After all, to chop is to cut into little pieces, whereas a bar is among others a drinking place.
How do you juxtapose the two words and make any sense out of it? I wonder whether the interesting artistic expressions that accompany these words on many signboards up and down the land assist the stranger. Perhaps it is the only clue that reveals that chop bars have something to do with food.
But in Ghanaian pidgin, to chop, far from cutting, means to eat. It may also mean, in reference to money, to spend or squander. In other words, a chop bar is a place where we ‘chop’ [i.e. eat]. And so from this evolved what I think is an important cultural icon of this country, the same way as burger bars are American and fish and chips shops are British. Nigeria even has its popular ‘suya’ meat joints, replete with local drinks.
I travel between Accra and Kumasi on a regular basis, and over the years I have discovered and sampled quite a number of chop bars on the road that give some succour to my weary bones and refuel the bodily tank for the rest of the journey.
I think that the explosion of fast food joints, with their standard greasy fried rice and chicken have provided some alternative to the chop bar genre by way of pricing, but I think the chop bar is holding its ground. It remains a huge favourite, and also provides huge variety by way of food, soups and meats. And of course, any serious Ghanaian, especially in Kumasi or Asanteman, will tell you that a plate of rice only leaves you empty after a few hours, whereas a modest fufu meal can sort you out and keep you going for hours. A trip to Yaa Serwaa Chop Bar in Adum, Kumasi during lunchtime will show you just how seriously Kumasi office workers take this.
I think that the fact that the word ‘chop’ meaning to ‘eat’ is pidgin, and that this variant of English was originally spoken by the ordinary working class, is a fair indicator that originally chop bars were probably seen as joints where only the ‘common man’ went to eat, perhaps because it was cheap and simple. Over the years, however, the chop bar has widened in scope in terms of the social background of its patrons.
My favourite feature of the Ghanaian chop bar is not necessarily the food and assorted soups. It is the name and the accompanying artistic expressions on the signboards. ‘Don’t Mind Your Wife,’ ‘Home Hospitality,’ ‘Bush Canteen’ and ‘Barima Nkwan’ are among my favourites. And then there is the art. The other day, I saw a huge ‘ayowa’ (earthenware bowl) with a mountain of fufu and assorted meats and fish swimming in the soup and dwarfing a solitary man sitting in front of it, and it brought memories. Brightly-coloured paintings of sweaty, hefty men pounding in vast mortars are also another personal favourite.
Of course, like the fingers on the hand, chop bars come in different sizes. And they also come in different pedigree. In the top echelons in Accra are places like ‘Heavy Do,’ where a simple fufu meal can set the pocket back by some serious amounts. At lunchtime, one comes across seriously suited men busily attacking their fufu or banku or omo tuo with the zeal of a born again convert. I once visited Bush Canteen in Legon with a friend, and my eyes nearly popped on seeing a modest piece of smoked grasscutter meat going for twenty Ghana Cedis.
Then of course there is the no-frills version of chop bars meant for the ordinary man to go and fill his belly with little fanfare, where about five cedis can charge one’s batteries. And in between there are many average chop bars up and down the land that cater for many people’s average pockets.
Every serious chop bar must have a standard accessory — a bar. And the popular choice of pre-meal drink ranges from Castlebridge, Ginseng and Herb Afrique, to Alomo, K2 and even the almighty akpeteshie, among others. The conventional wisdom is that these drinks open up the system and allow the customer’s appetite to be whetted up sufficiently for the arduous task ahead.
Food is an important part of every society, and its eating habits, types of food, methods of preparation are all important cultural indicators of that society. For instance, whilst it is common practice to see two or more friends busily eating from the same bowl, whether at home or in a chop bar in Ghana, it is rather rare in most western countries, and I think this goes to the heart of the communality versus individualism dichotomy that underpins the respective societies.
In England, for example, the concept of a sandwich evolved from the practice of a nobleman, the Earl of Sandwich, who regularly requested for pieces of bread with which he would hold his meat to avoid staining his fingers when he was gambling. The American burger has its own fascinating history which is embedded in American popular culture, as does the Shepherd’s Pie in England.
So what do our chop bars tell us about ourselves? What stories do they project about our society? Do we care to examine the relationship between society and food? Or do we just treat food for its functionality and gobble it down without a second’s thought, just to fulfill a physiological need? I was once fascinated to read an article that explained that the reason eggs are traditionally used for pacification in Ghanaian society is that they contain no bones or hard material and therefore symbolise peace. Fascinating.
For my part I think that for a long time chop bars were perceived as an exclusive bachelor’s haven, for it was there that he could get close to what a wife would have prepared for him at home if he was married. There is a popular chop bar in Pataase, Kumasi, called ‘Efie Fufuo’ (homemade fufu), and I think this joint, like many similarly named, epitomises this mindset. Of course ‘Don’t Mind Your Wife,’ another popular chop bar name of choice, also projects the view that even if your wife is refusing to cook for you, there is this place you can go to and eat food that is as good as homemade.
A lady friend tells me that as a professional young woman, she would never step out to a chop bar to eat, and that the same view is held by many of her female friends. This is fed by a prevailing view that a woman is supposed to be cooking food for her family rather than buying cooked food, especially with chop bar food, which was seen as close to ‘home food,’ unlike say, kenkey, which many people do not cook at home. To her, a woman eating alone at a chop bar is ‘some way,’ a subtle demonstration of irresponsibility.
There is a certain mindset in this country that the term ‘chop bar’ evokes images of dirty white curtains at the door and unhygienic practices. For this and other reasons, many would rather prefer to eat their fufu or banku at restaurants, which are not to be confused with chop bars. But then perhaps this stems from the reality that many chop bars do lag in terms of hygiene.
I think it would be a shame not to brand and project our chop bar concept. It is a cultural icon that has withstood the tests and ravages of time and is still evolving. Let the tourism authorities and branding experts get busy and brand it as a quintessential Ghanaian experience that a visitor to this country must go through to consider themselves as having truly visited Ghana. Our tourism should not just be about the bricks and mortars of our castles and the fauna of our tropical forests. Experiences can also be marketed.
I was motivated to write this piece as I was in a taxi approaching Danquah Circle at Osu. Just as we got to Danquah Circle, I noted that one of the smaller statues surrounding Dr. Danquah’s giant statue depicted a woman pounding fufu with her left hand whilst turning the fufu with her right hand. I was mesmerised and decided to write on the subject.
By a happy coincidence, I was starving and had been wondering what to have for lunch. That statue settled it for me. I ignored KFC, Papaye and all the other fancy restaurants on the Osu Oxford Street. ‘Heavy Do’ it was. After I was done with my rounds, I grabbed a taxi and made my way there.
My pocket has taken a hit. But the meal, prepared from fresh ingredients that morning, was fabulous, and as I sit at a nearby bar writing on my laptop and thinking about the whole chop bar experience whilst belching softly and smelling the green soup on my hands, I know that I am living the Ghanaian cultural experience. I have a huge problem with buying fufu at posh hotels and restaurants. Somehow, the meal in an expensive ceramic bowl, devoid of certain aromas and flavours that one only finds in a chop bar, gives it a rather bland outlook and deprives it of some authenticity.
The humble Ghanaian chop bar will not die. It must not die, and we cannot afford to allow it to even wobble, certainly not in the face of pizza, burgers, fried rice or any of the other additive-laden foreign fare that seem to be so much in vogue these days.
That is our gastronomic challenge.