Fufu is a dough-like starch staple across West African culture, personalized and woven into the lives and stories of families. “When you eat fufu and soup, you're stepping into history, experiencing a rich cultural heritage,” writes chef Kavachi Ukegbu in her new book “The Art of Fufu.” Ukegbu’s family opened Safari, the first Nigerian restaurant in Houston, in 1996, and she has since gone on to found the culinary company and website Grubido, alongside teaching the world about the West African staple through her Art of Fufu project.
Ukegbu takes us inside the book and the origins, etiquette, and diverse range of soups surrounding fufu.
The following has been edited for length and clarity.
KCRW: Can you describe fufu and its main components?
Kavachi Ukegbu: Fufu is usually the vehicle into the soup. It’s usually pounded yam tuber, cassava, cocoyam, and I want to say oatmeal, which is considered wheat fufu. Fufu usually is eaten with a hearty vegetable soup. It can be a vegetable from melon seed, mango seed, okazi, spinach, peanut soup. Most of the time, all of our West African soups are tribal-based. And it can stem from Nigeria, Ghana, Cameroon, Senegal, Liberia. And Liberia is known for their cassava soup. … And the soup is, the majority of the time, vegan.
Recipe: Yam fufu
When you say vehicle, do you mean that it is used with your fingers instead of a utensil?
Exactly. And most of the time, you can kind of tell who is not familiar with fufu if they bring out the cutlery to eat it. So as a child, you are pretty much eating with your hands, which is fun.
What’s the traditional setup that comes to the table when serving or eating fufu?
The proper food etiquette when eating fufu is to wash your hands in a basin bowl. It usually comes with water. Some people have a soap water. And we always say your water is your cutlery, like you're using your hands, you can trust your hands when eating the food. So you always have to wash your hands because you touch so many things. … So it's customary to offer any of your guests a basing full of water with soap and a napkin.
Fufu has a particular texture that makes it easier to turn into your own little scoop. Are there personalized moves that you make or different techniques?
Yes. Inside our book, we have a page that teaches everyone how to roll fufu the correct way. And if you're starting off, I would always say to roll it with two hands. But as you begin to get comfortable with rolling fufu, people tend to just roll it with one hand. And everybody's mouth is different. Depending on the soup, if it's just straight okra soup, you're gonna have to chew okra. You can't swallow okra. Some of the soups that are like egusi, which is blended melon seed, some people are able to just swallow that whole. So depending on the soup, that gives you an idea of how big the fufu ball should be.
Recipe: Okra soup
Do people make an indentation in the ball?
Yes, they pinch it in the center.
Sometimes the ball is referred to as a “swallow.” Why is that?
This depends on your level and your comfort. I grew up eating fufu, and I remember my mom hitting me saying, “Listen, you don't chew, you swallow.” So as I’ve gotten older, I'm so used to swallowing it because, depending on the soup, if it's like vegetable soup, I can swallow that. But if it's okra soup, I have to chew, because I can't swallow okra. Whenever I'm teaching my cooking class or explaining to them about eating fufu, I always say “Let's just start off as a small ball and then work ourselves up.”
Do you watch obsessions being created in the moment when you see people experiencing it for the first time?
It's interesting because I always ask them, “What vegetable are you familiar with?” And most people will gravitate to okra. But then I always say there are starter soups. Starter soups are usually the more user friendly, which are egusi, vegetable, and okra. As you begin to experience the different types of flavors, your taste palate tends to be more matured to actually have the native soup. And the native soups are really just full of flavor. … And they're like, “Oh, this is actually really good.”
I remember I couldn't even eat bitter leaf soup. Bitter leaf soup is the most medicinal vegetable soup that you can think of. And as I’ve gotten older, I'm like, “This is my comfort soup.” I love bitter leaf. When I was a child, it was okra soup. … Whenever you’re having any indigestion problems, bitter leaf soup is going to help you.
What is the bitter leaf in the soup?
It's a vegetable that's grown in West Africa. [When pregnant women are] a little bit nauseous, my mom will make bitter leaf soup for them. And that's most of the Igbos, they eat bitter leaf soup.
Is it available here dried? Are you able to get it fresh?
It's dried. When I went to Nigeria and saw the actual fresh vegetable, I was like, “I prefer it dry.”
Recipe: Plantain fufu
How do people in your cooking classes generally respond to fufu?
You can't be my friend and not have a soup. I'm sorry. Like, if you come to Houston, you're going to eat a soup. Because I want you to be able to try different flavors. Especially when I'm introducing my vegan friends to fufu, they're … so in awe. They're like, “These melon seeds can actually make a soup?” They're so blown away.
With “The Art of Fufu” book, a lot of people who were not raised on this soup are actually taking the initiative and really understanding more about West African food, and especially the African diaspora. Our parents were so busy making a living for us that they didn't really give us time to actually learn how to make the soups. So with “The Art of Fufu,” we’re really helping a lot of Africans and non-Africans understand our staple food. And inside the book, we're actually giving you a guide of each ingredient and explaining to you the essence of the soup and what the soup consists of.