Don’t Chew the Fufu: A Guide to Dining in West Africa
The first rule I learned in Ghana was to not chew the fufu.
On my second day in Kumasi, Ghana’s garden city in West Africa, we were ushered into a small wooden structure. Inside on the dirt floor was a big-bellied pot of soup whose contents were rolling red and brown, spitting stew into small puddles on the floor.
The heat and moisture produced pools of dirt behind our elbows and knees. Flies buzzed around us, but we didn’t swat them. We were too tired from spending all day in the sun and were eager for our next meal.
We were all new college graduates who arrived in West Africa to start our careers in development. Our NGO, or non-governmental organization, implemented peer-to-peer tutoring programs in rural Ghana. Our roles were to create and manage those programs from the ground up, which was much easier said than done. Much like eating fufu.
“To finish today’s training we will learn to eat fufu,” my coordinator said candidly with a grin.
The reputation of the fufu proceeded itself. It’s either loved or hated, and too often misunderstood. I had heard about fufu and garnered mixed reviews from “decent” to “something I would never try again”.
A bowl plopped down in front of me. A starchy white ball was surrounded by a brown soup and a piece of meat. It smelled faintly of peanuts and beef, but I knew that it wasn’t cow’s meat.
“Use your hands,” my coordinator said. There were no forks or spoons on the table.
I tore off a piece of the starchy ball and dunked it into the stew. With the consistency of unbaked bread, the ball tasted like mild sourdough. The soup was thick and oily with the hint of roasted peanuts and meat. I tried to chew it when my coordinator stopped me.
“Don’t chew the fufu,” he said. “You are supposed to let it slide down your throat. We never chew the fufu.”
I watched first. My coordinator tore off a piece of fufu and flattened it with his thumb. He scooped up some of the stew and he placed it into his mouth and swallowed. No chewing necessary.
Determined, I tried again. I tried to swallow, but found that it was easier to let the soggy starch slide down my throat. I continued, letting the fufu slide down with greater certainty until I finished my bowl.
I’m not going to lie: it wasn’t my favorite thing I tried during my seven months in Ghana. (That would be “bofroat”, which is like a round donut!) But trying fufu was my most memorable food experience in West Africa because it is such a special part of the culture. It’s communal to make, communal to eat, and quintessentially Ghanaian.
Everywhere you will go in Ghana the locals will ask you (curious and half-amused): “Did you try fufu yet?” It’s not known to be popular amongst foreigners, but you do get credit (and laughs!) for trying!
What is fufu exactly?
Fufu is a starchy ball made from yams and sometimes combined with plantains. Variations of it are common across the African continent, but in Ghana yams are pounded with butter into soft balls to produce the fufu.
It can be served with soup or meat. The most common variation in Ghana is a peanut soup served with bushmeat, with the fufu ball placed into the bowl of soup. “Bushmeat” is a blanket term used to describe animals that live in the African bush, which include rodents and ground-hog-like animals.
Fufu is a unique dish that is both a daily meal and served on special occasions with fish, like on Easter. Fufu is best shared with friends and family as a communal meal, as it is also communal to make.
It takes at least two people to transform the yams into fufu. One person pounds the yams with a large wooden spoon and another turns the fufu so that the consistency is even.