Let’s head to Ghana for a unique recipe called waakye, awaakey, waatchi or ayimolu.
What is waakye?
Waakye is a dish with rice and red beans (or black-eyed peas) cooked in an infusion of millet leaves. Those millet leaves bear the name of dish, i.e. waakye.
Waakye (pronounced waachay) is a Hausa word, which means beans. It is actually an abbreviated form of the full name shinkafa da wake which means “rice and beans”.
Waakye is one of the most popular street foods in Ghana. Many families prefer to stock up on waakye from a popular street vendor rather than cook it at home, most likely due to the long time it takes to prepare it with dry beans.
Waakye is very similar to the West Indian version of “rice and peas”. It is prepared using common methods but without any additional spices or herbs that are typically used in the West Indian version. The eating of rice and beans together is actually a common phenomenon in many cultures in the Americas, India and other West African countries.
How to make waakye
The dried millet leaves must first be boiled to bring out the rich burgundy color associated with waakye. Then you have to take the time to soak the beans and cook them before finally cooking the rice with the waakye leaves and its water.
Waakye is often boiled with an effervescent additive that is known as kanwa (also called kaun, akaun or ikaun). It is a type of naturally occurring sodium based salt, also known as potash in English. Potash is actually a generic name for minerals or inorganic compounds that contain potassium. It is made from the ashes of burnt wood in an iron pot. The name is actually derived from the process (“pot” and “ash”). Kaun helps soften the beans, so you do not have to soak them overnight.
Waakye can also be prepared with dried sorghum leaves. Sorghum is a close cousin of millet. It is a cereal and forage grass called “great millet” or “Indian millet”.
In Ghana, waakye is widely recognized as the breakfast and lunch of choice for people who do not want to spend too much money on a filling meal.
There are, however, what might be called high-end waakye vendors who sell at higher price, depending on location, taste, brand or quality of ingredients. These high-end suppliers usually have long lines. In Ghana, waakye can be the “food of the poor” or a symbol of prestige, depending on where you buy it.
What is the origin of waakye?
Originally, waakye was served in large leaves of a tropical flowering plant of the species thaumatococcus danielli, native to the tropical forests of Ghana and surrounding African countries. This thaumatococcus danielli, colloquially known as katemfe or “miraculous fruit”, is a tropical flowering plant of the family Marantaceae. It is present from the tropical forests of Sierra Leone to Nigeria and to the Congo Basin.
In the 1990s, the introduction of polyethylene for food packaging in Ghana almost completely eliminated the use of these leaves. In 2010, two decades later, katemfe made a strong come back because of the danger to health of putting hot foods in a polyethylene container. That said, these katemfe leaves not only add flavor to the food, but science has proven that katemfe also has some health benefits.
There are many ways to eat waakye. A typical waakye dish consists of kelewele, a spicy plantain fry, wele, smoked and dried cowhide, spaghetti-like pasta called talia, moist garri (also called attieke, typically made of cassava), shitor (hot pepper sauce), boiled eggs and fried chicken or fried fish.
But waakye can also be used as an accompaniment to various dishes with chicken, lamb or fish.
- 1 cup long grain rice
- 2 (14 oz) cans red beans (or black-eyed peas)
- A dozen leaves of dried millet (waakye)
Put the dried leaves of millets in 1 quart of boiling water for 15 minutes until the water is well colored. Remove the waakye leaves and stir.
Rinse the rice in water a couple times.
In a pot, pour 2 cans of beans (without the water) and the rice.
Pour the colored water on the rice and beans. Add water if necessary.
Cover and cook for 15 minutes or until the rice is cooked and has absorbed all the water. Season with salt.