Ghanaian cookbook, made for Americans, fights hunger in Africa

February 02, 1994|By Caroline Terenzini | Caroline Terenzini,Knight-Ridder News Service

Fran Osseo-Asare's cookbook, "A Good Soup Attracts Chairs: A First African Cookbook for American Kids," is more than a collection of West African recipes -- it's a gift to her children.

The three Osseo-Asare children, with an American mother and Ghanaian father, have shaped their lives from two disparate cultures. The cookbook is a bridge -- offering Americans insights into West African culture while explaining how to prepare Ghanaian foods.

The title is drawn from a Ghanaian saying and was chosen to emphasize the West African reputation for hospitality.

"I did this cookbook partly to give my children when they leave," Ms. Osseo-Asare said in the kitchen of her State College, Pa., home. "It's something I've learned that I'd like to share with my children."

The spur for the undertaking, however, was her son Dankwa's concern for the suffering he saw on television during a famine in Ethiopia in 1985, when he was 4.

Ms. Osseo-Asare promised him then that she would write the book, to foster appreciation of West African foods among Americans as well as fight hunger in Africa. The profits from the book are being channeled to the hungry through organizations such as the Mennonite Central Committee, which is working in Ethiopia and Liberia.

"At first, it was a lonely vision," Ms. Osseo-Asare said. "I knew I wanted to write this book. But I don't want people to think I'm naive in writing a cookbook and giving the profits to fight hunger.

"I don't think there are any easy answers. [In battling hunger in Africa] money is not enough; good intentions are not enough. . . .

"But [the money is going to] people who are doing things, committed individuals who are making a difference."

The cookbook also is a bridge between Ms. Osseo-Asare's personal life and her professional interests. For a doctorate in rural sociology from Penn State, she wrote her dissertation on an informal food-distribution system in West Africa that arose in response to economic and social stress that disrupted the normal food supply.

Ms. Osseo-Asare began learning about Ghanaian foods in 1971, after she graduated from the University of California at Berkeley, where she had met her husband-to-be, Kwadwo, now a professor of materials science at Penn State. The two knew they wanted to marry, but first Fran wanted to spend time in Ghana without Kwadwo (who uses the name Osseo) because "I didn't want him channeling everything, and interpreting it for me."

So she spent a year teaching in a village on the Ghanaian coast, spending time also with the Osseo-Asare family there. In 1972, the couple wed in Ghana.

In 1984, they returned to Ghana for an extended visit -- this time with their three children -- and in 1989 Ms. Osseo-Asare spent several months there without her family, collecting data for her dissertation, while the cookbook was put on hold. Then, cooking from memory, Ms. Osseo-Asare "had to figure out what I was doing each time I cooked. Then I would have the children try it and I'd get their responses. Then I'd do it again," carefully recording every step.

The three children also assisted with the photographs for "A Good Soup Attracts Chairs." With an African print skirt or perhaps one of her husband's shirts as a backdrop, she snapped the pictures outdoors to take advantage of the natural light.

Authenticity in the photos was important, so Ms. Osseo-Asare planted lemongrass in the spring, for lemongrass tea, and then borrowed real African mugs in which to photograph the tea. In the end, however, the right effect was judged to be lemongrass tea poured into Kwadwo's unadorned red mug, which sees daily use, and this is the picture that appears in the book.

The highlight of her book tour so far has been three days in Miami at the Miami Book Fair International, which featured more than 200 authors. Stationed in Children's Alley on Epicure Row, Ms. Osseo-Asare was mobbed by bus loads of schoolchildren as she prepared samples of one of her favorite recipes, twisted cakes, a holiday treat in the Osseo-Asare home.

"I must have made a thousand of these," Ms. Osseo-Asare says with a laugh.

But it's all for a good cause. As her spouse and chief supporter said, "I think it's going to be a classic. I mean that."

The recipes in "A Good Soup Attracts Chairs" are written so a child can follow them, but adults "can use it, too," Ms. Osseo-Asare says with a smile. The book is useful as an introduction to West African foods because it explains, for example, how African yams differ from American yams and how to choose a plantain at the grocery store.

Palaver sauce is usually served with rice or boiled potatoeswhile light soup may be accompanied by bread or by the dumpling-like Ghanaian fufu. Egg curry, appropriate for lunch or supper, can be served over rice and followed by the tropical fruit salad.

Egg curry

Serves 5

5 eggs

1 medium onion

1 large tomato

1 1/2 teaspoons curry powder

1 tablespoon flour


1 tablespoon unsalted, dry roasted peanuts

3 tablespoons margarine

1 cup water

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