Day 22: Ghana
Sometimes you can read about a restaurant and know it’s going to be good. Sometimes a place sounds interesting and ends up being disappointing. But every once in a while you have nothing to go on and somehow, miraculously, it all turns out better than you could possibly have imagined. Nana & Naa International Enterprise in Inglewood, CA. Discovering this place is a story all its own. It begins, yet again, with food super blogger Tannaz, who managed to send an e-mail to a friend which got forwarded to a person that had at one point lived in Ghana. That person sent an e-mail back saying “Word on the street is that the best Ghanaian food in town is at Nana and Naa’s in inglewood.” With only that to go on, I checked every online publication, food blog and message board I could find. Nothing. The closest thing I could come up with was the name, address and phone number for “Nana & Naa International Enterprise” in Inglewood. There was nothing written anywhere saying that it was even a restaurant. So I called.
“Hi. Is this Nana & Naa?”
“Do you serve Ghana…Ghanaia…um…do you serve the food of Ghana?”
“We have a restaurant, yes.”
Asking when they were open didn’t seem to lead to much, but I got the impression they served both lunch and dinner. I planned on going last week, but when I called the restaurant, no one answered. This week I tried again. They open at eleven. So my good friend Mr. Joshua, who has said “I want the first food thing I go on to be totally weird and unknown. I hope we get kidnapped and held hostage” will obviously be joining me here. I have a flirting knowledge of Ghanaian food due to some research, but in reality, I have absolutely no clue what’s going to happen when we show up at this place. We have no idea what it’s going to look like, what the people will be like or what will be on the menu. Even getting dressed in the morning I wondered if shorts would be too informal for a lunch at this place, but figured I would be okay.
Mr. Joshua and I arrive in the desolate parking lot in front of the restaurant. Is this a strip mall? I really don’t have a clue. There is a sign out front advertising to bring in your own fish and they’ll fry it, writing on the windows advertising kenkey and shitoo, plus something else which is hidden behind a clothing and shoes bin. Once inside, it looks like it is exclusively a market and I’m getting nervous that they don’t serve food here. Then I notice the confident, relaxed woman who I can only assume is from Ghana, eating a plate of food with her bare feet plopped up on the table. Two other women step in from the back. They look at Mr. Joshua and I, two very white men in their mid-20s standing in t-shirts, shorts and sandals, and I have to think that they have no idea what we’re doing here.
“Hi,” I say. “Do you guys have a restaurant?”
“We serve African food,” one of them responds.
“From Ghana, right?” Now they’re a little interested.
“Have you been to Ghana?”
“No. But I want to try it. I hear that for food from Ghana, you guys are the best.”
“What do you eat?”
“We might have something on the stove,” she says.
“We’re not in a hurry. We trust you. Whatever food you like, we want to try it.”
She thinks for a moment. “Do you like spicy?”
“We love spicy.”
All of a sudden, the three of them get wide grins on their faces. We had stumbled into the secret password. “Okay. Go ahead and sit down. Tables are through there.”
She points toward the kitchen. We’re confused for a moment before we realize that we have to walk through the kitchen and into the back. As I pass through, I see big bubbling pots of ingredients and am hit by an unfamiliar spiced smell that grabs my nose aggressively at first, then caresses it into submission. The back of the restaurant is an outdoor seating area of plastic chairs and plastic tables covered by a big tent. I am officially surprised. We head back into the market to choose some beverages and settle on Malta, young coconut juice and a Jamaican ginger beer. Before we sit back down, I talk to one of the women again and explain very briefly what I’m doing. But the real reason I’m doing it is to ask her if it’s all right for me to take some pictures. They all happily agree. Once again, a visible enthusiasm for food and an open mind are all it takes to break down some social differences and get everybody on the same page. Mr. Joshua and I sit back down and I mutter “I can’t believe this is Los Angeles.” Where are we? What is this place? How can this be? How has nobody heard of this?
They’re making the food from scratch and it occurs to me that this isn’t really a restaurant. This is a market that happens to have a kitchen and if somebody wants to eat, they can probably accommodate the request. Now the food arrives. A thick green soup dotted with seeds and large crispy pieces of fried fish nestled inside, served with a big white ball wrapped in plastic in a bowl on the side. She starts to leave and I ask her what this dish is called. “Okra stew with banku.” We unwrap the steaming hot ball of banku (fermented corn and cassava dough), burning our hands as we tear off a small piece, pressing the sticky, grainy, doughy substance between our fingers, dip it in the thick, viscous stew and then suck the entire glob into our mouths. Our bodies melt. I’ve never tasted anything like it and I’m unbelievably happy to be able to do it at this moment. The food is wonderful.
I try the banku by itself and the closest comparison I can find is to eating raw sourdough. It’s sour, heavy, starchy and flavorful all on its own. Then there’s the okra stew. It has a totally independent taste of chillies, onions, okra and any number of spices I can’t pick out. But remarkably, it does not taste of fish. I grab a crispy chunk of mystery white fish and sink my teeth through the crackling skin as hot, savory oils bubble out of the pores. It’s astounding. Once again it has flavors completely independent of every other component of the meal. Each stands up on its own but reaches ethereal levels when combined with the others. But the big miracle is that it isn’t just the flavors that keep their integrity, it’s the textures as well. How long can you put fried fish in a soup and expect it to keep its texture? What about bread? But this soup is so thick and so gooey that it can’t absorb or be absorbed by anything else. It will coat, stain or consume— but never absorb. Every component keeps every aspect of what it is. The flavors don’t combine, they layer.
The other thing to note about this food is how filling it is due to the sheer density of each part. We’re about halfway through the food and it’s like a soft rock has curled up into my stomach. Mr. Joshua goes to the bathroom and notices that the three women are all sitting inside the building eating the food as well. It makes perfect sense, but somehow makes me incredibly pleased anyway. Mr. Joshua also points out that we’re probably eating it wrong. Inside, they have plopped the entire ball of banku into the stew and are tearing it apart with their fingers, but using just one hand. It becomes a big bowl with everything combined together and even though I’m stuffed, I have to give it a try. I make a mess. It becomes slippery, difficult to handle and I’m even using two hands like I’m a kid again trying chopsticks for the first time.
We head inside and prepare to pay the bill. We tell them how much we absolutely love the place and can’t wait to tell people to come here. She just smiles, checks the prices on our three beverages, then punches them all into the cash register. “Eighteen dollars” she says. “Each?” Mr. Joshua asks. She just laughs. Of course not. We pay our bill and she gives us their business card, which reads: “Nana & Naa Int. Ent. Yams, Smoked Fish, Stockfish, Goat Meat, Kenkey, Blacksoap, African Clothing, African Arts, Cosmetics, Phone Cards, Videos, Audios, etc.” Before we leave one of the women says “Be careful driving home. In Ghana we eat and then we take a nap.” I love this place.
Driving back, Mr. Joshua and I wonder how much the food would have had to cost for us to be annoyed. Mr. Joshua says “Even if it was twenty five dollars each, I would have been surprised, but said, you know what? The fish was fresh, the experience was awesome, whatever. It was great.” The most remarkable thing to me about the entire day is that things like this still happen. In a time when people can get a laundry list of opinions for any restaurant— in a city that boasts thousands upon thousands of them— how does this happen? How is there a place like this? How are there three lovely women sitting in a market who are willing to make you a delicious meal unlike any you can get in Los Angeles, and all you have to do is show up and ask? I feel absolutely lucky to have visited this place and really, with all honesty, want everyone who loves food to give it a try. How can you not? It’s unique, flavorful, heart warming and only nine miles from Culver City. I’m so glad that I live in a place as diverse as Los Angeles and where something like this can still happen. Who knew?
Nana & Naa International Enterprise
4248 W. Century Blvd.
Inglewood, CA 90304
Food Breakdown: 3 non-alcoholic beverages, 2 meals
Distance From My House: 8.9 miles