Fufu = love

A blog centered around eating in Ghana can only go so long without talking about the elephant in the room: Fufu, the closest thing one can find to Ghana’s national dish.

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There are detractors, to be sure—and indeed, calling fufu Ghana’s national dish falls, on the one hand, into the age-old (and grumblingly contested by non-asante persons) pattern of conflating the cultural markers of the Ashanti with Ghana as a whole, in spite of great cultural and linguistic diversity. On the other, it’s a mark of absurdity to pin it to Ghana alone; versions of fufu are eaten across West Africa.

Detractors aside, fufu is without a doubt the most popular iteration of the basic template for Ghanaian dishes (and indeed most food, worldwide): starch + stew and/or protein. It consists of cassava and yams or plantains, parboiled and pounded together into a springy gelatinous mound not unlike mochi in texture, and eaten (in order of popularity) with either light soup, palmnut soup, or groundut (peanut) soup.

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For all that fufu looms so large in the Ghanaian culinary imagination, it took active work for me to like it—or perhaps more accurately, an implicit decision that if it was this central to the psyche of the average Ghanaian, I was going to have to find a way to enjoy it. In this, I attempted to follow the example of my fellow-foodie sister, a formerly picky eater who has taught herself over the years to like bananas and fish and southeast asian cuisine, among other things.

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A large part of what I have come to appreciate about fufu beyond the mere gastronomic aesthetics is the ritual of its preparation and consumption. There are definite rules and etiquette to eating fufu.

Firstly, you use your hand to eat—your right hand, mind—not a spoon. There are those who use spoons—Ghanaians, even!—but this is akin to eating soba noodles with a fork. You can do it, but it just doesn’t taste quite the same; the whole experience is cheapened and made strange. A powerfully spicy light soup can leave one’s fingers tingling for hours, long after the flavors have faded from the tongue.

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Perhaps most importantly—and this posed the greatest initial challenge for me—one does not chew fufu. Rather, one plucks a bit of fufu from the larger mound, dips it in the soup, and allows the fufu to act as an internal spoon of sorts, a gelatinous vehicle to transport the soup from bowl to gullet to belly in one fell swallow.

I used to see this as a particular difficulty for non-Ghanaians who were disciplined about chewing their food properly growing up, but a close Ghanaian friend once laughingly related a story of her younger brother having considerable trouble not chewing his fufu as a child, and being repeatedly admonished to just swallow it—so like many things marked out as culturally important, it seems swallowing-not-chewing your fufu is something that must be actively socialized into children and foreigners alike. Indeed I am frequently asked:  ‘Do you know how to eat fufu?’

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I think I can safely answer that question with a a ‘yes.’ Fufu with light soup and goat meat now ranks high among my comfort foods here. When you’re really hungry, the weight and heft of fufu, its give, is deeply satisfying. When the occasional chilly night descends—or simply if one is feeling a bit down at the mouth or like a cold might be coming on—the soup is a deliciously warming and savory tonic. My absolute favorite version is the way my sister* makes it, with the most perfectly aromatic and throat-tinglingly hot and delicious light soup, piled high with no less than four kinds of protein. Oh, εyε dε! It’s sweet!

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In fact, living with her and my ‘brother-in-law’ was really how I came to understand part of what it is about fufu that makes it so important to everyone here. And that, unoriginal as it may sound, is: love. 

Making fufu is hot, arduous work—all that pounding! All those hours of soup-making!—with many, many layered steps. If someone goes to the trouble of doing that for you—and makes sure to add your favorite bits of crab and goat so it’s extra sweet and delicious—you know they really care about you. You can feel that love and concern with your fingertips and tongue, with every dip and satisfying swallow.

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When you go eat fufu elsewhere, even at some random chop bar where you have no relationship whatsoever with the cook, you can taste the echo of that love in the bodily memories the flavors evoke.

But just as much as this multilayered process is about love, it is also about obligation, and tradition, and hierarchies of gender and age. I had hoped to snap a picture of my sister and her husband sharing the fufu she made him for his birthday last week, but during the actual celebrations she and I were kept busy divvying up and serving bowls to all the assembled family and guests–in proper order of importance in the family tree, of course! The tangled notions around ‘tradition’ in the kitchen–both in terms of which foods count and who ought to be preparing them–are complicated and interesting enough to fill up several posts. Which they shall.

Next up: that labor-of-love process itself. Fufu is ready!

*Acquiring fictive kin is always gratifying, but here it is semi-institutionalized. My relationship with the fufu queen of this post goes back seven years and a lot of memories; hence, we are sisters, with many of the extended kin relationships that this position in the family tree implies. I was introduced by an American friend’s Ghanaian husband recently as “my wife’s sister.” This is so pervasive that two friends might be referred to as sisters by strangers witnessing the casual intimacy of such actions as, say, handing off bags when entering a taxi or leaning in close to share a thought. If such a person has come to visit and left again, people will ask: And how is your sister? I mean no slight to my actual biological sister, who I love dearly, but being pronounced someone’s sister by a third party is one of my favorite things. Sisterhood is powerfully comforting.

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