Why, it’s a lump of paste! I am sitting face-to-face with my first dish of fufu. This is you know, a make or break moment for me. Eat the fufu. Eat it. You can do it. You’re going to have to learn to subsist on, if not enjoy, Ghanaian food. Or you might just starve to death out there. Kenke has already defeated you soundly. Fufu is your last chance.
There sits the ball of fufu, warm, looking like a ball of dough ready to be cooked into bread. What I wouldn’t give for bread right now. We can get “tea bread” in the market, it’s not that great, but it is bread, something familiar. They even make peanut butter here, and that, I’m happy to report, is really quite good. But again, if I’m going to make it, I need to conquer fufu!
And what is this white pasty ball of sustenance, you ask? What is fufu? It is a West African staple. It is filling and hearty. And pasty. So pasty… At least where I was in Ghana, in the Southern part, fufu is made from African yam, or cocoyam, which is actually more like a giant mutant starchy potato than what we consider to be a yam, and cassava, which is another starchy root vegetable. These two vegetables are practically inedible in raw form because they are so starchy. To make fufu, the cassava and yam are pounded without mercy literally into a pulp by a woman with biceps that would make a linebacker blush. The yam and cassava are chopped up and peeled, and then placed into a stone crucible of pain, and then they are pounded with a five foot long thick wooden pole – think caber toss here – until they are reduced to a quivering mass and ready to be boiled. I think there may be alternating phases of boiling and pounding in order to get the consistency just right. Seriously, I think it takes hours of food torture to properly pound out fufu from yam and cassava. These women are not to be messed with.
Now of course this is the traditional way of making fufu. In these modern times the Ghanaians have learned how to make fufu powder in a factory, which simply requires a bit of boiling and stirring in order to make the paste. Sort of like making oatmeal, I suppose. Or making mashed potatoes out of dried potato flakes instead of real potatoes, is more accurate. And the difference in quality is similar. Fufu made by hand by the strongest women to walk this earth in our time or any other is vastly preferred. Of course I did not know this at the time. And unfortunately for me, my first attempt at fufu was of the instant variety. This was to set me back many weeks in my quest to assimilate and enjoy Ghanaian cuisine.
I was still in training, not more than one or two weeks in Ghana, when I was first served fufu. All of us new volunteers were given this (instant) fufu with very detailed instructions on how to eat it. I’m all for learning the ceremony of eating in other cultures, but I am also wary of food that comes with instructions. And here were the instructions that came with fufu:
1) Using your thumb, index finger, and middle finger, pinch off a small ball of fufu from the larger ball of fufu. It’s like creating a “mini-fu” out of the mothership of fufu.
2) Do not use utensils to scoop out a mini-fu. Fufu is typically served as a communal dish, and everyone eats from the same ball of fufu, gouging away at the blob until it is drawn and quartered and can menace the table no more.
3) Never ever use your left hand to pinch off the fufu. It is forbidden. Using your left hand was punishable by death, I presume, in olden times. Now I think eating with your left hand is merely punishable by having to arm wrestle the woman who pounded the fufu, and who has forearms the size of your thighs, and who is very angry with you because now no one will eat the fufu she worked so hard at preparing all day because you have jammed your filthy disgusting satanic left hand into the communal food. So, have fun with that.
4) With your mini-fufu in hand, dunk the fufu into the sauce or stew. We have not mentioned the sauce yet. The sauce comes in several varieties, all of which are so spicy that you are expressly instructed (4a) not to touch your eyes with your right hand for fear of being blinded by the dangerously high levels of capsaicin present in the sauce. Although forks and spoons are not allowed, I think safety goggles are an accepted accoutrement for fufu consumption. And the temptation is there to at least wipe your brow of sweat from the general body heat generated by the stew.
5) Tilt your head back, and place the voodoo fire stew dunked mini-fu ball into your eagerly waiting mouth, and swallow whole this small chunk of lava-coated pasty goodness. This is correct. Do not chew the fufu. Down the hatch, like an oyster. We are not interested in chewing this food, we just want it in our bellies as quickly as possible.
6) Do not taunt the fufu.
6) Do not taunt the fufu.
Of course I’m naturally left-handed so it took every fiber of my being to not violate rule #3. This problem was solved by placing a napkin in my left hand at all times when eating. The napkin also assisted with rule #4, in that I could use said napkin to wipe my brow instead of my right hand. Rule #2 was easily solved because there were no utensils available for our use.
This left only Rule #1 and rule #5 to master. I'm pretty sure I violated rule #6, you know, because I'm just that way. And I messed up rule #1 by taking too large of a mini-fu from the fufu mothership. I had a mega-fu on my hands, or in my (right) hand, specifically. I dunked mega-fu into the voodoo stew, and tilted my head back, and put it in my mouth, and then, I just couldn’t get it down the old hatch. My gag reflex kicked in, involuntarily, preventing me from choking down this fiery monster of food. It was agonizing. Oh God, I thought, please don’t spit it out, don’t vomit, get it down get it down get it down. Then I broke rule #5. I chewed. I had no choice! It was chew or spew, to put it bluntly. I chewed, and chewed, and chewed, and tried to swallow. It was like trying to eat gum. And the spice from the stew laid waste to my taste buds with extreme prejudice, and brought tears to my eyes, and sweat to my brow. It took every fiber of my being not to spit it back out. But I was determined to eat fufu. And eat it I did. I paid the price, but I got that sucker down. One small victory, won at great cost, but won nonetheless. I thought that if I could conquer fufu, I was up to the challenge of kenke. And it turns out I was up to the challenge, eventually; somehow I learned to eat and even enjoy fufu, and really enjoy kenke. I hope to explain kenke in another post. Suffice to say it comes with fewer instructions, but may be even more difficult to eat.