THE TRUTH ABOUT FUFU: By KOFI AKPABLI
Topam topam is the sound
That draws us to the mound
of fufu found
in an island of soup
we swim and
swallow and swallow and swallow…
Perhaps, if there is one reason why we refuse to adopt a less laborious way to pound fufu, it is because we believe it is worth the sweat. For those Ghanaians who eat fufu, they love it to the morsel and the toil of preparation seems fair effort for the yummy reward.
Of course, one is aware of these modern, pre-made innovations but frankly, what has powder got to do with it? Fufu is about boiled tubers and topam-topam, that’s all.
In Ghana, we express serendipity by saying that ‘fufu has fallen into soup.’ One does not wish for a more palatable situation. Whether done with yam, cassava, cocoyam, plantain or combinations of these, fufu provides a delicious, full meal for many Ghanaians. It also allows us to show our zest for life.
Just consider this: a sweaty encounter with an ‘asanka’ of fufu, overran with hot, delicious soup- crabs, snails, fish and all. The ginger and pepper and prekese gets the nose to run, still the swallowing continues unabated. While the right hand is ferrying the fufu in, the left hand busily wipes the sweat, the phlegms and the tears. Occasionally, the soup trickles from the palm down to the elbow but the mouth still follows this and actually sucks the drip at the tip of the elbow…
This may not exactly be your style but that is what the love of fufu can do to folks. For those who don’t like it (how saaaad) sorry, but you can’t be helped here.
Fufu is important because it is one of the most widespread staple foods in Ghana. From the coastal belt through the forest regions to Savannah-land fufu is a staple in its various forms.
Boiled tubers are pounded until they turn gummy, soft, and uniformly textured. But there is a price to pay. Fufu preparation takes much time. It is energy demanding and produces noise.
Owing to these reasons, fufu is not a meal that one person would ordinarily prepare. At home, fufu effectively becomes a family affair. Contrast this to a saucepan of rice prepared for the family. All day long, each person can come and dish their portions. Not so with fufu. By constitution, fufu goes bad in a couple of hours. (Some people try to preserve by placing salt on top). What this means is that the food must be faced and cleared like the football penalty event.
In Ghana the day most associated with the fufu phenomenon is Sunday. There isn’t much activity and everyone is home. Fufu thus becomes a ceremonial dish, much like the English family’s Sunday Roast Dinner. Because of these connections, when the Ghanaian says he or she is looking forward to the weekend, fufu is likely to be part of the motivation.
In rural or traditional societies, however, fufu is a daily situation. Indeed, there are communities in which (like bird song at sunset) evenings are marked with a symphony of fufu sound splash blaring from every household.
Fufu pounding comes with a skill set and style of its own. It involves repeatedly thrusting the pestle into the mortar. The complementary technique has to do with massaging or moderating the gummy paste in the mortar with the bare hand.
The moderation involves, adding up boiled tubers one at a time, softening with water, turning and removing lumps (Lumps are a curse and disrupt the smoothness of the fufu eating experience). The skill set also includes regulating the intensity of each pestle hit. Like a choir director, the moderator instructs the pounder to hit hard or land softly. Finally, the moderator smoothens the fufu, cuts the portions and serves them out.
How fufu turns out depends a lot on how it has been moderated . The one in charge must understand the dynamics of tubers. For instance, some turn out fantastic when pounded hot. Others only do well when pounded cold. (With boiled cassava the general rule is that the colder and drier it is, the more elastic the fufu).
The position of the fufu pounder is to stand facing the moderator (who sits on a low stool). The technique is to hold the pestle with both arms. With eyes glued to the mortar, he raises it up and brings it crashing into the specific spot indicated by the moderator (actually, where the moderator’s fingers have just left). Call this the game of ‘follow my fingers.’
For those who wonder why there is no hand crashing in this enterprise, the secret is simple. Rhythm. Fufu pounding is all about rhythm (actually, fufu swallowing is also about rhythm). This is what ensures that the hand of the moderator is not flattened because right from the first pestle crash it is established when the hand can get in and out of the mortar.
At chop bars where giant pestles and mortars are used, it is common to see fufu macho-men punctuate each hit with a moaning refrain. Sometimes, their manly sweat drip down to flavour the fufu. But hold it, if you intend to complain to the Food and Drugs Board. A number of Ghanaians surveyed eating fufu at the restaurant confessed that they still respect the pedigree of chop bar fufu. When the soup is prepared by a man, then we’re talking something quintessential.
In Ghanaian culture the stance of the fufu pounder is determined by his relationship with the moderator. Fufu pounding protocol demands that a junior must be upstanding and hold pestle with both hands. However, when the pounder is of a higher social status, eg. a husband, he may sit and pound. He may also hold the pestle with just one hand.
The fufu pounding process does not always follow the two-person model (known also as ‘fufu-one-on-one’). There are those who have mastered both techniques of pounding and moderating and can single-handedly merge the two talents. Call this one-person operation ‘Automated Fufu Machine’ [AFM] or ‘aworka’ in local parlance.
AFM requires a high level of efficiency and synchronisation. The person sits using one hand to hold the pestle in the middle while the other hand does the turning. method also requires sharp psychomotor abilities and a mental balance. In our society, I ndividuals skilled in AFM, are taken for granted but they are an asset to the nation.
Finally, there’s the format where fufu is pounded in a giant mortar. Up to about six people stand round the mortar with pestle in hand. Here, there is no moderator, (that would be murder, won’t you say). At a signal, each participant hit rhythmically at the mass of boiled yam. This is the ‘Pestles of Mass Destruction’ [PMD] technique. The PMD method pertains in northern parts of Ghana.
For many enthusiasts fufu is life. It’s life attributes are typified by the mortar and pestle which are analogous to the copulation that leads to procreation. The pestle is not only phallus shaped it actually simulates its piston action. The mortar is feminine, the one with the vital opening.
Pestle expends the energy to thrust in and out while mortar is imbued with soaking the pressure. Together, both implements help each other to consummate the task thereby releasing tension.
When all is done, the pestle is no longer needed until the next session. Meanwhile, the end product lies in the bosom of the mortar just like a new baby issues from the woman’s womb.
There is a trinity of unspoken rules governing fufu. Firstly, it must go with soup (not sauce, not stew, not gravy). We mean soup in the unadulterated Ghanaian sense. Fufu without soup is like a groom without a bride.
Rule two: fufu must be swallowed. Nothing can be uglier than watching someone chew. D.i.s.g.u.s.t.i.n.g.
Rule three: fufu must be eaten with the fingers, all the time and all the way. Don’t forget, the fufu encounter also involves portioning and rounding up each morsel, lapping up soup, breaking bones and cutting fish. The fingers can perform all these smoothly. Simply put, fufu is a hand-y affair. Using a cutlery is an aberration. (Time to bow your heads in shame, all you who use cutlery) For clarification, one is allowed to use spoon, to scoop the soup.
When it comes to how folks like their fufu it’s not quite a simple affair. While some prefer the fufu swimming in soup (Island Delight), others like it separated from the soup. But it goes beyond that. For some, the type of fufu desired actually squares up with the type of soup. The permutation may thus go like this: light fufu with thick soup or thick fufu with thick soup.
Because of the emotional attachment to fufu over the generations, there is a body of habits and myths that have developed round it. For example, in Ghanaian society, when someone owes you and you visit to claim your money, there is nothing more irritating than to catch the person pounding fufu (how dare you?).
Connoisseurs believe that when it is very well pounded fufu is able to breathe. According to experts this breathing phenomenon occurs between the time fufu has just been pounded and before the soup comes.
After fufu has been pounded it is a taboo for the mortar to be left in the open and touched by dew. Also, to avoid seeing a ghost, one does not wash the face with water collected from the mortar. And, oh, pounding an empty mortar is tantamount to pounding your mother’s breasts.
Among certain communities it is believed that those who you don’t eat fufu have their mouths and lips formed differently (now that you know you may go ahead and examine the mouths of non-fufu folks) .
People rent houses based on the fact that they are allowed to pound fufu. In selecting homes some people prefer to live downstairs so that their fufu-life will be happier. This is because some landlords do not allow pounding while others do but only before 6 pm. If you are a die hard fufu fan you need to find out about the fufu policy before renting a new place.
Fufu is special in a number of ways. All our main meals are prepared hot. Uniquely, fufu comes cold, but this is palatably neutralised with the hot soup that mandatorily accompanies it.
Fufu offers a natural body building opportunity. It is said that before gyms came to town, fufu was producing machomen for free. Also related to its exercising benefits, some communities encourage pregnant women in their last trimester to pound fufu. It is believed that this ensures easy and short labour.
Fufu is good, it is smooth, it is filling. There are those who eat it in the afternoon and they are done for the day. Others have it in the morning and eat nothing until supper. Some claim they need the fufu dosage like a medical prescription. If they don’t eat fufu in a day they have not eaten. Deprive them and you will be infringing on their human right.
All said and done, fufu is not only about finger licking and tummy filling. It also has an elevated place in Ghanaian folklore.
According to a local myth, the fufu story is central to the creation of the world. This legend goes that in the beginning the world was close to God. And the world was good. There was peace, love and joy. The creator provided rain and shine in favourable measure.
God also provided mankind’s other needs. The air was pure and water was sweet. Rivers overflowed with fish and crop harvest was three times a year. When the earth tried to quake or the wind blew too hard, the Old Man was there to take control, for he lived close by. His home was in the clouds which hanged virtually at arm’s length.
All was well until man discovered the taste for fufu. Unlike Adam’s Garden-of-Eden apple, fufu was a serious staple food. It was delicious, satisfying and most importantly, smooth to swallow. In fact, compared to apples, fufu was worth losing paradise for.
According to the folk tale, man’s obsession with fufu pounding marked the beginning of his problems with the Old Man. Each time the pestle was raised, it pushed the clouds away from the earth. Each time the pestle came down heavily, God shuddered in horror. This went on until the creator became further and further removed from mankind.
Today, God lives high upstairs and hears our prayers less. Whatever the lesson of this story, we still have to thank God for the gifts of life. This includes fufu. Amen.