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GREAT HOME COOKS : CHEZ ROCKY: It Smells Like Sunday : Whenever Ghanaian reggae singer Rocky Dawuni cooks, it's like Sunday afternoon in Koforidua.

March 02, 1995|LINDA BURUM

At home in his West Los Angeles apartment kitchen, reggae singer-composer Rocky Dawuni slowly inhales the steam from a pot of Ghanaian-style baby eggplant soup. He lets the pepper-spiced aroma linger at the back of his throat. "It smells like Sunday in my Koforidua neighborhood," he says with an exhale that reveals his nostalgia.

As Dawuni talks about Ghana's food, I get a vivid picture of eating in his small West African nation. In Accra, its capital, he says, you simply have to go to the bus stations or traffic circles, or up Kojo Thompson Road leading to Makola Market, the city's main outdoor shopping scene. There, amid the swarm of tro-tros (minibuses) whizzing by and shouts of the drivers calling out their stops, vendors sell food.

There are plenty of customers, Dawuni tells me. To supplement their customary two meals a day, Ghanaians snack all day long, and the snacks are nutritious. There is always kelewele , an elaborate concoction of sweet plantain chunks coated with ground fresh peppers and ginger, then fried. With this you always get a tiny bag of groundnuts (peanuts) that the vendor has freshly roasted at home. Other sellers, mostly women, hawk deep-fried yellow yams, bean fritters or corn on the cob, which is dipped in a salty brine before it is handed over to the customer. Smoke from portable kitchens rises above the traffic in a blue haze.

Fast food is everywhere, but it's not always the multinational chain-store variety. Around the city, local specialists peddle their wares: Kenke , a tamale-like bar of ground corn wrapped in corn husks, gets a salsa-style garnish of ground fresh chiles and onions or of shito , a searingly hot blend of chile, ground dried fish and condiments cooked down to a thick, sambal -like sauce. A favorite side dish for kenke is a fried turkey wing or turkey tail.

Every neighborhood has its bean stands, where rich, soupy black-eyed peas are sold wrapped up in banana leaves. As a topping you get fried sweet plantains, a sprinkling of toasty gari (roasted ground cassava) and a dribble of meaty-tasting palm-nut oil. Sometimes people, especially children, bring their own bowls to the stands. Everyone knows who makes the best beans. "There's always a long line at one particular bean stand at Zongo junction," Dawuni says.

A step up from the street-food sellers are fufu bars, the Ghanaian equivalent of a lunch counter or chili parlor. As a topping for your fufu-- a mashed potato-like dish of pounded yam or cassava root--you can choose from a selection of well-spiced stews and soups, just as Americans would choose pizza toppings or fillings for a submarine sandwich. You eat to the dull thud-thud of the fufu pounders in the background and you can usually see them at work at their huge mortars. Pounding the fufu takes practice: As one person pounds, another must turn the slightly sticky ball between strokes of the pestle.

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Chop bars, Dawuni explains, serve a broader selection of the starchy dishes that are always the center of a Ghanaian meal. You might choose white rice or ebba , which is gari cooked up like a thick mound of oatmeal, or banku , a ground, fermented maize dough that one could call the polenta of West Africa.

As always there are thick stews--called "chops" in the West African patois--to top the starches: groundnut chop boasts a fiery peanut butter gravy, palava sauce is a stew of leafy greens. You might find a thick soup based on okra, or one based on smoked fish and ground egusi , the nutty melon seeds used as a tasty thickener. Much of the selection depends on the whims of the cook and the ingredients of the season.

Dawuni, the former lead singer of the Ghanaian reggae group Local Crisis, has spent much of his adult life shuttling between Los Angeles and Accra. But in the small, quiet town where he grew up, he learned to cook by helping his mother prepare food for his seven brothers and sisters. Marketing was a daily ritual, and a mortar and pestle--the Cuisinart of Ghanaian cooking--was the basic tool of the kitchen. Like most cooks in Ghana, his mother used one kind of mortar to pound cassava root for fufu and another kind to grind hot chiles and onions for her pepper-laced stews and relishes.

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Here in Los Angeles, Dawuni often cooks Ghanaian dishes for his wife, Cary Sullivan, who is a vegetarian. The two met at the University of Ghana when she was on a UC Santa Cruz study exchange program there.

Occasionally Dawuni uses instant fufu mix from a local African market. It's not exactly like the fresh stuff, but, as he dryly notes, "You can't exactly pound yams in an apartment."

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