All You Need to Know About Waakye

Waakye (Ghanaian Rice and Peas). Image copyright ClearShotStudios

If you have ever wondered about the connection between West African and Caribbean cuisine, I would recommend you look no further than the rice dish, waakye (pronounced waa-che!) This is similar to Jamaican rice and peas or cook up rice from Guyana, in fact, these dishes were derived from waakye, possibly after the transatlantic slave trade. It gives an idea of how authentic this dish is in African cuisine, however with the arrival of the Portuguese to West Africa between 1400 and 1600, it is still questionable whether authentic waakye is really an adulterated version of a purer form of the West African dish.

 In the Caribbean version of rice and peas, thyme, scotch bonnet pepper, onions and coconut milk are incorporated into the dish. These two dishes appear almost exactly the same except for the distinctively deep reddish brown hue which is characteristic of waakye. 

Mystery Behind the Red Color

I used to think this hue was achieved by cooking the rice with red kidney beans, but this is not the case. A traditional waakye, much like rice and peas, is almost always made with black-eyed peas or cowpeas. I was initially skeptical about this fact. I used to question the use of black eyed peas because they are mostly the whitish variety if you look at the color. If this is so, then where does the red come from? Of course one could assume that once the beans are cooked, then the hilum (that prominent black spot) should automatically give off some color, however, this would only result in a creamy tan or pale brown hue.

The answer is that waakye is traditionally boiled with dried red sorghum leaves and an effervescent additive known as kanwa, a type of naturally occurring sodium based salt. Some people refer to the leaves as millet leaves or simply waakye leaves, therefore I cannot be 100% sure about what the leaves actually are.

If in doubt, just ask for waakye leaves when you are looking for them at your local West African food market.

However. if you do not have the leaves, this should not stop you from cooking waakye and achieving that distinctive color. In fact, the kanwa mentioned previously has the chemical make up of sodium bicarbonate. It is, therefore, no wonder that when we add 1/2 to 1 teaspoon of bicarbonate of soda (baking soda) to the beans prior to adding the rice, we achieve that same reddish colour. Some people will also attest to the flavor that the baking soda gives to the dish.

Presentation and Side Dishes

To fully appreciate the fullness of flavor of waakye, it is important to get acquainted with the accompaniments normally served with waakye. As a popular street food, it is served traditionally in a banana leaf with weley (cow skin) stew, boiled eggs, shito and taalia (spaghetti). The best tasting waakye you will ever eat can only be bought on the streets of Ghana.