Freda Muyambo is the Ghanaian culinary expert on 196 flavors.
Freda grew up a third culture whizz kid in Botswana, influenced by her mom’s Ghanaian cooking and inventive ways of adapting to the local cuisine of Botswana. She went on to study electrical engineering and construction economics and management, first in Australia, then the United Kingdom. It was in London that she began to truly express herself through her cultural background by throwing many dinners at home in her burnt orange kitchen.
Freda went on to establish her blog, My Burnt Orange, in 2011 as a way to celebrate African culture through food. This led her to writing for various publications around the world including IAC Media (The Spruce Eats), The Guardian UK and Radiant Health magazine. Her growing reputation as a leading expert in African Cuisine lead her to being featured on CNN as one of the top African food bloggers to follow, as well as a live interview on the BBC.
Freda now resides in Nigeria with her young family, where she continues to grow her brand into a media and merchandising business. People can now enjoy her food and quirky creations in the bustling city of Lagos on a daily basis.
Can you tell us more about yourself?
I was born and raised in Botswana to Ghanaian parents and experienced first-hand how one has to be inventive with food. My mother, a woman from Ada (Dangme people) prepared traditional Ghanaian dishes for us, even though the required ingredients were not readily available in Botswana. She always improvised, and this is where I learned that food can really be a dynamic experience no matter where you go; it changes. My father, from the Ga tribe of Ghana, was a great fisherman, and ensured we had fish on our plates even though it was not a regularly eaten meat in Botswana at the time.
My studies and career have taken me to places as far as Melbourne, Australia, which is a culinary paradise when it comes to food exploration. But it wasn’t until I started having children after settling in London that the importance of cultural identity through food came to light. I learned that Chinese children were raised eating Chinese food, Indians, Indian food, Lebanese were eating Lebanese food and so on. So it made sense to me that a mother raising Pan African children should only instill the love and familiarity of eating a variety of African cuisine.
Tell us more about your knowledge and experience when it comes to African cuisine
My curiosity with food has seen me taking the opportunity to have cooking classes wherever I travel. In Thailand, I delved into Thai culinary arts at a hotel offering lessons in Thai cookery and in Portugal, I spent the day roaming markets and preparing local dishes at the Portuguese Country Cooking School in the Algarve. These experiences broaden my imagination when it comes to expressing the concept of African cuisine. And when I am on the continent, I jump right in to immerse myself in various African cuisines. I also pay close attention when visiting my mother in law in Zimbabwe, who is exceptionally knowledgeable in indigenous vegetables and foods. I have also learned a thing or two from my sister in law.
I am also widely travelled and research quite broadly across various African cuisines. All these experiences have developed a well-rounded knowledge base from which I write and share about African cuisine. In 2018 I contributed to my first book writing project, where I contributed the Africa chapter in Dorling Kindersley’s The Science of Spice. I have also spoken on panels during food festivals, notably at an event called “Discovering African Cuisine in the Digital Age” during London’s Food Tech Week. With all this knowledge and experience, I not only offer my expertise in Ghanaian cuisine, but in the broad topic of African Cuisine as well.
What makes Ghanaian cuisine unique? What sets it apart from other African cuisines?
Ghanaian cuisine, much like other West African cuisines, is characterized by the simple flavors brought together by mixing up ginger, chilies and garlic. In addition, specific West African flavors come from the ingredients used and how they are processed. The use of smoked or dried fish or crayfish, salted cured fish, palm oil, peanuts and ground melon seeds (agushi/egusi) are just a few ingredients that are used just as much for the flavors infused into every dish, than the ingredients themselves.
In addition, the processing of local foods results in the introduction of flavors with sour notes. Fermented foods such as banku, kenkey, Hausa koko and even gari are a good example of this. And we have an inkling that fermentation has been practiced for centuries, most likely starting with indigenous grains such as millet. Whilst gari is widespread across West Africa and some parts of Central Africa, banku and kenkey are ubiquitous with Ghanaian cuisine, with origins in the South Eastern region of Ghana, from the Ga-Adangme people, my people.
The history about how Ghanaian food came to be what it is today fascinates me. How corn and cassava, pepper and tomatoes are staples in every Ghanaian household, yet are not indigenous to West Africa, is proof that cuisines evolve over time, even African cuisine. I look forward to continuing my exploration in the history of Ghanaian cuisine.
What is your favorite Ghanaian recipe or the most unusual dish in the country?
My absolute favorite recipe is okro stew. It seems daunting to cook at first, but it is actually quite simple. Okro stew is almost always eaten with banku in Ghana, however it can be eaten with any kind of starchy dumpling you desire such as those made from maize (akple) or yam.
What other cuisines do you like or influence your cuisine?
I really like Thai food and other foods from the Asian Pacific region such as Malaysian food. Although I have never been to Malaysia, a visit to Singapore in 2004 opened up my senses to food from this region. I ate food from markets that reminded me of Ghanaian food in both presentation and flavors. Spicy sambals with shrimps inside, ikan bilis and belacan are all very pungent ingredients which enhance the flavor of foods, very much like the way we do so in Ghana.
I find Portuguese food very interesting as well, mostly because of their presence in West Africa since the fifteenth century and their introduction of ingredients that became staples. At times I wonder how much Portuguese culture has influenced West African cuisine, and vice versa.
What places would you recommend during a visit to Ghana?
Accra is definitely the first point of contact in Ghana and it has a lot to offer in terms of food and entertainment. However if you are adventurous and wish to trek off the beaten path then visiting my mother’s home village in Ada, just an hour and a half drive out of Accra, is an experience to be had. You will see a combination of untouched village life, with mud huts, fishing canoes and goats all around. You will also get to see modern life, with settlers who have escaped the hustle and bustle of Ghana’s capital. In fact, Ada has now become a getaway area for many a city dweller, with the beautiful and historic estuary as a main tourist attraction and the development of the Aqua Safari resort, a busy hotel and popular party place right on the estuary.
Towards the West of Accra in the Central Southern coast of Ghana, you will find the historic Cape Coast and Elmina Castles respectively. Elmina Castle is the oldest existing European building South of the Sahara and in medieval times, the region was a center of trade of gold between the Fantes and Arabs, as well as Berbers. Cape Coast Castle was originally a trading post but later became a holding place for slaves during the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. Many other castles and forts can be found in this region and were used for similar purposes. Elmina Castle is recognized as a world heritage site by UNESCO.
Which Ghanaian chef is a reference for you? What are the main difficulties of Ghanaian cuisine?
It is difficult to describe Ghanaian cuisine from a chef’s perspective however this may change in the next 5 to 10 years. The art of passing down secrets of food preparation has been dominated by women; with mothers passing down recipes do daughters. Much of these recipes have not been documented well over the years, but with the digital age, this is changing. Most of my reference material comes from people like me, cooks who primarily prepare food for the home, but now spread the knowledge of such food to the masses.
I mostly rely on my mother, Victoria Palm, as a source of inspiration, education and reference when it comes to traditional Ghanaian food. She speaks over 7 Ghanaian languages, educated many in the area of food and nutrition for years and has a broad knowledge of the foods of different Ghanaian ethnic groups. I also refer to the likes of Fran Osseo-Asare and Barbara Baeta, who have artfully and in the most articulate way, dedicated much research spanning over 20 years to the promotion of Ghanaian cuisine.
The main difficulty of Ghanaian cuisine, much like other African cuisines, is the lack of documentation of food and history over the years. What I find most difficult to navigate is the language that may be used in describing certain foods. Sometimes, there are no English words to describe a dish or an ingredient.
What would you suggest if you had to prepare a Ghanaian menu: starter, main course, dessert?
For some reason I always gravitate towards making kose (akara) with a side of sweet and sour pepper sauce. This is not traditional, but its modern twist makes it more presentable. I also like the idea of making kelewele or something with crispy okra on top of smoked mackerel or pork.
What is Ghanaian food without Ghana jollof rice? I don’t mind serving this, but to make a truly special Ghanaian main I would have to serve something unmistakably Ghanaian. An okro stew with pizzazz, made with seafood and topped with lobster tails. Served alongside banku. It wouldn’t be Ghanaian without the banku. Plating it may be difficult, but it always looks impressive served in a big casserole dish with low sides.
Desserts are not typically Ghanaian so I would have to improvise with a crème brulée topped with shards of delicate peanut brittle (nkatie cake), or a panna cotta infused with hibiscus sepal syrup. Perhaps even a millet Hausa koko, solidified with gelatin or a vegetarian counterpart, topped with a layer of condensed milk and cashew cream might be taking it to the adventurous side, but I am willing to try any of these.
As a start I would make a hibiscus infused sobolo fleur royale cocktail with hibiscus syrup, pomegranate juice and prosecco.
A white wine with fruity notes should go nicely with the main course, or stick to palm wine.
A finishing drink I would create a cocktail out of tigernut milk and some sort of liqueur such as Amarula or Baileys.