Waakye Is the Meanest Street Food Alive
Whether you savor it over banana leaves in a chop bar in Accra or at home in your own kitchen, waakye is an infinitely layered feast.
Bad boy, bad boy, Waakye gonna do? Well, if you're a street vendor in Accra, you're gonna get up at 2 a.m. and start making your shito and waakye (pronounced "WAH-chay") for the bustling queue of commuters lining up for their five-course breakfast.
What is Waakye?
Waakye truly is, in my opinion, the meanest street food alive.
Waakye (also called awaakye) is more than one thing. First off, it's rice and beans. The word "waakye" is from the Hausa language, and is the contracted form of the full name "shinkafa da wake," which means rice and beans. This explanation is supported by origins of the dish being placed in Northern Ghana with the Hausa communities, whose staple crops are rice and beans. So waakye is simply "rice and beans." It's made with fragrant basmati rice or jasmine rice and beans (usually black-eyed peas or cow beans), cooked together with waakye leaves (sorghum leaves or stalks) that lend their pink-reddish brown hue to the rice. Oftentimes limestone or baking soda is added to bring out the subtle flavor of the leaves and deepen the coloring. The leaves are usually removed before serving, however I always retain the dramatic architecturally sharp edges of the stalks poking out for aesthetic reasons. Who said Scorpios were dramatic?!
Those rice and beans, however, won't mean anything to a Ghanaian without the Holy Grail of the waayke stew, which is their main accompaniment. Braised goat or mutton shoulder, simmered with a variety of spices and seasonings beloved in Ghana, including peppery grains of Selim, vibrant fresh ginger, and smoky crayfish powder. But that's not all. Waakye in its truest form is all those things plus a box of tricks-the full finished dish of rice and beans is glamorized with extras which vary from region to region, vendor to vendor depending on cultural preference. The "Tricks," a.k.a. the accompaniments, can include wele (cowhide stew), boiled chicken eggs, gari (finely grated and air dried cassava), shito (a traditional hot-pepper condiment made using smoked prawns and/or crayfish), raw vegetable salad, sliced avocado, tomato and white onion slices, spaghetti (called "talia" in Ghana), and/or dodo (ripe fried plantain).
If this sounds like an epic meal-it is! Imagine eating all that for breakfast at 6 a.m. on your way to work? An affordable feast, it is usually served in banana or plantain leaves at Chop Bars (roadside eateries) and restaurants. But for me, there is an added fervor and excitement when waakye is purchased in the less aesthetically and environmentally pleasing clear polyethylene bag from innumerable bustling street food vendors, at half the price and double the deliciousness. As a caterer who has spent 10 years in the street food and festival arena, I have always marveled at the street vendors for the stamina and ambition of this food service.
The more widely known and lauded jollof rice is still viewed as a laborious preparation, hence its special-occasion status as a celebratory rice dish for Sundays, weddings, and parties (though that narrative is changing as easier shortcuts for preparation are popularized and Western franchises such as Pizza Hut, KFC and Burger King add jollof to their menus to woo the new burgeoning middle classes of Ghana's growing urban populations).
Waakye, on the other hand, can be eaten at any time of the day, either for breakfast, lunch, or dinner. My family and I can attest that it is undoubtedly one of Ghana's favorite breakfast foods. My Uncle Francis would dash across the red dusty road at dawn with the cock crowing a fanfare to hustle for his breakfast waakye. Excuse me, his "pre-breakfast." I endured up to three breakfasts before 9 a.m. at my grandmother's house in Kaneshie, by which time it was too hot and I was too fat to move.
Once a delicacy peculiar to the Northern regions, Waakye has become, contrary to popular Western belief, much more of a national treasure and every day staple in Ghanaian homes than jollof despite the hype jollof gets. The dish has certainly captured the imaginations of all Ghanaians with a high visibility in street food from Kumasi to Accra and Cape Coast. Cultures across the country are adopting and adapting the dish with a range of accompaniments. Some prefer more beans to rice, while others love more protein and spicier shito, so each dish of waakye has its own unique characteristics, thanks to the many different accompaniments it's served with. The combinations are simply endless. You can get a "simple" waakye with spaghetti or you can go large by adding a boiled egg, meat, and/or fish, finished with shito and stew.
On my last trip to Accra, in 2018, I lamented the absence of a contemporary waakye bar in the midst of so many new Western food offerings in town. I still have this latent desire to open my own waayke bar in New York, however my friend Jay Agebei has taken up the mantle and you should definitely go visit Anandwo Waakye next time you're in Accra for a beautiful waayke experience.
It shouldn't surprise anyone that variations of waayke came about due to the Trans-Atlantic slave trade. Like an "authentic" waakye, Trinidadian rice and peas are made with black-eyed peas or cowpeas. Jamaican rice and peas (actually kidney beans) simmered with thyme, Scotch Bonnet, onions, and coconut milk, could be considered their version of waakye, while Guyana has "cook-up rice" also made with rice and beans, mixed with the protein and fresh herbs and spices. Cameroonians, however, prefer to prepare the rice and beans separately, before mixing and garnishing it with vegetables and stews. "O arroz com feijão" or "the foundation" is the Brazilian version of the dish-the rice and beans are a staple served with meats and vegetables.
Check out my recipe for Waayke to give yourself a feast for the senses. Whack on my playlist below to transport you to Ghana, turn up the heat in your kitchen, and meditate on the ritual and history of waakye and how our West African ancestors have shaped cuisines across the world.