Food For Thought: Chef Phoebe Donko-Hanson13 Mar 2017
I was born in Ghana, moved to the United States when I was three, left to Ghana when I was seven and returned to the States when I was 19. I’ve always loved food and when I was 29, I woke up and a light bulb went off in my head. I decided that food makes me happy. So I left my job as an insurance claims adjuster and went to culinary school. It takes a certain kind of crazy to do this; my office job paid well but didn’t speak to my soul. Culinary school was amazing. I felt like I’d found my home among my own band of misfits.
I’d never been to Malaysia before, but there was a Malaysian restaurant in Boston that I would go to, so I knew that I liked the flavour profiles of Malaysian food. I knew that the food was amazingly dangerous – I ate char kuey teow every night for the first four months that I was here! It has everything in it: noodles, sauce, seafood, eggs, beansprouts… it’s just such a noodle playground. Throw some cili padi in there and forget everything else. It was amazing! I put on so much weight.
I like colour a lot and see the plate almost like a canvas, so I like to paint on the plate. I’d describe my dishes as being colourful with big flavours, decadent yet simple and comforting. I felt that I could work with the ingredients and flavours here, but it was a tad intimidating because Malaysians are really serious about their food. Oh my goodness! There are rules about everything – this noodle goes with that broth, this yong tau foo goes with that soup. I find that our local guests are also our most vocal, but I appreciate their feedback.
I want to show that there are more similarities than differences between Malaysian and Ghanaian food when it comes to ingredients, style and mindset. You have satay, we have chichinga. We have groundnut soup, you have peanut sauce. Most of our sauces and soups have a base of ginger, chilli, garlic, onion and tomatoes, and then it just varies from there. I find that Ghanaian food has heat but not the sweetness to mellow it out, whereas in Malaysia, ingredients like gula melaka have a lot of depth and temper the heat for balance.
The month-long Taste of Ghana special we’ll be running in April will have Ghanaian comfort food that I grew up with. Plantains, which people don’t use a lot but are here in abundance, will be a focal point because they’re so versatile – you can bake, roast, fry and steam them. We will also have bowls of different types of pepper sauce to add heat as I usually have to tone down the spice level for the diners. The sauce made with dried prawns is less spicy, while the spiciest would be the one made with cili padi.
The culinary world is a boys’ playground, you know. It can be tough sometimes, but the challenges make you. Every day is a new day for potential greatness. Sometimes you have rough patches, but you just get up and keep going. It doesn’t matter what you do, people are going to have an opinion anyway – it could be based on anything. But until somebody takes the time to get to know you, then what credence do you give to their opinion of you? I’ve been there, done that and am through with that. I know who I am now.