By Adaorah Oduah | FoodAndWine.Com
Troy Warren #foodie-all
How can you “discover” a food that’s been internationally popular since the 18th century?
On TikTok, as KeithEats, Cameroonian-American pharmacy student Keith Atowo vlogs his many meals to over 270,000 followers. His feed is a mix of West African favorites and an array of other cuisines and it’s where the #fufuchallenge began. After a particularly popular video of Keith enjoying fufu with vegetable soup, other TikTok users began mimicking the dish. Within a few weeks fufu had gone viral, joining the likes of birria tacos, feta pasta, and mini pancake cereal.
But as fufu spread throughout TikTok, it carried with it misunderstandings and assumptions about West African cuisine. I watched endless videos of fufu being eaten with savory egusi soup, sometimes accompanied by enthusiastic nods of approval and other times spit-takes. On the whole, the reactions to fufu were, in a word, confounding. In the U.S., where most of the challenges took place, West African food was being “discovered.” But how do you discover a dish that has been widely internationally popular for the past four centuries?
White, doughy, and starchy, fufu is a by-product of cassava, also known as yuca or manioc. The root vegetable is peeled, fermented, boiled, and pounded with a wooden mortar and pestle until it forms a full-bodied mound to be eaten with a variety of vegetable-, palm nut-, or peanut-based soups and stews. Occasionally, unripe plantains are added to the mix, as well as white yams—true yams to North Americans.
Cassava is a staple of the Brazilian kitchen and it’s here that the Africa-to-America cassava connection begins. Cassava’s popularity started with the Portuguese, who in the 16th century exported the root vegetable from Brazil to the West African coast. In West Africa, it was treated the same as other starches, pounded till doughy and swallowed with soup.
Fufu means to mix or mash in Twi, a language spoken in Ghana. It made its international debut in the 16th and 17th centuries. When enslavers forcefully brought West African populations to the Americas, enslaved people found that fufu’s primary ingredients, cassava and plantains, were native to their new homes. They made and named similar starchy foods “fufu.”
On a global level, fufu is not an inaccurate catch-all for a starchy mash often eaten with soup, but locally it’s just one kind of dough from a whole range of doughs. Collectively the doughs are colloquially called swallows, mostly due to how they are traditionally eaten—with soup. Soup and swallow are essential to West African cuisine. Each iteration of soup and swallow is an ode to the region’s elemental flavors and ingredients. And this is what fufu’s TikTok virality missed—the versatility of fufu, and crucially, its context.
Nneoma Okorie, who goes by @nneunfiltered on TikTok, had mixed emotions about fufu TikTok. “I feel great about [West] African food having a moment on TikTok, because it’s also introduced the food to people outside of Africa, and diasporans. However, I hate that it had to happen like this. In a way that is not only spreading ignorance but also creating a clout train to disrespect our food,” Okorie said.
Okorie is a Nigerian American content creator who leans into her West African heritage to create relatable content about being an African in the diaspora. Scrolling through the fufu frenzy of the past month—which has now amassed over 400 million views—she became aware of the disconnect between the montages of slurps and smacks and the wider reality of West African food. On the makeshift counters of Lagos bukas, you can expect to see large metal bowls of red goat meat stew and smoky jollof rice cooked over firewood. Drawy ewedu and fresh gbegiri are a must, and so is egusi soup brimming with stockfish. To the side, you’ll find an assortment of doughy starches each about the size of a palm. Here you’ll discover that, contrary to what the recent internet frenzy assumes, all doughy West-African starches are not simply fufu. There is a yellow sponge that is most likely Eba, a greyish brown, most likely Amala, and the white is typically either pounded Yam or Tuwo. Each has its own subtle flavors and consistencies.
“As a West African, I use the specific name for the specific swallow because they all have their individual names—like human beings, like dishes in other countries,” says Ozoz Sokoh, a Nigerian food writer and historian.
Swallow is calque, a direct translation of indigenous West Africa words for pounded starches. On Ozoz Sokoh’s instagram feed, you’ll find a colorful archive of swallows, soups, and the full gamut of West African flavors. In between indulgent closeups of star-shaped okra and flaky meat patties, is the gentle reminder to pay attention; to the food, its history, and its stories.
“West African ingredients have been the foundation for the success of global economies for centuries, from technical skills and knowledge which enslaved West Africans applied to making Carolina rice, and other crops gold. Think [about] coffee and sugarcane… there’s a separation, a dissociation of foods of Black origin which I don’t like,” Ozoz said.
But the surge of interest in fufu also portends more interest in West African food generally, something that British-Nigerian chef and owner of London restaurant Talking Drum Victor Okunowo applauds. “The future of West African cuisine is bright! I’m optimistic because 10 years ago the thought of a fufu challenge going viral by non-Africans might have been unimaginable. Who knows what the next 10 years will bring,” Okunowo said.
Okunowo is part of a new wave of West African chefs on the continent and within the diaspora demanding that the cuisine be treated with the same care and credence as foods from other regions of the world.
While the TikTok spotlight on fufu will likely be fleeting, its roots are not. West African food has always been here. It’s always been hugely popular and the evaporation of this common knowledge is nothing short of systemic erasure. Fufu is only the beginning.