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A food common to many parts of Africa, but always a little different

There are just two main ingredients in fufu, a starchy dish common throughout many Western and Central African countries, flour and water. But there are rules. Not rules of measurements so much as emotion. “When you eat fufu, you must eat it with sentiment, with feeling,” Nadine Pembele says. “And with family and friends around,” adds Betty Ayoub Kabbashi. ”You can never eat fufu alone.” They’ve gathered to cook two different versions of fufu at Kabbashi’s house in Portland. Kabbashi is Azande, a native of Juba, South Sudan, and Pembele is from Bandundu, a province of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Betty Ayoub Kabbashi (left) and Nadine Pembele (right) laugh all the way through the making of fufu. The two women have slightly different spins on this classic starchy dish that’s common in many African countries. Photo by Molly Haley

Fufu is generally served alongside meat and vegetable dishes as a soft dough, something to be held in the hand and torn into pieces. It varies slightly from region to region in its viscosity, preparation methods and even its name. Though disparity is customary, there seems to be a “right way” to make whichever variation you’ve landed on. “You’ll never get it the first time,” Pembele says. “Not the second either, I swear! Not even the third. Maybe the fifth or sixth…maybe.”

When Pembele and her husband left the DRC in 2016 they were fleeing violence, with the expectation that someday they could go home. But it’s still not safe to return. Kabbashi has been in Maine longer, since 2011. She was a dentist and maxillofacial surgeon in Sudan. Determined to practice in the U.S., Kabbashi studies for board exams in the evenings after tucking her two children into bed. She works full time as an interpreter at Maine Medical Center. She’s a single mother, having recently lost her husband to cancer.

Cassava leaves for the main dish are stewing, the aroma of cooked onion fills the kitchen and Nigerian gospel music plays in the living room. Kabbashi and Pembele steal glances over one another’s shoulders as they prepare two stews, Gadia and Fumbwa. Gadia is a creamy cassava leaf stew with hints of onion, peanut butter and palm oil and is a sacred dish used in Azande naming ceremonies. While Kabbashi stirs the Gadia, Pembele cleans and descales mackerel in the sink for the Fumbwa, a beloved tropical stew named after its main ingredient, the leaves plucked from native tropical evergreens. The leaves grow tall and thin, but are sold finely diced in the markets. Fumbwa is also rich with peanut butter and is typically prepared with smoked African catfish, but as that can be pricey, mackerel is sometimes substituted. She slices the fish into large pieces before submerging it into the stew to soak up the flavor.

Nadine Pembele washes the Fumbwa leaves. Photo by Molly Haley

Both women hum to the music and discuss the traditions and foods they miss. For Kabbashi it is cooking with fresh greens from the jungle. Pembele misses eating food wrapped in palm leaves roasted over fire and munching on an afternoon snack of caterpillar and palm weevils. They long for inexpensive (about 50 cents) boiled cassava stick they could buy from street vendors at home. There is much to miss. Neither of them have found a local restaurant that serves fufu, so they have this staple only in their own homes or at parties. With more people immigrating to Maine from various regions of Africa, they are hopeful that soon there will be a restaurant with fufu on the menu.

While the stews simmer, they place their bags of flour on the table to prepare. Kabbashi’s eyes grow wide when she sees what Pembele has brought. “Is this real cassava flour?” she exclaims. Pembele nods. She found it at Serey Pheap Market on St. John Street in Portland. Kabbashi beams; in her eight years in Maine, though she frequents multiple markets to satiate her Sudanese palate, including Cambodian markets for fish and vegetables and Arabic and African markets for meats, she’s never found real cassava flour. (The kinds of flour used in fufu vary depending on region, but both women favor cassava.) Traditionally they’d extract it themselves by soaking cassava root, drying it in the sun and pounding it using a large wooden pestle and mortar. Pembele cuts her cassava flour with maize to give it a slightly tougher and grainier consistency. Kabbashi prefers her fufu soft and sticky, made with all cassava.

Ingredients for fufu include different flours, depending on who the maker is, and most often cassava and/or maize. Photo by Molly Haley

Kabbashi carefully pours flour into boiling water, measuring with only her eyes. It takes about 10 minutes and the last few are the most crucial. The fufu rapidly grows sticky and dense as more flour is added. Stooped over the pot, Kabbashi aggressively beats the fufu with her fufu stick. It is about as long as a Little League bat and thin, with a thick bulbous arrow-like tip. Pembele stands behind, “you see how you can never get it right the first time?!” she shouts through laughter at her friend’s dramatic exertions. Kabbashi pounds the fufu against the side of the pan as it bubbles into a soft and gooey mound, mashing the air pellets as quickly as they appear. “See how careful and attentive she is? Concentrating! Wow! My goodness, she’s brave!” cries Pembele, confessing she starts her fufu with cold water to evade such combative bubbles. Left unsquashed, the bubbles would turn into pockets of uncooked flour, the kind of disgrace that would “make the village CNN,” they joke.

While Nadine Pembele watches, Betty Ayoub Kabbashi positions herself above the fufu to beat the air bubbles of the starchy staple of many African regions. Photo by Molly Haley

In the final steps, Kabbashi whisks the pot from the stove and places it on the floor between her feet. She continues to beat the mixture, perched above it on a chair using the fufu stick, which she brought with her from Sudan, growing breathless with the effort she’s making with the stick, her Sngua bakinde. And then, just as suddenly as fufu thickens, it is finished. Kabbashi drops her stick and sits back. “Done.” She carefully transfers the fufu onto a serving platter and uses a small plate to round out the edges. Kabbashi sets the table as Pembele begins her fufu. Pembele’s fufu cooks up quickly and with less drama, partly because she starts with maize, which quells the bubbles. Her fufu stick is shorter and more stout, “my nzeté à fufu is better for bearing weight,” she teases.

Steam rises from the dishes. Pembele pinches off a portly piece from the doughy pile of fufu on her plate, dips it in her Fumbwa, and places it in her mouth.“Your hands must taste the fufu too,” she says. “A dish without Fufu is like sauce without the spaghetti,” Pembele says. Kabbashi nods. “When you eat fufu, you feel its heat all the way from your mouth to your stomach.” She takes a bite and smiles with eyes closed. “It’s just a beautiful taste.”

FUFU RECIPES

How to make cassava flour:

  • Soak cassava root 3–4 days until tender. Peel skin to expose creamy flesh beneath.
  • Cut into large chunks. Place on sand to dry by sun.
  • Once dried, ground cassava root using a large wooden mortar and pestle until it becomes a powder.
  • Sift powder and collect fine cassava flour beneath.

Fufu (Azande Tradition)

Ingredients: water, cassava flour (optional choice to cut with other flour)
Materials: medium sized pan and Ngua Bakinde (Fufu Stick)
Estimates: 1 liter of water, 5–6 cups of flour. Serves 2–3 people.

  • Boil water.
  • When water is boiled, slowly add cassava flour while mixing using your Ngua Bakinde (Fufu Stick) (about 1–2 cups to start).
  • After a few minutes, mix in the remainder of the cassava flour (slowly while beating).
  • Continue to mix and beat the fufu until it becomes more viscous (the fufu thickens very quickly! Be attentive and work swiftly to pound out all the lumps and bubbles).
  • When finished, fufu will be soft, sticky, mildly sweet and nutty.

In the absence of cassava flour, fufu uses semolina and an all-purpose Australian wheat flour. In this case, she begins with 1–2 cups semolina flour and mixes in 3–4 cups of Australian wheat flour.

Fufu (Lubumbashi Province, DR Congo)

Ingredients: water, cassava flour, maize flour
Materials: medium sized pan and nzeté à fufu (Fufu Stick)
Estimates: 1 liter of water, 3–4 cups maize flour, about 2 cups cassava

  • Place water in pan at low heat.
  • Before it gets too warm, mix maize flour (about 1 cup) in and bring to boil.
  • While the mixture is boiling, add more maize flour (2–3 cups) while also mixing in cassava flour (about 2 cups).
  • Mix and turn with nzeté à fufu (fufu stick) until it becomes thicker and harder.
  • Fufu should be a thick, tough, and grainy consistency, but not too hard.

Meg Webster works at UNE’s School of Social Work, where she coordinates media and recruitment projects. As a freelance media artist, she’s produced a variety of advocacy shorts, exhibited in galleries and writes regularly for Maine publications.

MORE IMAGES OF KABBASHI & PEMBELE

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