Another year, another TikTok challenge and this time the subject matter is fufu. Unexpected as it may, it is true–2021 has brought us the #FufuChallenge. While the challenge alone is quite underwhelming, involving nothing more than various mukbangs of people eating fufu and the reactions of first timers, it’s one that initiates conversation around West African food.
West Africa is comprised of 16 countries that each boast its own culinary flair. Some of the dishes that have reached renowned status include jollof rice, peanut soup, and fufu, but these are just the tip of the iceberg. While there are significant differences in the foods across each country, there are some myriad commonalities, particularly in communities along the borders of adjacent countries and those with similar geographies, like forest, coastal, Savanna, and Sahel regions, for example.
Architecturally, the nature of the cuisine also shapes the typical kitchen in a West African home and in the African home, in general, where some foods are prepared in outdoor kitchens or courtyard spaces which act as extensions of indoor kitchens. This translates to the restaurant scene as well. A primary example is the “chop bar,” local roadside restaurants in Ghana which usually serve fufu and soup along with other street food delicacies, or Nigerian “bukas,” which are also street stalls that sell local dishes for affordable prices. Eating is done communal style with groups of people sometimes eating from the same bowl. Across the diaspora, these street eateries have been reimagined in the form of modern food trucks, restaurant pop-ups, and actual restaurants.
In a series of conversations, 54 Flavors took a deep dive into some of the dishes that West Africans from countries like Cote d’Ivoire, the Gambia, Ghana, Cape Verde, among others. Here’s what West Africans living in the diaspora had to say regarding food from their home countries.
Cape Verdean food isn’t quite as buzzy as some of its Western counterparts, but the island country is known for a wide variety of fish-based dishes, which makes sense, given its location. The island’s cuisine has a large Portuguese influence that merges with influences from other West African countries and some additional European influences.
“There’s a bunch of different dishes that are specific to Cape Verde, but the main one is cachupa,” says Tatiana Mendes, a Cape Verdean living in New York. Cachupa–a stew packed with onions, beans, dried corn, sweet potatoes, yams, and various types of protein like chicken and pork– is, in fact, Cape Verde’s national dish and is one that Mendes describes as being both “inexpensive” and “sustaining.”
“My favorite part of eating Cachupa is when it dries up and you eat it with a fried egg for breakfast the next day,” Mendes reveals. This leftover version is referred to as “cachupa frita,” and can also be served with fried mackerel or fried sausage.
Cachupa aside, there’s no shortage of fish stews–like caldo de peixe (a fish stew with vegetables, tomato puree, and various starches)– and dishes that Cape Verdeans are well-crafted in creating, as well as their pastels–fried pastries stuffed with fish or other meat fillings. Since Cape Verde is an archipelago, there are some dishes that are more popular in a particular region than others. “We also use a lot of corn,” explains Mendes. “It goes in sweet dishes, like corn cakes, that Cape Verdeans like to eat with fermented milk.”
In Massachusetts, there’s a sizable Cape Verdean community and plenty of restaurants serving dishes from Cape Verde’s 10 volcanic islands. Restaurante Cesaria is revered for its Katchupa and Polvo Grelhado– a grilled octopus dish and Nos Casa Cafe is popular for their various fish and meat dishes. Cape Verdean brothers Mateus Barbosa and Salo Afonseca are opening Morna Lounge and Grill this month in New Bedford, MA that they hope will serve as a traditional Cape Verdean gathering place for the community, complete with live music from Cape Verdean artists in a post-pandemic society. In Brockton, both Khalil’s Kitchen and Luanda Restaurant and Lounge fuses Cape Verdean cuisine with traditional American fare.
As history tells it, the Senegal-Gambia region is the birthplace of the original jollof rice. Its very name is drawn from the ancient Jolof or Wolof empire, so naturally, rice is a major staple in the diets of people from this region.
“Gambia and Senegal are very closely related, except that Gambia speaks English and Senegal predominantly speaks French, however, a lot of the local tribes are the same” states Mam Dabo, a native Gambian currently residing in Texas.” “In Gambia, we eat a lot of rice and our national dish is something called benachin, which Nigerians have claimed for themselves and called it jollof.” Benachin is a one-pot fried rice filled with onions, tomatoes, garlic, vegetables, and usually a protein like chicken or beef.
“We also eat domoda often, which is peanut stew with freshly ground peanut butter, usually containing beef or chicken,” says Dabo. “A few years ago, there was actually an article about its cancer-fighting abilities and while I don’t know about the research behind that, I love domoda. It’s one of my favorites.”
With its heavy French influences, Senegalese dishes, while similar to those found in its bordering country, have some variation. The country’s national dish is thieboudienne, highly similar to benachin with the main distinction being that thieboudienne consists of fish and rice instead of the chicken or beef that constitutes benachin. You’ll also find that domoda and pastels are popular Senegalese dishes.
Popular restaurant guide group, The Infatuation, has compiled a list of some of NYC’s best Senegalese restaurants worth checking out.
New York City resident Melissa Ketch has lived in many places since leaving her hometown in Côte d'Ivoire, including Ghana, Senegal, the United Kingdom and the United States. Her husband, Jean Ketch, hails from Cameroon, so the couple knows a thing or two about food from a multitude of West African countries.
“I was very young when I moved to Ghana and I mostly stayed with host families, so I ate whatever they cooked, which was primarily local dishes like kelewele, kenkey, and a lot of other local foods,” says Melissa. “In Senegal, being with a local family there as well, I tried things like tchep, soupou kanja, and a lot of traditional foods.”
Living in cities like London and New York has afforded Melissa access to a surplus of African restaurants where she can get her favorite foods. In fact, there’s an Ivorian restaurant in her Harlem neighborhood that she and her husband enjoy frequently.
“I didn’t grow up around a lot of Cameroonians, so I didn’t have any idea about their food or even their culture,” Melissa reveals. “But after I met Jean, I decided one day to surprise him on his lunch break.” With a little (or a lot) of help from YouTube, Melissa cooked “poulet DG,” which is plantain and chicken-based stew.
“I think that was when I knew she was the one,” Jean jokes.
As it turns out, Ivorian cuisine has more in common with Cameroonian food than Melissa realized. “It’s actually the same ingredients, more or less, just put together somewhat different,” says Jean. “We do a lot of fish, especially grilled; that’s probably one of the main staples in Cameroon, and we eat it with sweet fried plantains. They have the same dishes in Ivory Coast, but I will say that I think Cameroonians do it best.”
Some of the distinctions within Cameroonian cuisine stems from its English and French influences. Take ndolé, Cameroon’s national dish, for example: traditionally, there were vast differences between the French-influenced version and the English-influenced take on the dish, with the former containing shrimp and the latter being meat. But these days the food is becoming even more merged and blended with these subtle differences fading away.
Ghanaian food has become increasingly popular with no signs of slowing down. But there’s more to it than fufu and jollof, so let’s get into some of the less discussed dishes.
Everyone has their favorites, and for Boston-based Ghanaian Kofi Larbi Koranteng, its meals like kokoo and beans, kontomire stew (made from cocoyam or taro leaves), tuo zaafi and ayoyo (an elaborate stew made with ayoyo or jute leaves that's popular in North Ghana; known as ewudu in Nigeria), banku (a mixture of fermented corn and cassava dough) and okra stew, and Tom Brown breakfast porridge.
“I eat a lot of Ghanaian food at home: bean stew, jollof rice, groundnut soup,” says Larbi. “I make a jollof rice that’s a little more new school and involves experimenting with different seasonings and cooking techniques. My mom loves it.”
Koranteng has also grown fond of Nigerian food, particularly their pounded yam. “In Ghana, we eat boiled and fried yam so it wasn’t until I went to a Nigerian restaurant that I discovered pounded yam,” he states.
First generation Ghanaian-American chef, Eric Adjepong, who was a finalist on Season 16 of Bravo’s Top Chef, used his culinary expertise to present West African flavors as more than just sustenance but also as art. His appearance on the show highlighted some of the problems that Africans living in the diaspora face when it comes to the disparity between West African and American/European palates and access to proper ingredients for African dishes. In one episode, the chefs take a trip to a grocery store (disclosure: the contestants were in Macau, a port city in China) and Adjepong struggles to find all that he needs to make egusi stew, while other contestants easily found what they were looking for. Despite this, he pulled off creating the dish with substitutions, only to have the judges (of which none were black) disapprove of the stew’s texture and be confused, in general, about the egusi stew.
“Africa is the second largest continent in the world, yet the food is so underrepresented,” said Adjepong in an interview with the Washington Post. “I went to [culinary] school and didn’t really learn much about African food and some of the chefs that I work with weren’t familiar with the ingredients and products from Africa. So, it’s essentially up to me to kind of bring that out and really showcase it.”
Nevertheless, Adjepong has done well for himself in the days since, and has recently been named Culinary Advisory for Bowery Farming. He is also set to publish not one, but two cookbooks inspired by West African flavors. The first book, titled “Sankofa,” will feature both his personal takes on West African cuisine along with a focus on the impact of the transatlantic slave trade on the food of the Southern U.S., Caribbean, and South America, reports Food & Wine. The second book–name to be determined–will be a children’s book with kid-friendly recipes.
Last, but certainly not least, is Nigerian food, arguably the most popular variation of West African food in Western settings. The country’s national dish is, arguably, jollof rice, but its swallows (a starchy base such as gari, pounded yam, amala, fufu, semovita) and related stews (ewudu, okro, ogbono, efo riro, tomato stew, etc.), boli, dodo (fried plantains), and suya are just a fraction of the immense variety of dishes found in this country of 200 million people.
“When it comes to Nigerian food, I like it all– the taste, the spices, everything,” says Remi Erogbogbo, who lives in London but hails from Nigeria. She describes some of her favorite dishes, which includes moin moin (a steamed bean cake made from blended black eyed peas, onions, and peppers; also known as alele in Ghana), amala (similar to fufu but made from yam flour and similar to kokente), okro and efo riro (a spinach stew with leaf vegetables, pepper sauce, palm oil, and meat/fish of choice).
Having lived in Ghana for a few years as well, Erogbogbo agrees that there are a lot of commonalities between Ghanaian and Nigerian food. “The tastes are different but there’s a lot of similarity in the ingredients that are used.”
You may or may not have heard of him, but Nigerian chef Shola Olunloyo is casting the spotlight on Nigerian food in America. The Philadelphia-based chef has garnered a reputation within the city’s restaurant community for his modern approaches and renditions of traditional Nigerian foods. His creations are so celebrated that Ghanaian chef Selassie Atadika has nicknamed Olunloyo the “godfather of New African Cuisine,” notes Today.
Olunloyo has secured the first-ever residency at the nonprofit Stone Barns Center, home of Blue Hill at Stone Barns– a renowned restaurant in Westchester, New York with two Michelin stars.
There are many other West African countries with culinary traditions and flavors worth exploring but those will unfold in subsequent articles. In the meantime, if you’re looking to get your hands on some West African food, in New York, there’s no shortage of restaurants where you can find it. Eater has an interactive map of at least 17 West African restaurants that they are constantly updating. There’s also a map of African spots worth checking out in Los Angeles, and if you trust the advice of thousands of TikTokers, Nigerian restaurant Aduke Nigerian Cuisine and Veronica’s Kitchen–who has seen a four-fold increase in business, thanks to the #FufuChallenge– is certainly worth giving a try.
Series developed by Zetashi & Design233. Creators Nana Dennis Manu & Korantemaa Larbi.