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Sunday, August 26, 2012

International Edition - Part 1. Kumasi Supermarket and Aburi Gardens restaurant in Woodbridge VA


When I first set out to research my area's international food market scene, I planned on one conglomerate blog. Latin, Middle Eastern, Hindi/Punjabi/Bengali, Asian, and African markets were on my agenda.

 I'd hit two of the five, taking various pictures and speaking with individual owners, before I made my way to Kumasi Supermarket located on 14790 Build America Dr. on Jefferson Davis Hwy/Rte 1, Woodbridge, VA.

Unassuming on the outside, this pale pink-washed shopping center hides a trove of international treasures. Kumasi seemed the natural starting point for our day of intel.

Once I walked through the poster-lined doors, I quickly learned that Kumasi was no ordinary grocery store - and owner, Bediako Opoku Asare, was no ordinary man.

Like many other markets we had visited, inside Kumasi we were welcomed and treated as valued customers. But more than that - when I explained to him that I would like to write a food blog about his store and about the food from his culture - Bediako personally took us through his market, letting us touch, smell and even taste the amazing array of foods hailing from across West Africa.

Bediako is from Ghana. Originally, his store was a Ghanian market, but as native Nigerians, Camaroons and even Jamaicans began frequenting his store, he made every effort to supply foods from their homelands too. Soon, even American and European items appeared in his market.

As Bediako put it, "I want this to be a one stop store for all of my customers needs. This way, they don't have to go to another and another market to find what they are looking for."


Smack dab in the front of the store are piles of fresh produce used in traditional West African cooking. My husband and I were thrilled to see raw red peanuts, an item we had been searching for months to find, and eagerly scooped handfuls into a bag. My husband and I chewed the wet pink peanut, a far different taste and texture than traditional salted-roasted peanuts Americans are used to inhaling.

Yucca root, cassava, plantains, okra, onions, avocados, mangoes, small white eggplants called "garden eggs," and more were piled high - something you'd expect to find in an open air market. Everything was fresh, and we were eager to purchase some of the more unusual fare.

Bediako, a handsome Ghanian with a bright smile spoke to us about his native food, and we could tell it was something he was quite proud of. We were drawn to the counter where bags of freshly fried pastries sat in tin pans waiting for purchase.

"What's this?" I asked, pointing out each baggy and smiling.


Meat pies, chin chin, cookies and more!

"Donuts," Bediako replied. My husband and I quickly grabbed a baggy and put it in our basket. We also grabbed an empanada looking pastry that Bediako's daughter told us was a meat pie. There was even a baggy of long triangular candies that resembled sesame-toffee that found its way into our basket. As soon as our shopping tour was over, we knew we'd dive in to those homemade goodies!


Bediako started our tour with boxes of fufu mix, which I'd been familiar with due to a previous visit to a Ghanian restaurant and store further north. Fufu is a staple starch in Ghana that is made from ground cassava and often plantain. I'd never tried it, but had seen the doughy-balls in soup bowls that seemed to pull like pizza dough when patrons scooped it up with their fingers while eating the soup. My husband was afraid of fufu, mainly because of the texture. I however, couldn't wait to give it a try.



"You must go down a few stores and eat at Aburi Gardens. They make excellent Ghanian and West African food. You can try fufu there," Bediako said.

I looked at my husband and he nodded. I was finally going to try fufu. I couldn't wait.

The next stop on our store tour was at the packages of round white-dough called banku and kenkey. They looked just like Mexican tamales, and Bediako confirmed that they were made with corn. Masa in fact, the same lime-treated corn meal that is used to make tamale dough. There are only subtle differences between the two, and internet research has led me to believe kenkey is simply cooked longer and has a stronger fermented flavor. Their ingredients (fermented corn meal dough) are the same. According to Bediako, whether you eat banku or kenkey depends on the dish you are eating with it.



We added a package of kenkey to our basket that Bediako thought we would like the best. Then we walked down the isle farthest to the left in the store while Bediako helped another customer. I saw a familiar cooking utensil I'd purchased a few weeks back from another Ghanian market in Alexandria, a ridged clay mortar that is traditionally used with a wide rounded wooden pestle to grind tomatoes and peppers for sauces to make stews. I use mine to make excellent guacamole.


We also ogled the beautiful giant gourd bowl for sale. I am considering going back to Kumasi to buy one.


Shortly after we spied the cooking apparatuses Bediako joined us once more towards the end of the isle where we encountered multiple boxes full of fragrant, smoked, dried chicken and fish of different varieties.

Each of the boxes were unique, and all were incredibly aromatic. Bediako and his butcher explained to us that these smoked and dried meats were originally developed by their ancestors as a method of preservation, and that over time, Ghanians developed a taste for them. He told us that all of the smoked and dried meats were shipped directly from Ghana on a regular basis. I couldn't believe how delicious they all looked, and took a few cuts of smoked and dried mackerel steaks to play with in my kitchen at home.

Traditionally, the meat or fish is steamed and then used in the base of a soup or stew, until the flesh becomes so tender, it falls right off the bone. While one can eat the meat directly as is, it is preferred as a flavoring agent in stews. Soups and stews, Bediako told us, were the most common dishes in his country.

That is when Bediako told me about peanut butter soup. In Ghana, they use ground peanut butter to make a thick, luscious soup that is served with a round of fufu in the center and whatever meat is available.



"When you go to Aburi Gardens, try the peanut-butter soup. You will like it," Bediako told me. I told him I would and our tour continued.

We were led through isles full of different herbs and spices, some I'd never heard of while others were surprisingly familiar.
Maggi, a brand I'd seen in both Latin, Middle Eastern and South-East Asian markets was easily recognized. This bouillon cube season had spread like wildfire across the world as an easy means to season broths, soups, stews and rices with the flavor of salt, dried fish and various seasonings.
Bediako told me that Maggi is one of the main spices used in Ghanian cooking as well.
In the same isle as the spices were cans of Hunt's tomato paste and sauces and other American ingredients I didn't expect to find in a Ghanian store.
"We use these in our cooking as well. I want for my customers to be able to find everything they need here so they don't have to go anywhere else," Bediako proudly told us. I could tell  that he was a saavy business man, in-tune with the needs of his customers and willing to source ingredients from wherever possible to make their shopping experience easier.
We were taken further down the isle and shown the stacks of Nestle baby-formula that Bediako was very happy to have in his store.
"This is what the mother's feed their babies in my country. But you cannot find it in America. Only here can this type of formula be found. It comes from Europe," he explained.

Then we stopped next to the instant noodle soup section. Even in Ghana, they love their preseasoned instant noodles.

"My daughter only likes this brand. I am glad that we have it here! She'd asked for the noodles from a friend and they brought her the wrong kind. She only likes to eat these," Bediako told us.

As we made our way back up the isle, I spied two things that caught my eye. The first was shitto.


Bediako explained that shitto is a condiment used all over Ghana and is a mix of dried, ground fish, peppers, tomatoes, chicken bouillon seasoning and oil, among other ingredients.

"Oh it is very nice. You will like this," Bediako said. I couldn't resist and added a jar to the cart. The name was giggle-worthy but I've tried enough new foods to know that a funny-sounding name doesn't mean funny-tasting food.

The other item was a bag of dried purplish leaves called "watche."

"What is this Bediako?" I asked.

"Oh that is watche, it is used for rice. It makes the rice have color and very nice flavor. If you go to the restaurant, ask for the watche rice, they make it very well there," he said.


We perused the freezer section and found an enormous selection of frozen vegetables, banku and meats. From plantains to "garden eggs," okra and other seasonal vegetables were piled high, making cooking familiar Ghanian dishes that were out-of-season easy.





There was even a large selection of both American and African beers! My husband was tempted to try a new beer but hesitated since he'd just purchased a IPA from India at the last international market we'd visited.


Bediako showed us the wide selected of malted carbonated beverages that are widely enjoyed throughout Ghana. He pointed out an orange-flavored soda that was very popular in his country too.

 As we made our way towards the cash register - we saw beautiful woven fabrics, used as wraps and sarongs for natives of West Africa. Truly, it seemed Bediako had managed to supply his store with nearly everything a transplanted West African could need to feel right at home.


 There was even a movie selection, hygiene products and a selection of sweets.


At the register we rang up our goods, and by the end of the tour we'd added a lot to our basket. Amazingly, our total was less than $20, another perk of shopping at an international market - you get more for your money.

I was so impressed with Bediako and his willingness to share the foods from his native homeland with two perfect strangers and their iPhone. I asked if I could snap a picture of him and I together, and he gladly agreed.

Bediako Opoku Asara, owner of Kumasi Supermarket in Woodbridge, VA. (And me!)


 Before we left, I asked Bediako what the small potato-looking items were that were bagged near the register.

"These are kola nuts," he explained. "In Ghana we chew them for energy. Here, take these, no charge." He bagged up a few pink kolas and a few brown ones, which he told us were called "bitter kola," and warned that we must peel it before chewing it.




 

"Do we swallow it?" I asked. I was intrigued.

"Yes, you chew and you swallow," he answered.

I offered a few dollars to pay for the nuts but he refused. I thanked him profusely for his time and promised him I'd write a blog letting the world know how wonderful he and his store were.




As soon as we walked out the door, my husband pulled our the bagged donuts, sesame candy they called cookies, the meat-pie and the kola nuts.

We started with the donuts, which were buttery and moist, and lightly sweetened.


 Next we tried the sesame candy "cookies" which were very hard but really tasty. They had a sesame-toffee flavor that reminded me of almond roca minus the chocolate.



Next was the meat-pie which tasted exactly as delicious as it sounds. The crust was a thick butter-crust and the filling was a simple mix of ground beef and rice, lightly seasoned. They reminded me of a cross between pot-pie and shepherds pie.


Finally it was time to try the kola nuts. We opted for the brown nut, the bitter kola, and as I peeled it I told my husband "I think these will make us high. I remember reading something about kola nuts. If I'm right, these are like a mild cocaine."  We both laughed before each taking half a bite.














I'm pretty sure my face says it all. The intense bitterness and heavy dose of tannins in the bitter kola are mind-numbing. We muscled through the intense acrid taste and swallowed the bits down.

Nothing.

And then, four-five minutes later, the entire back of my scalp was buzzing like a vibrator. I wasn't wired or shaky, but vibrantly awake. However bad those nuts tasted, they worked like a shot of 3-hour energy.

Our West African adventure wasn't over yet. We drove three stalls down and parked in front of Aburi Gardens. My husband, prone to complaining, said "I won't eat the fufu."

"Then go home. I'll go by myself," I scolded.

"Fine, I'll try it, but that doesn't mean I'll like it," he said.



Just like Kumasi Supermarket, Aburi Gardens is unassuming. But once inside, the lovely, low-lit restaurant welcomes you with open arms. I walked up to the counter and said to the young lady who I later learned is called "Obie" that Bediako from Kumasi had sent us to try some peanut-butter soup and watche rice. She smiled and asked what type of meat we wanted with the soup.

"What's typical?" I asked.

"Most people like the goat," Obie replied.

"The goat it is," I answered.

"And the watche? You get two types of meat with that," Obie was patient with us.

My husband seemed worried, and asked if there was chicken.

"Yes, we have chicken. What else?" Obie asked.

"What about fish? Do you have any of that smoked dried fish I saw at the market?" I asked.

"Yes, we can do chicken and fish for the watche rice," she said.

We picked out our drinks, bottled iced-teas, and were told by a man standing near Obie that we paid after we ate. So we took our seats and waited. About twenty minutes later, our food arrived. It was stunning.


The peanut butter soup with fufu and goat meat smelled like peanut butter and goat. A strange combination for the typical American but also aromatic and intoxicating. The blackened watche rice was served with a spicy tomato and pepper gravy over the smoked fish and fried chicken. Alongside the rice and gravy were two small fried plantains and a serving of Ghanian condiments, shitto sauce and a seasoning mix that smelled like dried fish.




 The texture of the goat meat, served with bones still intact, was delicate and moist. It had been cooked for a long time, and it fell off the bone in delicious shreds. The fufu was exactly how I pictured it would be, moist, doughy, and starchy. It pulled on the spoon and then gave way, holding its shape like a mixture of jello and mashed potatoes. It carried the luscious flavors of the peanut butter soup well. However, being non-African, the texture of the fufu was a little hard to swallow. I was obviously made by the hands of someone who knows this cooking well, and even though the texture was unique to my palate, I found myself eating spoon after spoon full. The broth and the meat were divine, creamy, lightly gamy and wonderful.

 When Obie realized we wanted to eat with our hands (well actually, I wanted to eat with my hands, my husband preferred utensils.) she brought out a bowl of water for easy hand-cleaning. I noticed that the other patrons, all native Africans, ate their soups and rices this way too. It definitely made for a more exciting dining experience.



My favorite dish was the watche rice. It had black beans mixed in and the flavors of the gravy were intense and bold, exactly how I like them. I fell in love with the shitto sauce, it was hot and oily and gave a great additional kick to each bite of rice. The meat of the fish flaked easily off the bone as did the tender chicken leg that was served on top of the rice. My husband and I were fighting for who got the last bite. This dish quickly became my new favorite.


I let Obie know how much I enjoyed the food and she told me that her mother, Janet, was the chef. I told her I would be writing a blog about Kumasi and that I would feature Aburi Gardens in the blog as well, and Obie seemed delighted.

We paid our check, which was inexpensive given the quality and serving size of the delicious food we'd been served, and thanked Obie for a wonderful experience.

Overall, our adventure to West Africa via Woodbdrige Virginia, Kumasi Supermarket and Aburi Gardens was a huge success. We learned so much about the foods and flavors of Ghana, Nigeria and Camaroon, but that was only the tip of what these places have to offer patrons.

A friend told me that she had never shopped in an international market because she didn't know what to buy, and felt intimidated walking inside such foreign places. I think my friend feels the way many Americans do, and what I hope to accomplish in these blogs featuring international markets is an awareness of the ease and excitement one can find venturing inside a supermarket or restaurant that seems as far away culturally as the moon.

What we found is a profound hospitality that is often lacking in American grocery stores and restaurants, and a sense of adventure right in our own backyard.

So dear readers - take my challenge and visit your nearest international grocery store or a restaurant that serves food from a culture you've never tasted before. If you're in the Northern Virginia area, visit Kumasi and Aburi Gardens. I promise you two things: you will take a trip to a new land without having to get your passport renewed and you will walk away having learned something new about your fellow humans.

"A life unexamined is a life not worth living," said Socrates.

So get up, get out and examine the world around you. Start with your neighborhood ethnic grocer and see what you can find. I can't wait to hear your replies!






5 comments:

Anonymous said...

Best blog ever. I have a buzz just reading about your experience. Your so descriptive, I can imagine being there and tasting all the delicious good. Thank you.

Bryanne Salazar said...

Thank you so very much for taking the time to read my blog and compliment me. I appreciate your time and hope I sparked your interest in international markets!

Stacey said...

Bravo dear friend! Another inspiring post!!

Bryanne Salazar said...

Thank you dear. I know you are always up for an eating adventure - I hope other's will be too!

Marion Hopper said...

Amazing blog. This makes very hungry. I myself shop at international markets because of the simple fact that the produce is always fresh and you always find things you never would find in Safeway. Also because of the amazing seafood selection. It's always fresh to the point it's still moving. I really enjoyed reading this article and look forward to future ones.

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