Osaka – Ghanaian chef Abraham “Araji” Oppong has worked in Japan for more than 25 years in Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka. For the past 19 years he has been working at the Crossroad Cafe, a cafe and art gallery in Itami, Hyogo Prefecture.
1. Where did you grow up? I grew up in Obuasi, a very small gold-mining village in the Ashanti region of Ghana. It’s about two hours from the nearest city. My family is part of the Akan people, my mother is from Fante and my father was born in Ashanti.
2. Why did you decide to become a chef? It was all because of my mother, she was always cooking. I was the eldest of seven children so I helped her in the kitchen from a very young age. That’s how I learned all the basic skills.
3. What was your favorite meal as a child? My mother’s specialty was banku and tilapia. Banku is a mixture of corn dough and cassava dough, and tilapia is a river fish that is considered a delicacy in Ghana.
4. Where did you train to become a chef? I attended a culinary school in Accra, the capital of Ghana. We had a choice of Chinese, French and Italian cooking courses, but I decided to take them all in order to become a well-rounded chef. I consider African food my specialty, but I incorporate elements of other cultures in my cooking.
5. How did you end up working in Japan? It happened by chance 25 years ago, when I was 30. I was working at the Penta Hotel in Accra, which was frequented by Japanese guests who really liked my cooking. One of my regular customers was in the restaurant business. He called his company and told them about me and I was hired to work at a restaurant in Komagome in Tokyo.
6. Did you know anything about Japan before you took the job? No, not at all. It was complete culture shock. I arrived in November of 1994 wearing a T-shirt and it was freezing! Everything was confusing, the size of the buildings, the subways, the crowds. I was overwhelmed in the beginning.
7. How did you learn to speak Japanese? I wasn’t able to study Japanese for the first three years because I was so busy. After my contract ended, I returned to Ghana for five months. I got a call from my company and they sent me to Kyoto. I was able to pick up the language by listening carefully to what was said in the kitchen, but I’ve never formally studied the language.
8. Are there any similarities between Akan and Japanese? Yes, I find that certain words are the same or similar such as the word for cloud — “kumo.” Water is “mizu” in Japanese and “izu” in Akan. The term “tsurun tsurun” means “smooth” or “slick” in Japanese, and the term in Akan is “tron tron.” Many names are similar, for example, Abe and Azuma.
9. Is there anything in Japan that reminds you of Ghana? When I attended the Kishiwada Danjiri Festival in Osaka, I felt it was very similar to Fetu Afahye, a festival that is held in Ghana in September. It was like being back in Ghana!
10. What was the worst experience you’ve had in Japan? I moved to (Tokyo’s) Ikebukuro area a year after I arrived. There weren’t many Black people living there at the time, and I got stared at constantly. One day, I went to a sentō (public bath) and they told me that I could not enter. I didn’t fully understand why they wouldn’t let me in, but I was very hurt by this. And I’ve never been back to a public bath since.
11. Do you think it is hard for African restaurants to succeed in Japan? What I’ve seen is that it really depends on whether the chef has a following or not. Chefs with an original style will attract people from all over the region.
12. How did you start working at the Crossroad Cafe? A friend of a friend in Osaka introduced me to the owners, Hiroyuki Araki and Toshiko Hirono. When I first started, I couldn’t express myself in Japanese so well, but they were so patient and understanding. I’ve worked here for 19 years and loved every minute.
13. What are the most popular dishes? The roast beef donburi (rice bowl) is our most popular dish. I marinate the meat with red wine and onions, and add a layer of scrambled eggs between the beef and the rice. The chicken curry is also a big seller, but our black-eyed bean curry is completely meatless and popular with vegetarians.
14. How did you decide what African dishes to add to the menu? Japanese people tend to like banku, but they are more familiar with the Swahili term for it, “ugali.” I make it with tomato sauce flavored with tōgarashi (red pepper) and a hot pepper sauce from Ghana called “shito.” It comes with chicken that’s flavored with basil and garlic.
15. Is it hard to source any of the ingredients in Japan? Banku is made with white corn flour (maize), which is hard to find in Japan so I use semolina corn flour.
16. Do you get many African customers? We get customers from Ghana, Nigeria, Kenya,Tanzania, Zimbabwe and South Africa. For my Japanese customers, I often have to adjust the spice levels to suit their tastes, but many of my African customers will call in advance and say they want the food prepared extra spicy.
17. How has the pandemic affected the restaurant? We’ve had to scrap the breakfast menu for now. The restaurant used to open at 8 a.m. but now we open at 10 a.m. We also offer the lunch menu to go.
18. Have you met any Japanese people who lived in Ghana? A lot! Some of them worked for nongovernmental organizations. They come to the restaurant and speak to me in my dialect. I feel like most Japanese who speak Akan have met me at some point.
19. What are your main interests outside of the kitchen? I love watching soccer. In Ghana, soccer is life. We watch soccer whenever we can. I’m a fan of Gamba Osaka these days, my favorite player is Yasuhito Endo.
20. What is your favorite kind of music? I love reggae, especially Bob Marley and Peter Tosh. I also listen to a lot of jazz and country music. I’m a big fan of Hank Williams.
Crossroads Cafe: 3-2-4 Chuo, Itami, Hyogo Prefecture, 664-0851; 072-777-1369; takeout available; crossroadscafe.jp.
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