When I found out about my grandfather’s passing in primary school, all the dreams I had of meeting him were shattered. There was a dry and tightening feeling in my throat. I felt guilty for crying. I never got to meet him. My first foreign heartbreak. My parents always talked about us going back home to Ghana to meet the family. It was a dream for me because the white and third generation ethnic kids at school would talk about what their nans and pops got them for Christmas. I couldn’t wait to meet mine, so that each time another kid had a story to tell about their grandparents, I could have one of my own to share.
In this way, there has always been a gap in my experience of family. I knew a majority of my relatives lived in Ghana, but I found it weird that I didn’t really know them. So, when I travelled to Ghana in 2016 when I was 21, I was treated like a visitor. I shared gifts that my mother had bought to be given out. A pair of shoes, a watch and a mobile phone for an excited cousin. I was a person that would come and soon leave. There was a table set for me, a bowl covered with a plate and another bowl of water with a tea towel beside it for me to wash my hands.
‘Wo maame si wo p3 kaakro paa,’ my grandmother Ataa* said in her high-pitched voice, as she placed coal into the stove. Her chestnut skin crinkled around her eyes when she smiled, revealing a full set of white teeth.
It wasn’t just the making of the food, it was the stories she told me while we prepared it
Food is itself a gift, all ingredients wrapped in delicious flavours from sweet to savoury. Methods of cooking are sustained by oral traditions that result in meals shared and culture preserved. Ruth Terry, a freelance writer of food, travel and culture, explores a similar notion of food and its indivisible link to culture and identity in her article "How Black Culinary Historians Are Rewriting the History of American Food". She refers to Michael Twitty’s book The Cooking Gene and how “he focuses on food as part of the lived experience of enslaved Africans and as an element of our shared Black American cultural DNA”. Being a part of the African Australian diaspora, I was blessed by my grandmother as she shared her kaakro recipe with me.
To make the kaakro, we sourced the ingredients of ripe plantains, fresh ginger, red chilli, konkonte and assorted spices from the local market on the main road near my grandmother’s house. My cousin and I had walked there in the early sun before returning back to prepare lunch. Our grandmother was sitting down on a wooden stool waiting for us, her ntuma wrapped around her waist with her pale-yellow blouse against her deep mahogany skin, her head scarf of the same ntuma, with portions of her grey relaxed hair peeping through it. My cousin washed the ingredients and loaded the bidie into the stove in front of us. I sat on one of the stools in the open compound and began to grind the chilli with an aportoryewa and tapori. My grandmother slowly used both hands to pour the vegetable oil into the wide pot. She took a seat on one of the stools and sighed. She reminisced about her youth and raising 10 children, she spoke about how my mum was growing up, and her passion for politics and the Ghanaian liberation movements.
She reminisced about her youth and raising 10 children, she spoke about how my mum was growing up, and her passion for politics and the Ghanaian liberation movements
Her stories reminded me of the children’s books I had read in primary school, where grandmothers would cook for their grandkids or take them out to the park. Or where the grandmother would be knitting something like a scarf while she wore glasses, had her hair up in a grey bun, and of course she would have a cat. We waited until the oil was hot enough then bit by bit, she put portions of the kaakro batter in to the oil. It was almost mechanical the way she moved so swiftly. She sat at a distance from the pot and used the wooden spoon to manoeuvre the kaakro in the oil when needed. Each side sizzled to a glossy chestnut colour and was flipped over to allow the other side to cook as well. It was served with a traditional bean stew made with palm oil.
I would gush at the thought of my grandmother cooking with me as a child, with all the stories she would have told me. How I would know her more if we didn’t live so far away from each other. Eventually, I started craving black stories with black families, and black complex characters. During my trip my grandmother’s presence revealed to me some of the characters and perceptions I was missing in the narratives I read as a child. As Maureen Duru, a PhD Researcher of Vrije Universiteit Brussel and author of the book Diaspora, Food and Identity, writes, “food is central to one’s identity”.
I would gush at the thought of my grandmother cooking with me as a child, with all the stories she would have told me
This notion exemplifies my experience of cooking with my grandmother. It highlights for me her forebearers who passed the same recipe down to her, and the significance that will ensue in me passing it on to my own children. This relaying of batons provides a sense of identity, a sense of self and a sense of home.
As I boarded the plane from Accra back to Sydney, I left with a refined sense of identity. It wasn’t just the making of the food, it was the stories she told me while we prepared it. In light of this I tried the recipe again back in Sydney. As per my grandmother’s instructions I used yellow bananas instead of ripe plantain, plain flour instead of konkonte. I added ginger, grounded fresh chilli, salt and Vegeta spices. There was a certain grounding in my sense of self and identity that I found in this cooking process. I was grateful for the memories I had formed with my grandmother cooking and learning more about her. As I turned on the stove and heated the oil, scooped the batter and placed it in the pan. I watched the oil welcome the batter home with a dance, and waited for both sides to be a deep golden brown before dishing it out - it was all a rhythm that I came to know and love, cooking traditional Ghanaian recipes. My mother came into the kitchen, her afro pushed back with a thick band of kente cloth. She took a bite of the kaakro and turned it from one side to the other.
‘It’s good! Next time add more ginger,’ a smirk lighting up her face with amusement.
Pamela Asare is an African-Australian woman from Liverpool and a member of Sweatshop: Western Sydney Literacy Movement.
This article has been published in partnership with Sweatshop: Western Sydney Literacy Movement.