The Serious Business of Soup in Ghana – by Kofi Akpabli
Soup is not a child’s play.
It must not be served in a cup
Nor without meat or fish
Soup must have pepper
It must never, never have sugar
No, no, dear, honourable compatriots. The above prologue is not at all directed at you. The target is all those (particularly in Western society) whose concept of soup is far from that of the Ghanaian. See, these people have ideas about soup which are dangerously funny. How, for instance, can one add sugar or alcohol to soup?
The above verse is also inspired by an encounter I had with Maria a few years ago. Maria is a lively, bouncy French woman from Tenerife Island. Like me, she was also employed in the kitchen at Latimer, a hotel in Southern England. One day, Maria was drinking this yellowish stuff in a cup. When I asked what it was, she said soup. Then she asked if I would like some. Soup in a cup? When will people get serious?
This episode happened in Europe and must not bother us. However, the way we are adopting western lifestyles, it would only be a matter of time when some of us would start showing similar disrespect to soup. It is no secret that many among us feel inadequate when we see others sit at table with half a dozen different dishes.
Compared to ours, theirs appear grand. What with starter stuff, main dish, sauce, vegetables, lamb and the works. But do not despair, countrymen and women. With us, it is all in the soup.
In Ghana, when the dining table is laid, it is typically a tale of four items. First is the main dish; usually, banku, akple, tuo zaafi, fufu, etc. Next is the soup bowl. Then there are two sets of water; one for washing hands, the other to be drunk. End of story. In the event of an earthquake, the one item most likely to be saved is the soup bowl. This is a Ghanaian instinct. Simple.
I could continue this yummy discourse without defining what soup is. Heaven knows the Ghanaian does not need that. We all know soup when we see one. But for the reason that other people may be reading this, let us go ahead and provide some standard explanations.
What is soup? Philosophically, soup is what makes the Ghanaian say ‘I haven’t eaten all day’ simply because all he or she has had did not contain a soup item. Soup is what makes people look forward to going home after a long day’s work. Again, soup is what gingers up nostalgia for homely, far away places. Finally, soup (especially, when taken hot) is what helps critical minds to form opinion on serious issues.
In the average Ghanaian home, the phrase ‘what’s for dinner?’ is functionally out of place. The question is: ‘what soup is doing the backing?’ For us, the chief meal of the day is supper, with the main dish usually constant. Soup, then, is what makes the difference; bringing colour to our dinner table.
Matters of soup are rather serious affairs. For instance, business folks who understand the psychology of soup do not sign a bank cheque after a good soupy treat. In Ghana, people marry because of soup. People divorce because of soup. For both the man who gives out the ‘chop money’ and the wife who prepares the meal, the forum for accountability is the evening meal. This is the moment of truth, with soup being an important indicator.
The issue of soup is the issue of serious recurrent investment. When Ghanaians complain about the effect of the economic crunch on their food budget, they are significantly talking about the cost of soup. Fact of the matter is that there is no telling how much a saucepan of soup is worth. One cannot say the same for banku or fufu, or rice, no matter how perfumed it is. A bowl of soup, by virtue of its richness, can be ten times more expensive than its main dish counterpart.
Although there are different types of soups the structural fundamentals remain the same. Irrespective of what soup is being prepared the following ingredients are must-include: fish and/or meat, pepper, salt, onion and water. Other leaves, nuts and vegetables are added to determine character. Therefore, we have palm nut soup, groundnut soup, kontonmire soup, etc. But for all these soups, vegetables such as garden eggs and okra (Why do we say okro in Ghana?) could be added to form the ‘support squad’.
Some people can be ambitious and go for an experimental mix. There is thus a combination of palm nut soup and groundnut soup (nkatibe) or groundnut soup with kontomire soup (nkatinkonto) or even a mix of all three, namely, groundnut soup, kontomire soup and palm nut soup (nkatinkontobe).
Also significant, though of no less importance, is the inevitable question of light soup. Big issue. Light soup, also known as nkrankra, is like the basis of all soups. In deed, the subject matter of light soup is one which requires thesis or dissertation treatment. Some people refer to it as ‘fisherman soup’. The Nigerian equivalent is ‘pepper soup’ while the Japanese answer would be ‘misoshiru’.
A thing about light soup is that it is one soup that can be taken on its own. A diner can walk into the restaurant and ask for light soup, neat and straight. No other soup enjoys such patronage. Also, for those recovering from bouts of alcohol intake, light soup is a sure cure. In contrast, an attempt to treat hangover with other soups may fail.
The impressive thing about light soup is that it is so versatile. Indeed, local gastronomy experts believe that all soup come from light soup. The reverse of this logic is that you can have your light soup and easily convert it to palm nut soup or groundnut or okro soup. Such an overhaul doesn’t go against the dynamics of these soups nor does it contravene the national constitution. Do you have light soup and you want it converted to groundnut soup? Don’t worry. Just introduce groundnut paste.
Light soup enthusiasts believe that at the onset of fever, what one needs is not really a doctor. What does the trick is hot, spicy, garden eggs-strewn, dried fish-enriched light soup. Those who doubt the medicinal side of light soup should wait until they have been beaten wet and sore by the rain. Hot light soup restores sanity in seconds.
In biblical retrospect, if Jesus Christ had raised that dead 12 year old child in Ghana, the scripture in Mark 5:43 would have read: ‘And Kwaku Yesu said unto the parents, ‘‘behold, offer thy little girl a bowl of light soup.’’’
When it comes to the structure of light soup, there are two schools of thought. Those who make a meal out of it (the pun is accidental) and those who cannot stomach it (this one is intended). For those who do not like the makeup, their main bone of contention is that light soup doesn’t amount to much. They find the soup too light to be taken seriously. To them, palm nut soup or groundnut soup are not only more filling, they have got character.
But all hope mustn’t be lost. The remedy for anti-light soup folks is simple, a thick light soup. Yes, thick light soup. See, though light soup can be as light and transparent as water (and still maintain its integrity), it can also be made as thick as gravy. This is actually food for thought. But that is another kettle of fish.
Critically, the meat or fish that is used to prepare, goes a long way to flavour and define light soup. The following are thus distinct in their own rights: goat meat light soup, cow meat light soup, bush meat light soup or fresh fish light soup (a personal favourite).
Beyond light soup and others already mentioned, there is another variety of soup. This is what one might call the eclectic or ‘everything goes’ soup. Eclectic soup may begin with a small, innocent bowl of stew. After a day or two of consumption, new ideas crop up. The stew is watered to assume a soup form. More fish or meat is introduced. Then fresh vegetables are added. As the days go by, groundnut paste, okro and even boiled beans may all find their way in. The group of people who are likely to be guilty of the eclectic soup are college students on campus. Other prime candidates are bachelors who do their own cooking.
In Ghanaian culture, learning how to cook soup is part of a girl’s rite of passage to womanhood. The main setting for picking up the skill is home, usually, from a parent. Soup making involves mastering other related skills such as seasoning, grinding, frying and par-boiling. Over all, the talent of soup making requires a high sense of timing and ingredient proportioning.
Once soup is prepared and ready, what it can be eaten with is only a matter of pragmatism. Soup is game with banku, fufu, kokonte, kenkey, tuo zaafi, rice and gari (the eba range). In the case of boiled yam, plantain and the like, soup must advisedly be thick (for the good of the game).
The virtues of soup are accounted for in folklore as well as in pop culture. Our folk tales and proverbs reflect the importance of good soup and its implication for a woman’s fortunes in marriage. In the highlife song entitled ‘Asiko Darling,’ Snr. Eddie Donkor speaks of two women fighting for his love. Whilst one rival was using romantic sweet talk, the other was using the power of good soup to advantage. Also, in Okomfo Kwadee’s ‘Adjoa ye me yere, Yaa ye me mpena’ the singer complains of difficulty in choosing between his mistress and his wife. He expresses this dilemma as he sings out the strength and weakness of each rival. What makes his frustrations worse is that both women make delicious soup.
How soup is taken has its own set of home-grown protocol. In Ghana, while the main dish is served separately from the soup, some people prefer to drop the main dish into the soup and transact ‘business’ from one direct source. Both techniques have their merits.
Soup is not only eaten with a main dish, it is also drunk straight. By Ghanaian table etiquette, soup drinking takes place after the meal. A woman whose soup is drunk after a meal is a happy woman. To top up a well eaten meal by drinking soup is a compliment which says ‘it’s a pleasure to have your soup.’ In some homes, it is bad manners to leave the table without drinking the soup. Some men actually use this as a weapon. When they feel peeved and proud, but are not brave enough to skip the entire meal, they leave the soup. In such a situation, the following may ensue:
‘Why, my dear, you have barely eaten?’ says the concerned wife.
‘Woman, didn’t I eat your food, what else do you want?’
The way soup is drunk is an art all its own. To date, the three established formulas can be described as ‘spoon to mouth’, ‘bowl to mouth’ and ‘hand to mouth.’ Like the name suggests, spoon to mouth is simply using spoon to drink soup. It has the element of decency. ‘Bowl to mouth’ also means raising the bowl to the mouth and sucking the soup in. The advantage here is that a lot of soup can be drunk at a time.
The last, ‘hand to mouth,’ is not only the one with the most variations, it also requires the most skill. The first step in this technique is that the fingers are aligned to prevent the soup from leaking. The centre of gravity is lowered to form a little crater in the palm. The scoop machine thus formed is dropped and soon the soup collects in the hole of the hand. This is brought up gingerly and sent straight into the mouth. None of these methods is illegal. An approach which is futuristic is using straw to draw soup like happens when drinking soft drinks.
There is no doubt that we love soup in Ghana. But let’s take our eyes a little beyond our borders and note the soup culture of other countries. As it turns out, it is not everywhere that soup is king. Even in our West African neighbourhood, not everyone gives soup the attention it deserves. Take Burkina Faso. I once visited a friend in Ouagadougou. For three days we had fun, but on what? Grilled meat and Brakina Beer. At night clubs I was wise enough to snack on boiled eggs which kept me sane. When I was leaving, I could tell my Ouagalais pal was pleased with himself. I never went back and never told him why.
How about Nigeria? Well, thanks to their videos we know that soups such as ‘orgbornor’ and ‘egwusi’ play vital roles in their nation building efforts. In Togo, too, I know they pay their dues to soup. Whilst doing boys school at St Paul’s, we had the habit of sneaking across the border to drink in delicious Lome soup along with yam fufu. I couldn’t forget that, same way I couldn’t forget my sixth form grades.
For East Africa, I cannot vouch for them because I have lived with a Ugandan who didn’t know what pepper is. (How unlucky can some people be?). Across Central Africa, I think they might be good at soup, especially, in the green leaves department. Just consider the muscular built of Cameroonian footballers and you would know that soup definitely has a role.
As for the soup credentials of North Africa, I wouldn’t even go there. Bottom line? African unity cannot be achieved on the platform of soup. Way forward? As soup-eriors in continental liberation, Ghanaians must continue to cherish their soup culture and make our nation great and strong.
Kofi Akpabli Email: firstname.lastname@example.org