What is banku?
Banku is one of the national dishes of Ghana originating from the Ga-Adangme people along the South Eastern coast of Ghana. It is distinguished by its sour taste, which comes from several days of fermentation of the corn to make corn dough. Banku is often eaten with okro stew, however, like kenkey, it is also popular with grilled fish, fresh salsa-like shito and shitor din (black pepper sauce).
What is the origin of banku?
Most banku varieties today are made using a combination of corn dough and cassava dough. Although fermentation is an ancient process which has been practiced in Africa for centuries, it is thought that corn and cassava were first introduced to Africa in the 16th century. Before the introduction of cassava and cornmeal, banku may have taken the form of fermented millet, sorghum or possibly a mixture with yam or plantain.
Without much documentation to confirm this, it is rather difficult to tell exactly when and how banku came about. However 17th century references to records kept by Portuguese explorers have recorded the presence of steamed millet and sorghum “breads”. These are possibly comparable to banku and kenkey, both of which are made from corn “dough”.
Test your knowledge about Ghanaian cuisine
Find out how much you know about Ghanaian recipes, local ingredients, preparation methods and the history behind this delicious West African cuisine.
How to make banku
For the adventurous cooks and purists, the key to success in the preparation of banku is time, patience and a lot of planning ahead. Everyone else will be glad to know that we live in modern times, therefore there are ready made processed ingredients that can always be purchased online or at Afro-Caribbean markets.
Traditionally, corn kernels or the kernels mixed with peeled and chopped cassava are soaked for a day, then milled into a smooth, fine and wet dough at commercial millers. Milling can be achieved at home in a powerful blender. One trick is to freeze the defrost chopped cassava to make it softer before blending. This dough is then allowed to ferment for 2 to 3 days, depending on how warm the climate is. In cooler temperatures it could take up to 4 or 5 days.
You can also make this at home by mixing corn meal with just enough water to form a dough in a non-reactive bowl. Cover the dough with an airtight lid or cling film and allow to ferment for several days. You usually know it is ready when you see a few patches of mold form on the surface. Simply scrape off the top layer and discard.
To make cassava dough, peel whole cassava using a knife, then proceed to grate the cassava with the smaller side of the grater. This takes time but the results do not disappoint. Mix with a little water and allow the pulp to drain for several hours. This can then be mixed with the corn dough and allowed to ferment together, otherwise it can be processed separately and drained of moisture for 2 to 3 days.
The Ga people call the fermented corn dough ngma, nma or ma. Once the dough is ready, it can be packed in an air tight plastic bag and frozen until required.
The dough is cooked with salted water in a sturdy pot, with continuous stirring, using a solid wooden spoon. The dough clumps up and transforms into a gloopy pulp fairly quickly. It is then allowed to steam surrounded by a little water for several minutes in order to cook through thoroughly. Thereafter it is given a final mix. The consistency of traditional banku is very smooth, much like fufu, but it is not always possible to get that fine level of smoothness if using different varieties of corn meal.
Banku in minutes
In other methods, ready prepared, fermented corn dough can be purchased and cooked to make banku. A little corn or potato starch is added when cooking, as it adds the custard like smoothness that cassava normally would. If desired, cassava dough can be purchased and cooked together with the corn dough to make banku.
There are no hard and fast rules when it comes to the ratio required between corn and cassava dough. In most cases, 3 to 4 parts of corn dough is mixed with 1 part of cassava dough. When cooking, it is easy to think the steamed mixture is too soft, however the banku gets firmer the longer it cools down after serving.
Once cooked, the banku is dished out and traditionally shaped by hand, quickly dipping fingers into cold water then folding the dumpling into a ball. A safer method of forming the banku balls is to wet the surface of a round ceramic bowl with a little water (a few drops of oil helps prevent stickiness). Dip a serving spoon in cool water and scoop out the desired amount of banku into the wet bowl. Now shake the bowl in a circular pattern until the round shape is formed. The banku is now ready to be served and is best eaten hot.
The different versions of banku
Banku is ubiquitously a Ghanaian dish eaten as a staple throughout Ghana, but is mostly enjoyed by the Ga, Ewe and Fante people. It is traditionally made from a combination of fermented corn and cassava. For many Ghanaians around the world, it is very common to find banku which is made solely from corn dough with a small addition of corn starch or potato starch to add to its very smooth texture.
A similar dish from the Volta region in the East, home to the Ewe people, is amokple. It is the Ewe equivalent to banku, with a mixture of corn and cassava with varying degrees of sourness depending on how long the mixture has been allowed to ferment.
Another similar Ewe dish is called akple, a milled corn dish made from unfermented corn dough. Akple is very smooth, and is mostly similar to ugali, sadza and pap; cornmeal dumpling varieties which are eaten in other parts of Africa.
- 1 lb corn dough
- ¼ lb cassava dough (or up to ½ lb)
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 cup water (or up to 2 cups)
- Mix together the corn and cassava dough with water until smooth, then transfer to high heat and stir continuously.
- Depending on how moist the processed dough was at the start, more water may be added so far as the consistency is solid, but not too firm.
- Turn the heat down to medium and allow the banku to steam in the pot, surrounded by 1 or 2 tablespoons of water. This should take 5 minutes.
- Give the banku one final stir then take off the heat.
- To serve, scoop the desired amount into a wet bowl and swirl around until balls are formed.
- Banku may be served with okro stew, fante fante or grilled tilapia with shito.