Out of Ghana, Into Barbecue Dining and dashing around D.C.—pages from a food critic's notebook

Ivy Nornoo keeps the home fires burning at Pinks.
Darrow Montgomery

Ivy Nornoo, one of the chefs at Pinks Cafe Afrikiko, wants to know what accompaniment I’d like with my peanut butter soup. When I say that I’m interested in the banku, she tells me that the corn-flour dough, naturally fermented for three days, tastes incredibly sour. As she speaks, she makes a worried, almost alarmed face, the kind rarely seen from restaurant cooks, let alone an owner trying to woo a new customer.

“But it’s good, right?” I ask, taking on the disquieting job of pitchman. She agrees, and I settle on the banku.

The dish arrives in two parts, the soup in its bowl and the banku sitting like a leaden lump on a separate plate. Nornoo explains that I need to dump chunks of the dense dough into the soup and dig into the concoction with a spoon. I do as directed and quickly discover the foreign familiarity of Ghanaian cooking. The individual ingredients taste so familiar—the heat of the pepper in the soup, the nuttiness of the peanut butter, the sourness of the banku (as if it were undercooked sourdough), the tartness of the tomato—and yet when combined into one bowl, they collectively taste so utterly foreign. Flavors, textures, and temperatures simultaneously clash and coalesce—Ghana’s own fractious, post-colonial history in each spoonful.

The year-old Pinks, which grew out of a Ghanaian eatery named Jackie’s, is just the latest ethnic-food destination hidden away in our seemingly sleepy suburbs. Pinks, though, isn’t located in Wheaton or Falls Church or the other predictable locales for such eats; it’s tucked into a cramped strip center in Germantown, a community that, one day, may rival those other ’burbs for a taste of the exotic.

Aside from Pinks, Germantown is also home to the respected EN Asian Bistro & Sushi Bar, Lotte Plaza (the massive Asian market where I gobbled down slices of a sweet, savory Korean pastry with layers of red bean paste, cream, and cookie crumbles) Caspian House of Kabob, and Russian Gourmet (where the butcher let me sample one Russian-style meat after another). And yet Pinks stands apart from them all. Almost without trying, the joint strikes a strong nationalistic tone, even amid the Starving Artist paintings on the wall and the TV blaring American sitcoms. In my two visits to the place, I was the lone patron with obvious Euro-weenie ancestors. At one point, as I slurped down my soup, another diner turned and asked me if I had been in the Peace Corps.

This is clearly not the Ghana Cafe in Adams Morgan, where African culture is just one more excuse to get your drink on. This is homestyle cooking imported directly from Ghana—and catering almost exclusively to Ghanaian transplants. In a way, Pinks is just an extended home kitchen. As fellow Pinks chef Abraham K. Agyekum explains it, Ghanaian cooks like him learn their craft at the foot of the family stove, which helps me to understand why no one else ever tends the pots here. There is a recipe, “but it’s here,” Agyekum says, pointing to his head.

Several labor-intensive dishes—the garden egg stew, for example—require advance notice; such a policy is a hard reality for places like Pinks, where Nornoo or Agyekum could easily find themselves in the weeds other­wise. But many other items can be ordered on the spot, including four fiery chicken legs slathered in a thick, tomato-based curry sauce or a bowl of molten egusi stew in which about a ton of chopped spinach is cooked down in palm oil and tomato sauce and mixed with cayenne and sprinkles of ground African melon seeds (the egusi). My wife, Carrie, and I ordered the chicken with a side of rice and the egusi with a bloated throbbing mass of fermented cassava flour.

If these dishes sound too exotic, take heart. Pinks—which, incidentally, is an acronym pieced together from the first names of each owner—also serves up beef patties, plantains, grilled meats, curries, and other dishes that are staples of Caribbean cuisine. In a way, the menu is a reminder that Ghana, or the piece of land that eventually became Ghana, once funneled millions of slaves to the New World through its ports.

Perhaps this isn’t fair to say, but Pinks feels too much like a modern variation on a very old theme: Ghanaians huddling together to savor a taste of home without the presence of whitey around. Nothing wrong with that, of course, but it’d be great to see more whites and blacks breaking bread together—or at least scooping up banku together.

Carolina on My Mind

North Carolinians continue to take pity on me—not unlike those who get distressed watching canines indulge their taste for coprophagy—when I confess my bias toward Texas barbecue. I’ve been willing to suffer their condescension for two principal reasons: 1) I’ve yet to explore North Carolina’s best barbecue houses, and 2) It’s hard to judge a regional barbecue by the purveyors outside its home base.

So now I’m on a mission. Much like my earlier quest to find decent Texas brisket, which ended quite satisfactorily at Texas Ribs and BBQ in Clinton (Young & Hungry, “Smoke of Genius,” 5/11), I want to locate a passable version of a North Carolina pulled pork sandwich, one that would help me understand all the fuss. I thought I found one right off the bat at Johnny Mac’s Rib Shack on Route 1, north of Fort Belvoir. The joint gives off all the right vibes: It’s a drive-up stand, miles from the big city, with picnic tables outside, wood stacked in the back, and an obstinately dated roadside feel that all but screams greasy, old-school, hickory-smoked, oil-drum cooking.

As it turns out, Johnny Mac’s doesn’t have an outdoor smoker. It cooks its pork in a gas-powered Southern Pride oven that relies on soaked wood chunks for smoky flavor. I nearly walked out when I saw the contraption, knowing it could never produce real barbecue, but I thought: What the hell. I’m already here. I ordered the small pork sandwich ($3.50) and sat on a picnic table to consider it.

The first thing I noticed was the sickly tan hue of the pulled and finely chopped meat, a color I always find slightly unappetizing when compared to the glistening, charred briskets that emerge from Texas pits. The meat appeared to be studded with mustard seeds, which would place the sandwich’s heart closer to South Carolina than to Tar Heel country. But still, the pork had the unmistakable bite of vinegar, which the sweet, creamy coleslaw helped to cut. The sammy even felt good on my tongue, and, if I concentrated really, really hard, I could detect a whiff of smoke.

But my initial knee-jerk impression turned out to be accurate—the pulled pork at Johnny Mac’s is the kind of mediocre sandwich found everywhere in these parts, surely not the kind to compare to North Carolina’s finest. If I didn’t listen to my instincts, I should have heeded the advice of a middle-aged gent ordering ice cream at the counter. When I asked him where he gets real North Carolina ’cue, he said, without hesitation, Dixie Bones in Woodbridge. Guess where my barbecue hunt will take me next?

Pinks Cafe Afrikio, 11524 Middlebrook Road, Gaithersburg, (301) 515-7230.

Johnny Mac's Rib Shack, 8526 Richmond Highway, Alexandria, (703) 360-2200.

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