"Was it not to your taste?" the server at Tropical Paradise said, her tone conciliatory, as she looked down at the unfinished bowl of fufu and stew in front of me. "It's unfamiliar food." She smiled sweetly, then began to clear the table.
There was no use protesting, but she hadn't been watching as I poached forkfuls of plantains off one friend's plate, nor as my spoon traveled back and forth across to another's, carving down a mountain of jollof rice. I wasn't disappointed -- I was stuffed.
Tropical Paradise, a two-month-old Ghanaian restaurant in downtown Berkeley, is playing a delicate balancing act, cooking West African food to satisfy both expat and Californian tastes. The owners, Duke and Mary Nudanu, are keeping entrées light, removing meat from a number of recipes to draw in vegetarians, and writing out an essay-format menu to describe their dishes. Now all they need is self-confidence.
Though the ingredients vary greatly, meals in this West African country generally consist of a starchy carbohydrate and a stew or sauce, writes Fran Osseo-Asare, an expert on Ghanaian cuisine. In the north, that starch is rice. Closer to the coasts in the south, it's often fufu.
Women spend many hours each day boiling starchy vegetables such as yam, unripe plantain, cassava, and taro, and then pounding and folding them in a large mortar until the fufu reaches a soft, fluffy consistency between mashed potatoes and whipped cream. You eat it by using your right hand to pluck morsels off the mound in your bowl. Then you dip the fufu into the stew and delicately flick it into your mouth. Don't chew, just swallow. "Once you get used to it, it's a very sensual food," Osseo-Asare says.
Tropical Paradise offers two kinds of fufu on the "Ghana Specials" page of its short menu. Both the plantain and yam varieties come from imported mixes, not mortars -- but that's standard in the States, especially since African yam, a bland white tuber that's closer to potato than sweet potato, is all but impossible to come by in North America. You can only taste the powder in the plantain fufu, but both types come in a big mound at the center of a bowl of a thick, peppery tomato-based stew. Duke Nudanu and his cooks add your choice of grilled chicken breasts, chicken thighs, or salmon to the stew. While the salmon added a pleasing fishiness, the juicy chicken thighs, brushed with a mustard-lemon glaze, released the smokiness they picked up from the grill back into the soup, deepening its flavor immeasurably. And although I used a spoon instead of my fingers, I found that eating the yam fufu was a sensual pleasure, the kind of spine-loosening comfort that washes over you on hearing a snippet of a lullaby your mother used to sing.
The other starch Tropical Paradise highlights, kenkey (pronounced ken-kay), may be harder for an outsider to love. Kenkey comes to the table as misshapen slices of a thick tamale-like substance. Consisting of finely ground cornmeal that is fermented, then steamed, it has a sharp sourness that takes a few bites to get used to. But Nudanu serves the kenkey with a grilled fillet of salmon, brushed with a bright mustard-ginger-lime glaze and surrounded by a pink, frothy sauce of blended raw tomatoes and hot peppers. The quick-firing salsa and meaty fish dulled the tart edge of the kenkey, letting its welcoming blandness emerge.
Cornmeal came to Ghana, of course, in the great gastronomic exchange of European colonialism, which also introduced to Ghana staples such as chiles, peanuts, and tomatoes and took away slaves, black-eyed peas, and okra. These exchanges sometimes took circuitous routes: According to Osseo-Asare, freed slaves from Brazil returned to Ghana bearing the knowledge of how to cultivate cassava. Cooked into fufu or shredded and dried into gari -- a quick-cook staple she calls the "couscous of Ghana" -- cassava has become an integral part of the Ghanaian diet.
You can taste gari if you order the red-red, ripe "red" plantains with black-eyed peas in a tomato-based sauce. It's served on the side, to mix in with the stewed peas -- a bit of extra texture if nothing else. Nudanu rolls plantain slices in herbs and chopped ginger, then deep-fries them until the edges darken and the insides turn to custard. Intellectually, the starch-starch combo sounds odd, but together in the mouth, somehow the sweet-tart fruit brightens up the beans, and their earthy, dusty flavor in turn fills out the taste of the plantains.
But the red-red brings up both of my two quibbles with Tropical Paradise's food, which otherwise I enjoyed immensely. Number one: If you want anything green on your plate, you have to order it yourself. The easiest solution is to order kontomire, a nutty, rich stew of spinach cooked with toasted, ground pumpkin seeds. You're given a choice of the spinach or black-eyed peas and jollof rice with most of the grilled entrées on the non-Ghanaian side of the restaurant's menu. Pick the kontomire -- or, if you insist on both, order them as a vegetarian platter, which gives you a little jollof rice and extra plantains, too.
The other complaint that the black-eyed peas in the red-red exemplified: the cooks' lack of confidence in the charms of their own cuisine. In Ghana, spiciness varies from region to region, Osseo-Asare says, but at the heart of many of the dishes is a trinity of onions, tomatoes, and hot chiles. The owners stock every table with Caribbean-style hot sauce, and I overheard the waitress tell one non-African diner that they would cook it into his food if he requested, but I got the impression that the cooks have toned down the food for the locals.
In catering to vegetarians, the cooks also omitted meat from several of the dishes that would normally take their flavor from the richness of chicken, beef, or smoked fish. That includes the jollof rice braised with tomatoes, bay leaf, nutmeg, and anise -- sounds fragrant, but it's not as fragrant as you sense it should be. Also witness the palm-nut soup, a thick soup of pureed tomatoes, onions, and palm fruit simmered with diced vegetables. The oiliness of the palm fruit makes the soup sumptuously buttery, but it somehow tastes flat, like it needs chiles and smoked fish.
As an antidote, order the beef chichinga, my other favorite dish at Tropical Paradise after the fufu with chicken. Here the cooks didn't stint on the thick spice rub they slathered across a skewer of lean beef. With mustard, lemon juice, ginger, garlic, ground peanuts, and chiles the marinade ignited on the tongue, careening around the mouth like a bottle rocket. Like the grilled salmon and the grilled chicken, the perfectly cooked beef shows off Duke Nudanu's skill at grilling -- his food stall has traveled to music festivals and street fairs around Northern California for the past eight years. But he is delighted to be able to open a sit-down place where he can serve more distinctively Ghanaian specialties like fufu, kenkey, and red-red. The Nudanus haven't yet scraped the logo of the last occupant from their windows. But they've begun transforming the tiny storefront cafe, lining the walls with woven mats, hanging carved wooden masks near the picture rail, and building a thatched canopy over the kitchen. More important, the friendly couple has imbued the space with a big, enveloping welcome. Whether or not they think you've liked their food.