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Charles Cann: Ghanaian Food Gets a New Twist

  • Cecily Hilleary

Ghanaian cookbook author, Charles Cann

Ghanaian cookbook author, Charles Cann

Ghanaian cookbook author updates traditional Ghanaian dishes

Charles A. Cann has been cooking as long as he can remember. “I grew up with my Auntie, who is a professional caterer in Ghana,” he says. “So throughout my childhood, I was helping her in the kitchen to prepare dishes for weddings, prepare wedding cakes, prepare buffets for parties, and special occasions.”

At first, he admits, he was a reluctant student. “When I was growing up and I was a kid and couldn’t go out and play with my friends and I was always in the kitchen—I wouldn’t say I really enjoyed it back then, but after awhile I came to accept that that was who I am and that was part of my upbringing.”

As a student at Northwestern University in the U.S. city of Chicago, Cann became popular among friends for his cooking; eventually, he couldn’t keep up with their requests, so he began posting his recipes on the internet. That way, he decided, his friends could prepare Ghanaian dishes for themselves.

In 2007, Cann published his cookbook Tropical Ghana Delights, with the idea of donating proceeds to charity. He established the Tropical Ghana Spirit Fund, to help provide textbooks and supplies to needy students at Mount Mary’s Schools in Accra, Ghana.

Charles believes Ghanaian cuisine has a lot to offer Western palates. On the plus side, it is a healthy balance of vegetables, carbohydrates and proteins. However, Cann has always believed the recipes could be improved: For one thing, Ghanaian dishes are labor-intensive. “Sometimes,” Cann says, “if you are hungry, especially if you’re young, it can be difficult to wait for your favorite dish or food.”

Tropical Ghana Delights, says Cann, offers advice for reducing the preparation and cooking times of many favorite Ghanian recipes. For example, Jollof Rice, is popular not just in Ghana, but throughout West Africa. It can take an hour, says Cann, to prepare the basic tomato, onion and spice mixture that gives the dish its basic flavor and color. The cook might duplicate that same mixture later in the week to prepare an okra stew. “What I recommend,” Cann says, “is to use leftovers from previous cooking sessions and carry them on to the next cooking session."

Cann also demonstrates how cooks can make their favorite dishes healthier and more visually appealing. For example, if a dish calls for green peppers, he urges the cook to add red, orange and yellow peppers as well. “You bring in a little excitement,” he laughs. “A little kick.”

Cann frequently departs from conventional Ghanaian recipes by adding unexpected elements. Normally in Ghana, fruits are reserved until after the meal. Cann, however, might add mango to shrimp or ginger and tangerine to grilled chicken. “Don’t squeeze lemon in your tea,” he advises. “Try honey and tangerine juice instead.”

Recently, Cann spent the several weeks in Ghana, researching what he calls Ghana’s forgotten food—that is, recipes and techniques that are all but forgotten to modern cooks. He has plans to adapt and preserve these in a second cookbook, which he will co-publish with his aunt--the woman who taught him to cook in the first place.