.  Regardless, the longer the fermentation soak, the more fermentation occurs.  In fact the fermentation period actually varies depending on the type of kenke you are trying to produce.  Fante kenke is soaked for only one day.  Banku or Ga kenke is soaked for three days or so.  

After fermentation, the corn kernels are ground up, boiled into a mash with water, and then wrapped into little squat burrito shapes using cassava or plantain leaves.  I’m not sure why they don’t use corn husks.  Not hearty enough, perhaps?  Anyway Fante kenke is more pure white in color and smoother in texture, and less, uh, fermenty in flavor.  Banku or Ga kenke is more textured, more colorful, more flavorful, more everything.  It is the ultimate in kenke eating.

I found this really good slide show on flickr describing how kenke is made: (click here)

The corn kernel fermentation does not appear to produce an alcoholic mash.  It does produce a pungent, some might say rotting, flavor.  This flavor, apparently, is preferred by the Ghanaians over the plain old boring corn flavor that tamales bring to the table.  I can tell you without any hesitation that I for one did not prefer the Ghanaian kenke over the Mexican tamale upon my first sampling of this exotic delight.  In point of fact my eyes started to water and I felt a strong urge to flee upon simply smelling the kenke that was presented to me.  Being the good sport I was, I plugged my nose, grabbed a little handful of the kenke, dunked it into pepper sauce that could incidentally also double quite effectively as a silverware polish, and ate what to my mouth was nothing more than rotten food.  It was as horrible as you can imagine.

At least fufu, for all its quirks, is fairly benign in flavor.  Hence the atomic stews typically served with fufu.  The constituent parts of fufu -- cocoyam and cassava -- are really quite bland.  Kenke on the other hand represents a complete mockery, better yet a travesty of flavor.  Corn has a perfectly normal flavor on its own.  Kenke lays waste to that flavor in an apocalyptic fury of fermentation.  Why, God, why?

Actually, it turns out there are some pretty darn good reasons why.  Logical, rational reasons why the Ghanaians choose to ferment corn into kenke.  Humans have been fermenting food for thousands of years.  Wine, for starters, of course, and beer, but many other foods as well.  Yogurt?  Cheese? Sauerkraut?  Soy Sauce?  I could keep going.  You get the point.  We like fermented foods.  It helps first to understand what fermentation does to food, and why we ferment food in general.

Technically food fermentation converts carbohydrates into organic acids.  Besides altering the flavor of the food, fermentation also actually helps to preserve the food.  This is why cheese lasts longer than milk.  As one can imagine, there is not a lot of access to refrigeration in Ghana.  Therefore producing foods that will stay preserved longer has some benefit.

Additionally, food fermentation also produces beneficial proteins and amino acids.  I believe the term in vogue now is “probiotics”.  Fermenting the corn actually produces a healthier, more nutritious food than non-fermented corn.  I’ve not been able to find proof but I have heard the following story more than once:  At some point in the recent past foreign aid workers introduced to the Ghanaians corn seed that was superior to their “native” corn in many ways.  This new corn produced higher yields, was more drought resistant, more pest resistant, had higher nutritional value, and a delicious sweet flavor.  The Ghanaians rejected this new corn, however, because it did not ferment as well as their native corn.  It did not produce proper kenke.

The aid workers did not realize that the Ghanaians were not simply fermenting the corn out of necessity, but also because they enjoyed the flavor, and it was actually more nutritious in many ways to the Western super-genius-corn.  Point being, those crazy Ghanaians might not be so crazy after all.

And the feel-good end of the story, at least for my mouth, is that it didn’t take long for me to learn to really enjoy kenke.  I actually had a tougher time getting used to fufu.  Something about the texture of fufu I never really got used to.  But kenke I quickly learned to enjoy, and I rather miss it.  I probably had kenke two or three times per week for dinner.  Kenke and hot pepper sauce.  I might go bury some corn out in the back yard tomorrow.

I leave you today with “Kenke Party”.  It’s a Ghanaian TV Commercial, I think.  Thanks to Mark for alerting me to this slice of fried gold:



2 comments:

  1. so interesting. In Dominica, we have a food by the same name - kenke - but it is a dessert - grated cassava, coconut, sugar and spices and then this mix is steamed, wrapped in banana leaves

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  2. I absolutely loved this article. I am a Texan who was born in Tema, Ghana in 1962. I lived in Ghana for my of my growing up. Kenke was my favorite food. I could eat it everynight if I was allowed. I am going to try to order some because over the years, I have been telling my wife, also from Texas (but has never been to Ghana or Africa) about Kenke, fufu, and market fish and now thanks to your article, I was able to show it to her also. Your article was informative AND very funny! Did you ever hear the ditty, (it's better to read it with a Ghanaian accent), "Fufu, kenke, market fish, all wrapped up in one big dish. If you eat it you will die, cause it stinks to heaven's high!"

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