From Ghana to Halifax: the Journey of Mary’s African Cuisine
Mary Nkrumah, owner of Mary’s African Cuisine in Halifax, Nova Scotia, started her food service career when she was a teenager selling rice at a little wooden stand in Achimota, a town in the Accra Metropolitan District of Ghana. “That was how I learned the ropes of the food business on my own,” she reminisces, “my brother still has that stand.”
Born in Accra, Ghana, Nkrumah comes from a long line of women who made their living preparing and selling food. Her grandmother was a kenkey seller in their home village of Apam, on the Atlantic Coast of West Africa. Kenkey is a traditional Ghanaian delicacy, similar to sourdough dumplings, made from fermented white corn and usually served with a peppery sauce and soup or stew. Her mother bought and sold yams in the African interior, bringing them to the coast, and she also had a large bakery in the capital city of Accra. “I used to run around the neighborhood with my brothers and sisters, carrying the bread on our head and selling it to the locals,” she says. “We were a large family, and it was hard work, but my mother’s food business helped us survive through coup d’états and crises.”
Moving on from her rice seller days, Nkrumah opened the Ocean View Garden Restaurant in 2003 in Kokrobite, a seaside town near Accra, eventually leaving it behind in 2008 for new adventures in Halifax, Canada. After working at a few establishments in Halifax, Nkrumah realized she wanted something of her own and started selling her food at the Halifax Seaport Farmers Market. “The first day, we only sold $30, and my husband had his camera stolen,” she laughs, “but after a few years there, we had a steady business with many regulars.” After many slow winters in the market and many customers asking if she had a restaurant, Nkrumah opened Mary’s African Cuisine in 2018, located on Barrington Street in downtown Halifax.
Her food represents her Ghanaian heritage, featuring oxtail, roti, curries, and house specialties such as Egusi stew made from pumpkin seeds and spinach. “We only do authentic dishes at my restaurant,” she says, “I don’t cut corners on portions, spices, or taste. It costs more, but it keeps my customers satisfied.” She also serves a range of freshly made juices featuring tropical and African fruits, Ghanaian coffee beans by the bag, and African snacks such as Chin Chin – an addictive fried pastry. Her favourite dish from childhood is a banku and okra stew which she claims she can eat every day. “It isn’t the most popular with Canadians yet,” she says, “but I aim to change that.”
Inspired by her family’s love of soccer – both her husband Jonathan, who she met in Ghana, and her four children, Ama, Garry, Malcolm, and Daisy, play the sport – Nkrumah went on to open Kick’s Café, a soccer-themed café inside the BMO Soccer Center in Halifax in 2012. “It was a struggle at first, but once we got to know the customers, we figured things out.” She also runs a catering division that serves weddings, festivals, and large events.
When she first moved to Canada, Nkrumah was a bit taken aback by the attention that African Heritage Month drew, feeling it was odd for African food to only be celebrated during the shortest month. But after building solid links to the African community and appreciating African Nova Scotians’ struggles, she understands the value of using February as a time to celebrate accomplishments and community. “I love to participate in my community and share recipes. February can be a time when many people feel down. There is no better way to lift spirits than by gathering over food, sharing some fufu with groundnut soup or banku with grilled tilapia and hot pepper.”
Nkrumah has passed on her passion for food to her four children, who range in age from 10 to 25, often cooking family favourites together, such as jollof rice, a dish she refers to as the macaroni and cheese of West Africa, or a vegan dish with groundnuts and mushrooms, served with cocoyam – a popular African root crop similar to Taro. “All my kids can cook,” she says, “the only question is who will do the dishes!”
Looking toward the future, Nkrumah has big plans to expand. Her only worry is that she wants to remain close to her customers. “When I can do it right, you will see more Mary’s African Cuisine food around Halifax and beyond.”
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