Anthony Bourdain is an interesting dude. A chef in the northeastern US – mostly New York City – for many years, he made a name for himself with an excellent book called Kitchen Confidential. It’s both an expose of high-end restaurant kitchens and the tricks chefs use to keep their restaurants going and making money, as well as a confessional about Tony’s bad habits, which have, over the years, included cigarettes, cocaine, heroin, alcohol and the really scary parts of pigs.
Recently, Bourdain has become a popular TV host, running a show called “No Reservations”, where he travels the world encountering interesting food and the people who cook it. My wife and I are addicts, and have watched him eat his way from Quebec to Malaysia. I was talking about Bourdain with an Indian friend recently, and he mentioned that Bourdain’s shows on India were being broadcast in Bangalore, to great interest and acclaim.
The episode that aired on Monday night was near and dear to my heart – Bourdain made his first trip to Africa and began his explorations of the continent in Ghana. Given that my addiction to Africa began fourteen years ago in Accra, it’s great fun for me to watch this crazy chef encounter one of my very favorite nations.
Bourdain does an awfully good job of experiencing the best Ghana has to offer, both foodwise and culturally. He starts in Makola Market – the biggest market in Accra, and one of my favorite places on the planet. His camera crew does an excellent job of capturing the chaos, color and rhythm of the place, introducing the host to street food and the wonders of akpeteshie, Ghanaian moonshine distilled from palm wine. He visits one of Ghana’s best loved chop bars – Asanka Local – where he starts his culinary journey with Omo Tuo, my single favorite Ghanaian meal (pounded rice balls served with palm or groundnut soup.)
The government of Ghana clearly sees the tourism potential of Bourdain’s visit – he travels throughout the country on a military helicopter, which certainly makes it easier to have a trip that spans the full length of the nation. And he has a beach seafood barbecue with the minister of tourism, Jake ‘Otanka’ Obetsebi-Lamptey, who proves to be a remarkably mellow and cool guy, walking Bourdain through culinary miracles like shito, pepper sauce made by frying dried fish and pepper in palm oil.
Some aspects of Bourdain’s trip are ones that any lucky Ghana visitor will be able to replicate – a trip to Osu Night Market, a visit to the bush to see (and drink) palm wine being tapped. And some are experiences you only get to have when you’re a TV host – he gets to hang out with Koo Nimo, the leading artist of “palm wine music” and a living legend in the world of African folk music. The Asantahene gives him a beautiful piece of kente, and he generally gets treated like a king.
But he does his part as well, and manages to get an awfully good picture of what’s good about Ghana in the course of his visit. He points out Ghana’s role in inspiring Pan-Africanism and the post-colonial movement, the political and economic stability the nation’s enjoyed, and the remarkable creativity and resilience of the people. He’s clearly amazed by the generosity he encounters, and his camera crew does a good job of capturing the fact that any day in Ghana – good, bad or indifferent – involves a lot of laughter, both at yourself and at each other. It’s an extremely respectful portrait of the nation, both in terms of national character and in admiration of the food.
I was especially pleased that Tony made it to the far north of the country, to Mole Game Reserve and to a Dagara village to eat a meal with his guides. My dear friend Bernard Woma comes from the area near Mole, and I got a linguistics lesson about a food I learned to cook years ago to serve when Bernard comes to visit me in the US. Almost all Ghanaian food involves a pile of starch covered with a spicy or strongly-flavored soup. The starch in the Dagara region is primarily maize, and is something like a loose polenta. Bernard had told me the starch was called “tee-zert” and I’d proudly served it with my groundnut stew to him and other guests. Bourdain points out that the name is really “T.Z.”, short for “tua zafe”, which means “very hot”. Pronounced in British English, it comes out “tee zed”, more or less the term I’ve been using for the last decade or so.
If you can get your hands on the episode and are excited about Ghana (and especially Ghanaian food), it’s very much worth your time. I have high hopes that Bourdain sparks a new wave of tourism in Ghana, and am psyched that his travel schedule this year also appears to include Namibia and South Africa.