As the Ashanti People of Ghana say, "A man has not eaten a day unless he has eaten fufu."
Patriarchy aside, and mercifully perhaps, women are not under the same proverbial pressure to eat fufu in such a religious way — but they do it anyway, because they love it, and they are the ones, for the most part, making it.
Because of TikTok's recent #FufuChallenge — where people record themselves purchasing and tasting fufu, the West African staple — social media has been overwhelmed with people trying fufu for the first time and many Africans sharing how to eat it properly. These are two things I am wholeheartedly in support of: Yes, the world should know about fufu, and yes, Africans should be the ones to show the world how to eat it.
But there has been an understandable backlash in response to the "challenge" — specifically the ignorant reactions to one of Ghana’s finest exports. I am not surprised that there are white people turning up their noses at fufu, but rather disappointed in the derogatory commentary I have seen from some African Americans, who could regard this cuisine as a gift from their ancestors, not to be snubbed or disregarded.
What is fufu?
Fufu is an excellent accompaniment to any soup or stew, especially those of West African descent, such as light soup (nkrakra), groundnut soup (nkate nkwan), palm nut soup (abenkwan), green vegetable soup (abun abun), egusi soup and more.
The word "fufu" is derived from the Twi language spoken in Ghana and Ivory Coast, meaning "mash" or "mix," and is a staple in West and Central Africa, as well as the Caribbean. Fundamentally, fufu refers to the slightly sour, spongy dough made from boiled and pounded starchy food crops like plantains, cassava and yams — or a combination of two or more — in a very large mortar with a pestle. There are many versions of fufu, with each country like Nigeria, Cameroon, Togo, Benin and Sierra Leone, featuring its own favorite recipe, but it was Ghana’s invention following its introduction to cassava by the Portuguese in the 16th century.
It was brought to the Americas by enslaved populations when they came to the Caribbean and, over time, they adapted the recipe according to what was locally available. Now, Cuba, Jamaica, the Dominican Republic, Haiti and Puerto Rico have their own versions of fufu, using sweet plantains and animal fats like butter or lard.
How do you make fufu?
My uncle proudly informed me that for years the University of Ghana tried to make a machine to automate fufu-making since it is a heavy, laborious task, but the machines kept breaking. No machine is as strong as a Ghanian woman, he told me with a laugh. Amen to that.
Indeed, to make fufu, you need an incredibly powerful machine (or will) to work the starchy fibers out of the root vegetables. And while food processors have come a long way over the years, even my Thermomix can’t make a perfectly smooth fufu dough. The first fufu machine was developed in 2004 by Ghanaian electrical-equipment dealer Fadegnom Charles; and in 2017, a Togolese entrepreneur named Logou Minsob successfully invented the model Foufoumix, which is so big, it looks like a washing machine.
Traditionally, fufu is still made by hand, the old-fashioned way, with a mortar and pestle — a woman’s quick, agile hands whipping and turning the mixture, gradually adding water with one hand and pounding the heavy pestle with the other.
It is this pounding action that properly breaks down the fibers into the desired smooth texture (that most home food processors cannot achieve). The resulting mixture is a sticky dough which is then made into a ball that looks like it should next be baked — however, fufu "bakes" in your belly, filling you up and spreading you out with the pleasurable slip and slither of it and spicy soup sliding down your throat. The rewards are truly in these awesome efforts of elbow grease — for to have fresh fufu is to have communion with your higher power and be in contact with your ancestors.
With the invention of the fufu machine, preparation has become much less labor-intensive for large-scale production in restaurants and chop bars, but for the most part, it is still made by hand. With a growing diaspora of Ghanaians in the West and Global North, it became necessary to repackage fufu in powdered form — we all have busy lives and who has time to pound fufu? (Well, actually, I do! I make time to pound fufu because it tastes better!)
What makes fufu so special?
Like many traditional West African ingredients and dishes, fufu has immense health benefits: Not only is it low in cholesterol, it is rich in fiber, potassium and resistant starch, which feeds the beneficial bacteria in your gut and may help reduce inflammation and promote digestive health, and contains vitamin C, thiamine, riboflavin and niacin. In other words, fufu is a one-stop carb shop that does so much good while filling you up.
But the true joy of the dish is the pleasure of eating it with your hands: the sensuality of it, the communion with the ingredients, the land that provides such rich rewards and the knowledge that brought them together. The labor of the preparation speaks through the dimpled dough you pinch into your palm to scoop up your soup. There is nothing between your lips and your clean hands apart from good, messy food. The "challenge" of fufu is making this glorious dish — not eating it.
To eat fufu is to unite with your ancestors, queens, kings and Mother Nature — it is a gift from nature that has kept the Ashanti people (from which I hail) crowned in glory for hundreds of years.
So, keep our fufu out of your "challenges" — it deserves much better.