A year ago, I bumped into a Ghanaian restaurant located round the corner from a favorite haunt of mine. I was curious to what Ghanaian cuisine was about especially given the fact that my college best friend hailed from that West African country, and he had cooked me a couple of scrumptious dishes from his homeland on a few occasions. With that in mind, I invited a Ghanaian/Togolese friend to join me on the first of a couple of visits to Cape Coast Cuisine in Beltsville, MD.
On the first trip, I arrived with my said friend during lunch time. Right away, I noticed the buffet table near the entrance that struck my curiosity. Being a total novice, I was not sure what to order and I went for the default buffet line after having perused it with a quick glance. It was not the regular buffet line in which you help yourself, but one in which the customer is given only one serving from the line. The offerings were Stewed Black Eyed Peas, Fried Plantains, Jollof Rice, Stewed Goat, Fried Turkey Tail, and Fried Fish. There were some highlights on the plate that got my attention. The Jollof rice was slightly moist, tasting savory and a bit spicy, with a slight depth of flavor from some caramelization. The Black Eyed Peas really got my attention. Not only was it cooked to the perfect soft consistency, but it exuded a certain sweetness from vegetable aromatics and a hint of tomato. The goat was well seasoned but I would have preferred the flesh to be falling off the bone, which have made them more appealing. The plantains were decent – you can’t go wrong with this ingredient here. However, I found the turkey tail and fish to be bit ho-hum with its simple seasoning and dry from being overcooked. The Shito Sauce was the saving grace to the aforementioned bites with its spicy, slightly smokey and sweet, and dried shrimp notes that added flavor and heat to the whole plate. The side of fried Garri was interesting, pointing to the same use of the granular form of the Cassava root in the Brazilian national dish, Feijoada.
But I was still not satisfied from the first trip and I knew that I had only scratched the surface. During that meal, I noticed some expatriates eating other dishes that were from the menu and not served on the buffet line. On the second trip, I came with the same friend and another from Liberia. After perusing the menu and getting their recommendations, we ordered a couple of dishes. The first was Okra Stew and Banku since we wanted to add some vegetable to the whole mix. A large bowl arrived with the Banku on the side wrapped in plastic wrap. The stew was chokeful of the vegetable which lent some body and its slimy quality (in a good way) to the dish, tasting savory from its cooking with some goat meat and seafood-like from some boiled down pieces of fried fish. The lone piece of softened Scotch Bonnet Pepper exuded quite a bit of heat to the bowl that made it masochistically tempting. The ball of boiled ground hominy was the perfect vehicle to scoop up the vegetables and meat mixture, while exuding a sour note from fermentation which made me reach for it to be eaten by itself. A tasty vegetable stew for me indeed.
What I saw many customers order during my first trip was the widely eaten West African dish, Fufu. The name refers to the cassava and plantain roots pounded to produce a starchy and stretchy mound. Hence, any stew can accompany this beloved carbohydrate, and our order was made with goat meat, goat stomach, and Tilapia fish. I had warned my dining companions of a possible long wait judging by what I saw on my first visit. Meanwhile, we were provided a bowl of water with some hand detergent in preparation for the eating. And quite a wait it was. But the cooking time was spent more on stewing the soup made from scratch and not the making of the fufu as I had thought. My friends concluded that the fufu was the powdered form, not the pounded tubers, albeit a decent rendition judging by its smooth texture. The goat meat and stomach were not fall-off-the bone tender which was quite a pity since they tasted very fresh with a slight gamey quality. The fish steaks were equally fresh and cooked perfectly, qualities that I appreciated even though it is not my favorite type due to its inherent muddy quality. But it was the wonderful soup that brought the elements together with its savory, fragrant, spicy, and slightly sour qualities that made it completely sippable by itself. Now, I know why West Africans love this dish, and my friends overstuffed themselves on this occasion.
Although this was my foray into this West African cuisine in a restaurant setting, I must admit that I have found a veritable locale judging by the clientele patronizing this hidden spot and some of the dishes that impressed me with their flavors and textures. Yes, the buffet line had its highlights and some mediocre dishes, but I couldn’t get enough of that amazing black-eyed peas, tasty Jollof rice, savory goat stew (despite being a bit tough) and the irresistible Shito sauce. From the menu, the okra stew exuded a depth of flavor one wouldn’t expect from that simple vegetable, aided by that sour Banku that I couldn’t stop breaking pieces off. Despite the not so fall-off-the bone quality with the goat meat and stomach in the Fufu dish (a longer wait was definitely out of the question), I appreciated their fresh qualities as well as the fish in that full-flavored soup that made the pounded tubers, albeit a good powdered form, interesting beyond the level of pure starch. Watching my Africa-born friends enjoy themselves fed me on many levels as if this food were my soul food. Never mind the complaints online about the wait and meager service, but all reviewers agree that they were satisfied with the authentic offerings here – I am on the same page as them.