I’ve wanted to make a dish from West Africa for awhile now, but I admit I’ve been a little intimidated. I’ve tackled some recipes from East Africa and Southern Africa, but West Africa, not yet. Perhaps the reason is that I’m simply less experienced in eating and cooking food for this part of the world, and I really want to represent these recipes as best I can. Luckily I had some great teachers as you’ll see later in the post.
Today I’m learning to make red red, which is a black-eyed pea tomato stew, in my new Instant Pot. A few years ago I spent a week in Ghana and my favorite food that I ate there was red red with fried plantains. As a vegetarian, I remember asking if there was meat in it, and they said no, it was a bean dish – but failed to mention that it came with a side of chicken! Oops!
I remember visiting Labadi Beach in Accra, a vast coast packed with small restaurants where you could have a some snacks and enjoy a beer right next to the ocean, feet in the sand, comfortable with an umbrella over your head. Just thinking about it makes me miss traveling! I really hope I have the opportunity to return someday and explore Ghana more.
I love this dish because:
- Stovetop versions can take over an hour, but with the Instant Pot you can cook it from dried beans to finish in under 30 minutes, and it yields a lot of food
- Most of the ingredients can be found easily in the United States, or substituted with common products
- It’s hearty, packed with protein from the beans, and full of flavor
- It’s vegan and delicious!
There is so much to learn about Ghanian cuisine, but for today we’ll focus on red red. I looked up many recipes for this dish, and there was a lot of consensus about the key ingredients:
- Black-eyed peas – called cowpeas in Ghana, these are the bean of choice for this dish. I strongly recommend cooking the beans from scratch especially if you have an Instant Pot. They are so much creamier this way! Soak them overnight, or at least for a few hours, before starting to cook. And if you forget, you can always adjust the cook time and add them dry.
- Red palm oil – This oil, which comes from the red fruit of the oil palm tree, is unrefined, reddish in color due to a high level of beta-carotenes, and has a smoky scent*. You may find it at an African grocery or online. In NYC I found the oil, the black-eyed peas, and the Scotch bonnet peppers at Keita West African Market in Bushwick. Substitute with vegetable oil if you cannot find it, but your dish will be missing that something extra that distinguishes Ghanian food.
- Tomatoes – The dish is called red red for a reason, the red palm oil and the tomatoes. I like to use different tomato products in the dish – fresh, tomato sauce, tomato paste, or even canned tomatoes. Look for what you have on hand and don’t be afraid to mix and match.
- Onion, ginger, and hot chili peppers – These are the core flavors of many Ghanian dishes. The hot pepper used most commonly is the Scotch bonnet, similar in spice level to the Habanero pepper (which turns out to be a convenient substitute if you can’t find Scotch bonnets). This is what adds the heat to your dish, so adjust to your preferences. You’ll likely find Scotch bonnets at a Caribbean or African grocery.
- Dried crayfish – Many recipes include this addition, but since I’m a vegetarian I added a bouillon cube instead.
- Plantains – Red red is most commonly served with fried sweet plantains. If you can’t find plantains, or if you have a plantain failure like I did, you can eat it with rice, though not traditional.
*Red palm oil is not to be confused with the palm oil you see most often in the United States, which is technically palm kernel oil. Palm kernel oil is more refined, has a higher saturated fat content, and comes from the kernel of the same plant. It is clear in color and is used widely in packaged food and beauty products – some estimates say that 50% of packaged products in American grocery stores contain palm kernel oil. Because of the high demand, the oil palm tree, native to West Africa, was exported to Southeast Asia where mass cultivation to meet high consumer demands has contributed to the deforestation of forests and destruction of habitat for orangutans.
There are some people who have suggested that West Africans should stop using red palm oil in their cooking due to the sustainability issues mentioned above. So wait…a product indigenous to West Africa, cultivated by small-scale farmers there and featured prominently in their cuisine, has been exported to other parts of the world by multinational corporations to use in a different way for profit, destroying forests in Asia, and people have the audacity to say that the West Africans are the ones who should change their habits? Yeah, no. Rant over, but for more on this topic, read this post by the Canadian African or this post by Nigerian chef Yewande Komolafe. I purchased my red palm oil from Keita West African Market by the brand Praise, a 100% Ghanian-owned company.
Instant Pot Red Red (Ghanian Black-Eyed Pea Stew)
30 minutes, serves 4
- 1 1/4 cup dried black-eyed peas (7 ounces) or one 14-ounce can of cooked black-eyed peas
- 5 tablespoons red palm oil
- 1 red onion, diced
- 1 1/2 tablespoons fresh ginger, peeled and minced
- 1 Scotch Bonnet pepper or Habanero pepper, minced
- 1 vegetable bouillon cube
- 1/2 teaspoon curry powder (I used my homemade recipe)
- 1/2 teaspoon chili powder (I used my homemade recipe)
- 2 large tomatoes, chopped
- 8 ounces (1 small can) tomato sauce
- 1 tablespoon tomato paste
- ripe plantains, for serving
Soak the dried black-eyed peas for a few hours or overnight. Chop everything before you get started.
Heat oil in the Instant Pot by turning it sauté function and selecting 7 minutes. Add the diced red onion and cook until translucent, approximately 3-5 minutes.
Then add the fresh ginger, hot pepper, bouillon cube, curry powder, and chili powder. Cook for another minute or two until everything is mixed together. If everything starts to stick to the pan, add a small amount of the tomato sauce.
Add the chopped tomatoes, tomato sauce, and tomato paste. One great thing about this recipe is that you could adapt it by adding whatever tomato-based products you have on hand – pasta sauce, a can of diced tomatoes, fresh, it’s up to you! Stir well to combine.
Add the dried black-eyed peas and stir to mix well with the tomato mixture. Close the Instant Pot and pressure cook for 17 minutes on high. Release the steam.
Ideally serve with sweet fried plantains (see a version popular in Latin America here). Unfortunately, my two-week-old plantain in the photos was a dud, failing to ripen. Even after sitting for two weeks in my kitchen it was still green and very difficult to peel. As a second choice, serve it with rice which is what I did today – less traditional, but still delicious.