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Sunday, September 16, 2007

A Kitchen on the Move

I am now less than 24 hours from the plane ride that will take me to Ghana for the next six months. Moving for a moderate amount of time to Africa is a challenge few people experience. I have done it now four times. The first time I went, as an eager 20 year old on a college exchange program, I was shockingly unprepared. That lack of preparation, however, encouraged me to live much as an average Ghanaian would. After repeated visits, as Ghana became my second home, I adopted a more hybrid approach to living abroad that incorporated quintessential "Ghanaian" elements of living with some of the comforts of home. So you may be asking yourself, what does one pack when moving a kitchen, and a life, to Africa for six months?

The first time I went to Ghana for a four-month study abroad program. I packed sparsely. Everything I brought fit into one medium sized hiking backpack. My program guidelines stated firmly that women were expected to wear shirts that covered the shoulders and skirts below the knees, no tank tops or shorts. I dutifully packed cotton shirts and skirts that would wash well and breathe decently in the anticipated tropical heat. It wasn't until our plane landed in the Ghanaian airport and I was met with a wall of heat that I really confronted the enormity of what I had done. I had been so busy battling my mother to convince her that studying abroad in Africa was a great idea that I hadn't really stopped to be reflective about the experience itself. I had not, for example, scouted around online to discover what the weather would be like. I didn't know the first thing about Ghanaian food, sports, or culture. I was appallingly uninformed.

I quickly adjusted to the spicy food and by the end of the second week of my program was thoroughly in love with Ghanaian food. My proficiency in Twi, the most common local language, was also progressing rapidly. I learned Twi quickly because my host mother insisted that I ask for all my food in Twi. Nothing motivates learning like hunger in the face of a steaming bowl of peanut soup. At the end that first trip to Ghana I was staying at a hikers lodge in Kumasi conducting an independent research project on Adinkra, the local symbols. In the kitchen of my lodgings I met two American girls who were spending a year abroad enrolled in one of the local universities. They were making morning omelets with basil. Basil? This seemed oddly out of place, and for the first time I confronted the idea that I could transport things I loved from my American life here.

On subsequent trips back I have nearly perfected packing for living abroad in Ghana. There are a few things that are not necessarily something one considers packing for a six month trip, but which are difficult to find locally and add to one's quality of life.

One decent knife. Machetes are available cheaply in every Ghanaian marketplace, but a good sharp kitchen knife is often hard to come by. If you expect to cook at home regularly you may appreciate bringing a reasonable knife from the U.S. I'm not advocating bringing a $100 Global clever, but a reasonable $20 knife will do.

A non-stick skillet or pan. Non-stick coating is a wonderful tool for cooking while using less oil. However, non-stick is virtually unavailable in Ghana. You may be able to find it for ridiculous prices at the high-end import stores. Save yourself the trouble and pick up any one of the inexpensive pans available at Target.

A vegetable peeler. That's right people. Unless you grew up deftly peeling all your veges with a paring knife, you may not realize how you take for granted this handy contraption. But in Ghana all women can more or less peel a potato with a machete while blindfolded, so it is nearly impossible to find a vegetable peeler. They are cheap, lightweight, and easy to pack.

A small assortment of your favorite spices. A variety of spices are becoming more available in the capital city, but the quality varies widely. As a general rule of thumb, anything common in Lebanese or Indian food will be readily available, as there is a well established Lebanese and Indian entrepreneurial class that sustains demand for those goods. This time around, I'm going to bring rosemary, basil, oregano, and ground cumin. Be sure to store them in the refrigerator though, or the tropical climate can rapidly rot your spices.

If it strikes your fancy, you might also like:

A wand blender. This is more of a luxury, and probably only recommended if you can get one that is on the European voltage system. However, with a bounty of delightful fruits available year round, one can't help but dream of smoothies. These dreams would be greatly facilitated by a small, light, and highly functional hand held blender.

Popsicle molds. You might have seen these advertised and thought they were only for children. You fill these plastic molds with juice or blended fruits. There is an embarrassment of riches when it comes to fruits in the tropics. On a sweltering day, I guarantee this will be the thing you are most grateful for.

A small French press and good quality ground coffee. Portable and easy to operate even in sporadic black-outs, a French press is a wonderful tool if you are accustomed to good coffee. The tropics are known for growing coffee, and the highlands of Ghana produce a fine local blend, but by and large coffee is a luxury export crop not widely available locally. The commonly available local version of coffee is reconstituted Nescafe crystals. Even in high-end grocery stores you are lucky to pay an exorbitant price for ground Folgers. If you are a coffee nut, some decent espresso can be found in the capital city, but do yourself a favor and travel with some of your own.


Anonymous said...

I'm sure you probably mentioned it already somewhere on your blog, but I was wondering why you're going to Ghana?

The Skinny Gourmet said...

Glad you asked! I am a graduate student in sociology, so my dissertation research takes me to Ghana. I have been going to Ghana on and off since 2000, and all together have spent more than two years living there, so it is like a second home to me now.

Kim said...

Have a great trip.

I really enjoy your blog. I love your philosophy of "quality not quantity" and how you apply it. I have shared it with quite a few people since happening upon your site.

Take good care over there.


The Skinny Gourmet said...

Kim, Thanks a lot! Thats a great compliment. I'm hoping to keep my blog relevant to its mission even while I'm over here in the tropics. I may have to post a few more recipes with pineapples that will be very out of sync for those in the snow.

Tanya said...

Wow! I'd love to hear more about your dissertation, if you don't mind. I'm going to apply for my PhD program in a few years, and I'm thinking about working on a project in South Sudan... you're the only person I've ever heard of doing something similar.

Erin said...


I'd be glad to talk to you about the experience of being a PhD student and doing fieldwork in Africa. Why don't you email me at skinnygourmet[at]gmail[dot]com. it is probably a conversation better had by email than comments forum.

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