World Cup fans know that after the Brits, USA's Group C competition was supposed to be a relative breeze. Come on, these are countries we've never even heard of before! First we played Slovenia - a nation with a population comparable to some American high schools. That means roughly one in eight Slovenians suits up for the national Soccer team. Yet, somehow this team of men from somewhere within a 5,000 mile radius of Russia amassed a quick 2-0 lead on the U.S. before staving off a comeback to hold us to a tie.
Next up? The Algerians. As one of the larger countries in Europe Africa, I've at least heard of this place, but was shocked again when this nation of bleach-blonde faux-hawks held the USA to a scoreless tie (until, of course, that fated 91st minute.) Could it be that we were simply underestimating our foreign foes?
Having lived to play another day, I decided to avoid the traps of our early matches. With a looming match against a fiery Ghana club, I decided, in the name of patriotism, to slip behind enemy lines. Never again would we be blind-sided by our own ignorance of our opponents. This time we were certain to find out what made our opponents tick. Not only would we get inside these mysterious Ghanaian's heads, we'd also figure out what continent Ghana calls home.*
Our dutiful espionage brought us to the doors of Ghana Cafe where we left our vuvuzelas at home and slipped inside the small, darkened Logan Circle eatery to sample the local fare. Most of the dozen or so brightly colored tables were taken. Jeopardy played on the big-screen behind the bar. The two servers working the floor cooled off from the summer heat with an oscillating fan in the corner.
Noticing a selection of African beers, we asked our server which one was the best. He gave us his favorite two, but then told us that they were out of both. So that's how it's going to be, Ghana? Playing rough from the get-go? You may be a more formidable opponent than we first imagined. We settled for the Tusker, his favorite of the remaining choices. It was also the only remaining choice. The Kenyan brew was apparently named after the angry elephant that killed the brewery's founder.
The menu consisted of traditional Ghanaian cuisine (or so it claimed), which I'm led to believe is plantain heavy, with lots of stewed meats, curries and bold, heavy flavors. We ordered the Kelewele as an appetizer, a dish of Ghanaian-spiced, diced, fried soft plantains served with peanuts. While the dry-roasted peanuts may have been poured out of a Planters jar, they were tremendous teammates to the sweet fried plantains, which seemed to be conjuring childhood memories for Angela.
For her entree, Angela attempted to order the Yam and Cassava Fufu. The server kindly told her that if she'd never had Fufu before she wouldn't like it. I guess that's what the 'favorite amongst Ghanaians' blurb on the menu was getting at. Angela appreciated the insight and went for the Banku. Our server returned once again to give us the bad news on the Banku (essentially fermented balls of corn). Much like a phantom off-sides call from a Malian soccer official, the Banku was nowhere to be found.
But our server offered us the Kenkey- a very similar dish. Since the kitchen was also out of beef, Angela got her Kenkey with goat (below). The stewed meat was very tender and surprisingly not at all gamy. And the sauce? Well, Angela spent more than a few minutes trying to determine what it reminded her of - not quite like Indian food, not quite like South American food, not quite like Filipino food - but in those same flavor neighborhoods, with really strong spices. Angela liked the Kenkey, which had the texture of a firm polenta, though after a couple bites I was a little overwhelmed by its sharp fermented flavor.
I went with the Omo Tou served with chicken curry (below). The mashed rice ball it was served with had a very simple, plain taste, which made it a rather nice medium for the spicy, sweet sauce. As to be expected from any warmer climate cuisine, the flavors slapped you in the face with boldness and Angela and I reveled in the abuse. The entrees were accompanied by a glass jar of shito, a very spicy pepper paste traditional in Ghanian cuisine. Angela loved it and mixed heaps of it into her goat stew. While not as hot as the bhut jolokia curry we had the other day, the shito had quite a nice little kick (in soccer lingo, we'd say it has a nice 'strike').
Assuming dessert wouldn't be the restaurant's strong suit, we nearly passed. But we were talked into the African Donuts. Served over what I believe was a simple pineapple puree, the donuts tasted a bit like fried funnel cake, if only with a slightly heavier consistency (as if they were the whole wheat version). I was caught off guard by how good these donuts could be. Was this a sign of things to come? Could these Ghanaians catch Team USA off guard?
After having done our homework, I'm still confident in a USA victory over the last remaining African representative. Our server had something we Americans just couldn't handle, but was too nice not to blind-side us with it. That kind of attitude might win us over as patrons, but it won't win you many soccer games. Final prediction? USA 2-1. And who knew spy work could be so tasty?
*Angela's note: Um, just wanted to make it clear that Mark is joking about his ignorance (although he does still think that I'm either Korean or Chinese). In reality, I can name every country in the world and show you exactly where it is. It's all part of my constant Trivial Pursuit training.