Fufu is boiled green plantains and cassava, pounded in a wooden mortar to a distinct pum-pum-pum beat. Fufu, the way I like it, comes out a warm yellow, with specks of black from the plantain seeds. But fufu on its own is bland. Fufu is both food and utensil, and strong enough to scoop up soup. Ghanaians eat it with palm soup, groundnut soup, a tomato soup called light soup or ebunuebunu, green soup. Adventurous eaters go for a combination of all four, known as nkatenkontobenkwan. But I am a purist. Ebunuebunu is my favorite.
Fufu originated among the Akan, the ethnic group that includes the Ashanti, Akwapim and Fanti people of what is today southern Ghana and Ivory Coast. It journeyed across West Africa as foofoo, foufou or foutou, and sailed across the Atlantic in the hearts of the people who were uprooted and enslaved, even keeping its name in Cuba. Of ebunuebunu, however, I am hard pressed to find derivatives. Its ingredients are the leaf of the cocoyam plant; dried mudfish, tilapia or other river fish; mushrooms; snails; onions; ginger; garlic; and sometimes grasscutter, the cane rat, which my mother says “adds gamy flavor for those who like it.” The ingredients are slow-cooked until they coalesce into a forest-green broth that looks like witches’ brew and tastes like smoke and earth, with a wholesomeness that lingers on the tongue.
For many Africans, recipes are one of the last vestiges of connection between our presents and pasts, before the culture-changing influences of Islam, Christianity and colonialism. What we thought was African print fabric turns out to be imported from Indonesia via the Netherlands. Our religions, our languages, are now mishmashes of what was and what infiltrated.
Even with food, pure ancestral links can be tenuous. In Ghana, for instance, there are two types of cocoyam. One was native to the forests of the Ashanti, and the other was introduced from the Americas, possibly in the 16th or 17th century, or much later, in the 1800s, by West Indian missionaries. The native type is called old cocoyam and the other, new cocoyam.
Not much has been written about the history of West African cuisine, and a lot of what is considered historically West African is quite new. My Akan ancestors left Sudan around the 10th century — possibly fleeing forced conversion to Islam — and moved into the forest. Their original diet would have been considerably different from what they would come to find and create there. Their cattle would have suffered in the humidity and constricted spaces of the forest, and many succumbed to death by tsetse fly. My ancestors’ groundnuts and millet and rice seeds would have sprouted mold. To stay alive, I imagine a matriarch — Akan women have always been indomitable — whipping up the young to forage for edibles, which she would throw into a clay pot: snails crawling and mushrooms sprouting from the forest floor.
Snails became an item for bartering. Many rivers traversed the forest, and from them my people extracted fish, which they learned to conserve through smoking. They found old cocoyam and began to cultivate it. The historian Ivor Wilks posited that the Akan were the first to begin cultivating plants in the forests of pre-colonial Ghana.
It would take trial and error to get the proportions right, to prevent death by poisoning. For centuries we pounded our plantain and cassava because that was the way things had always been done. Only later would we learn that cassava contains cyanide; soaking, boiling and pounding it all help to temper or expel its poison.
Cassava was also an introduction from the Americas, made popular in the region because it grew fast. It became an essential food source during times of strife, such as after displacement by slave raids. The machine behind these raids was not only European: The Ashanti (the word is a corruption of “osa nti,” a people brought together because of war) had one of the most fearsome armies in pre-colonial West Africa and became one of the largest slave-owning ethnic groups in West Africa. Part of the reason they had slaves was to cultivate their farms.
Thomas Bowdich, an English author, visited the Asantehene, the Ashanti king, several times, and almost every time he mentioned these meetings there was a corresponding description of soups: “A relish was served (sufficient for an army) of soups, stews, plantains, yams, rice ….”
These days, rice is more common in Ghana than fufu. Soups are often spiced with shrimp or chicken bouillon cubes (Maggi! Jumbo! Onga!) as a shortcut to flavor, and my indomitable ancestress spins in her grave.
I have a recurring dream in which I am driving with my maternal grandmother. The road is walled with tree trunks and tall green weeds. We end up in what must be our family home, which is teeming with relatives cooking. Nothing quite happens in the dream, but I keep coming back to it, to the journey through the forest, its saturation and promise, and to the food being prepared: fufu and ebunuebunu and boiled green plantains with cocoyam leaf sauce.
The Ashantis believe that dreams represent our souls traveling as we sleep, or invisible threads connecting our pasts and our futures. Capt. R.S. Rattray, a Scottish anthropologist, compiled Ashanti dreams and their interpretations in “Religion and Art in Ashanti,” published in 1927, and included a reading that could be applied to mine: “If you dream that you are eating and you see one of your ancestors hiding himself (perhaps you only see his feet or hands), that means he is hungry. You give him fish and water on a table in your room or at his grave, and when you put the food down you call all your ancestors’ names, then you will not dream of any of them again for some time.”
But I never get to eat in my dream, and apart from my grandmother, who was alive when these dreams began, I can’t identify which ancestors are lurking there.
When my sister and I were growing up in Accra in the ’90s, lying on our bellies, we would thumb through the magazines our aunties who lived abroad had left behind. Most of the images were inaccessible: the clothes, the houses. It was the food that got to us. Crystal Light lemonade — the envy at this makes me scratch my head. It had to have been the careful placement of the decorative mint leaves or the beading of water on the jugs that made us dream and drool. Because no one was doing such P.R. for our local foods, we longed to leave our shores to savor this manna from America.
When I finally left and started college in America, these foods tasted just as addictive as they looked, but they soon lost their novelty. What the 10-year-old me could never have imagined was that someday I would hanker for my ancestral meals, for eto (mashed plantains and palm oil, topped with a boiled egg), for abom (boiled green plantain with mashed cocoyam leaf), and for ebunuebunu and fufu.