At first glance, Fran Osseo-Asare does not look like the instrument of change that she was back in the late 1970s when she attended the University of California at Berkeley. She looks too nice to be a radical. Her roots are Norwegian paternally and Scotch-Irish-English maternally, both working class families, her father from Montana and her mother from Appalachia. She was born in Oregon and raised in Brisbane, Calif., north of San Francisco.
But attending the university broadened her world view and turned her gaze toward Africa, specifically toward a young African man, Kwadwo Osseo-Asare, who was from the newly independent nation of Ghana. They met as the result of a cultural anthropology assignment and have continued their research into each other’s cultures throughout their 43-year-old marriage.
Berkeley in the late ’60s and early ’70s was a hotbed of revolutionary counterculture. A mixed race couple was likely to have gotten a “Right on!” on campus. But the introduction to Fran Osseo-Asare’s white parents — and, at this point, step parents, since her parents had divorced and both remarried — didn’t go well at all. When the topic of marriage came up, her parents’ reaction was so hostile that Fran Osseo-Asare suggested an imposed exile so that, yes, she could really learn all about what she was getting into.
She graduated in 1971 and spent a year in Ghana on her own, working as a headmistress at a school, while Kwadwo Osseo-Asare remained in graduate school at Berkeley. Their love not only withstood the test of time, it was strengthened because “Ghana and its vibrant food captivated me,” explained Fran Osseo-Asare, in her TED Fellows talk that was posted last month at http://bit.ly/1Pq7Ezg. “Living without refrigeration and cooking only on charcoal or a small kerosene stove, almost everything we ate was fresh daily from the market or the ocean. I learned all I could about Ghanaian food and culture as I continued to ponder what marriage to Kwadwo would mean.”
“The Ghana Cookbook,” co-authored by Barbara Baëta, a Ghanaian culinary star, is the result of more than four decades of research — both scholarly, through books and journals and gastronomically, through hands-on cooking in Ghana and here in central Pa. Ghana has a unique cuisine long over-looked or lumped together under the umbrella term “African food,” but its flavor nuances and ingredients make it a star today for those looking to expand their repertoire. Fran Osseo-Asare has authored two other Ghanaian cookbooks, “A Good Soup Attracts Chairs: A First African Cookbook for American Kids” in 1993 and a more scholarly “Food Culture in Sub-Saharan Africa” in 2005.
Ghana is country the size of Oregon in western Africa bordered by the Republic of Ivory Coast to the west, Burkina Faso to the north and Togo to the east. The Gulf of Guinea is on the southern edge providing a rich source of seafood. The country has lots of rivers as well as Volta Lake, one of the largest man-made lakes in the world, so freshwater fish is important in the diet. The country lies just a few degrees above the equator and ranges from a low, sandy shore to a tropical rain forest belt and then northward to savanna and grassy plains.
“There are coconuts, plantains and fruits from the south, and in the forested plateaus and hills of the central area there are staple food crops including palm fruit and Ghana’s world famous cocoa,” Fran Osseo-Asare said. “In the north, where it is drier and hotter, yams are cultivated, cattle are raised and guinea hens run wild.”
Because wheat is not grown in Ghana, most of the recipes are gluten-free, relying on various flours from corn, beans, peanuts, cassava and other underground tubers. Dairy is not important in the diet, so the recipes are good for those who avoid lactose. Sugar is not used to any great extent. Plantains feature prominently at the table, deep-fried in long crispy strips when they are green or mashed into savory pancakes when ripe.
“African ingredients are easy to find these days in State College — and that was not always the case,” said Fran Osseo-Asare, who has lived in State College since 1976, when the young couple moved here from Golden, Colo., for Kwadwo Osseo-Asare to start teaching at Penn State in Materials Science. Their oldest daughter was six months old at the time. Their second daughter and son were born in State College and the family also adopted two nephews who were orphaned in Ghana as teenagers. Ghanaian food was often on the table in the busy household, but not exclusively. Fran Osseo-Asare suggests tracking down the ingredients for her dishes at the International Market on Allen Street, where they stock many African staples, but even the grocery stores in the area carry plantains, various yams and fresh coconut.
The cookbook’s co-author, Barbara Baëta, is the owner and founder of Flair Catering, Ltd., a catering agency and cooking school, who was one of the first professionally trained caterers in Ghana. Baëta is considered a “national treasure” in her homeland. She is featured prominently in Laurens Van der Post’s 1968 Time Life “African Cookbook” from the “Foods of the World” series and she catered the state dinner served to President Obama in 2009. Descended from royalty in the Ewe ethnic group, her ancestors reflect the global melting pot that Western Africa became through trade — Portuguese, Danish, Brazilian. The book launch scheduled for the end of January at her catering school will have 500 invited guests feasting on special recipes from the book.
From 3-4 p.m. Sunday, there will be another, smaller book launch at Webster’s Bookstore Café with a cooking demonstration and tasting. The public is invited to come and sample Bissap Tea, Plantain Chips and Akara (black-eyed pea fritters) and to chat with the author about her new book and about the varied cuisine of Ghana. Books will be for sale and can be signed by the author on the spot. The book can also be obtained at Barnes & Noble or online at Amazon.
“I hope that this book will bring that food of Ghana the respect that it deserves,” Fran Osseo-Asare said.
With its comprehensive explanation of flavors, techniques and ingredients, it will be helpful to someone without a lot of experience in the kitchen. The color photo section of food shots and location shots will inspire experimentation and the recipes are clearly written and offer substitutions. As she states in her own introduction to the book, “This cookbook is the one I always wanted to buy and could never find.”
Editor’s note: The following recipe is included in “The Ghana Cookbook” and will be demonstrated by Fran Osseo-Asare at Webster’s Bookstore Café on Sunday.
Hibiscus Iced Tea (aka Bissap, Zobo, Sobolo)
Dried hibiscus flowers make a lovely deep red, refreshing tea popular in Ghana and other parts of West Africa. The smooth, sweet-tangy combination tends to draw rave reviews. Dried hibiscus flowers pair well with other flavorings, from pineapple to mango juices, as well as alcohol, like rum.
Recently, hibiscus has been designated an “African superfood.” It is claimed to help lower blood pressure and treat hypertension. This means the dried flowers are becoming much more widely available. Dried hibiscus flowers are usually available in international stores that stock Mexican, Mediterranean, or North African (especially Egyptian), Caribbean or West African foods, as well as tea shops.
About 16 servings
2 cups dried hibiscus flowers (bissap or roselle)
1/4 cup fresh lemon grass, chopped (optional)
Sugar to taste (1 to 2 cups)
1 cup pineapple or mango juice
Juice of 1 lemon or lime (optional)
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1. Bring 5 cups of water to a boil. While it heats, put 2 cups of hibiscus flowers in a metal strainer in the sink and rinse them lightly with water to remove any sand or grit they might contain (the dried flowers bleed immediately, so keep the strainer in the sink).
2. Trim ends and pull off the outside leaves of the lemon grass (if using), rinse and chop stalk finely to get 1/4 cup.
3. Put the rinsed flowers and the lemon grass into a large stainless steel, ceramic or other nonreactive bowl, and pour the boiling water over all.
4. Cover the bowl (I use a cheese cloth) to protect it and let it sit for at least 4 hours.
5. After 4 hours, bring another 2 cups of water to a boil. (NOTE: If this will not be diluted and served with sparkling water, increase to 4 cups of boiling water).
6. Place a strainer over a second large bowl. Empty the liquid from the hibiscus/lemongrass mixture into it. Return the hibiscus/lemon grass to the original bowl and pour the just-boiled water over them. Stir the mixture well, and let it sit 10 minutes this time.
7. Line a strainer with a cheesecloth, then pour the hibiscus and liquid through the strainer again to add to the previously strained liquid. Pick up the cheesecloth by the ends and twist it tightly to remove as much liquid as possible, being careful not to burn oneself. Discard the hibiscus flowers and lemon grass. Immediately rinse the cheesecloth out well with cold water or it will stain.
8. Stir in the sugar to taste and the 1/2 teaspoon vanilla, 1 cup mango or pineapple juice, and lemon or lime juice, if using. After all of the sugar has dissolved, carefully pour off the liquid into a pitcher or jar, leaving any sediment behind in the bowl. A funnel works well to fill empty water or soda bottles. Cap and chill the bissap in the refrigerator.
To serve: Pour into a glass with ice and/or sparkling water, as desired. Garnish with fresh mint leaves, fruit slices, or sugar cane swizzle sticks. (Enjoy! But be forewarned: bissap is addictive — not literally, but because it tastes so wonderful.)
Variations: Omit the fruit juice and add additional water to replace it. Use rum flavoring instead of vanilla, omit either of them, and use a little fresh ginger. Substitute other sweetener of choice.