When Bravo’s “Top Chef” contestant chef Eric Adjepong whipped up a West and Central African favorite, fufu, it was a first for the American reality competition television series. Fufu might not be a household name in the United States, but it’s a common dish throughout West and Central African countries that include Ghana, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Nigeria, Cameroon and the Democratic Republic of Congo with varying ingredients such as plantain, cassava or yams.
Known to these communities in the United States and across the African diaspora, fufu’s debut on “Top Chef” elevated the dish to national recognition. The excitement around the dish is paving the way for it to potentially reach the status of the now famous West African jollof rice. Owing its fame to the never-ending banter of which country cooks it best, jollof wars have been perpetuated through a Twitter hashtag of friendly, nationalistic trash talk.
Fufu Makes Its National Debut
On the show, host Padma Lakshmi asked the competing chefs to create a six-course menu for 100 guests. Each contestant had to make a course inspired by one of the legendary boxer Muhammad Ali’s fights. Adjepong chose Ali’s fight “Rumble in the Jungle” which was fought between Ali and George Freeman in Kinshasa, Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo) in 1974.
A first-generation Ghanaian-American, Adjepong chose to make fufu with Congolese red sauce. He used a flour made with plantain and cassava to whip up a dumpling-like dough that he then rolled into a palm-sized ball. The traditional way of making fufu in Ghana involves pounding boiled plantain and cassava with a large mortar and pestle that takes immense physical strength to accomplish. But in lieu of these assets, packaged fufu flour, which is whipped on a stove, does the job.
Placing the fufu in the middle of the red sauce, Adjepong served it to the judges, which included Ali’s daughter, Laila Ali. Twitter responded with praise, with people citing the importance of the moment on the show and the potential for fufu to be more significant in America.
The judges loved the fufu so much that they selected Adjepong as the winner. Lakshmi stated, “I’m so glad that you made this dish because I don’t think a lot of Americans know about this food.” For Americans who didn’t know about fufu before, Adjepong has now put it on their minds and maybe plates too.
Dishing Up Fufu and its Benefits
Although fufu is now on a national platform, it has always been a staple on West African restaurant menus in the United States. Washington, DC’s Ghanaian restaurant, Appioo Restaurant and Bar serves fufu with diverse choices of soups and meats, while renowned Senegalese chef Pierre Thiam’s Harlem restaurant, Teranga, serves it with peanut sauce, ndambe (black-eyed pea and sweet potato stew) and attieke (grated fermented cassava). The different ways that fufu can be served makes it attractive for adaptation and creativity as new groups of people are introduced to it and seek to add their own flair.
Health conscious eaters might be pleased to know that fufu is both vegan and gluten-free. Low in fat and calories, the use of plantains, cassava, or yams in the dish provides a good source of fiber and potassium. According to a nutritional study, fufu that is produced from co‐processing of cassava and cocoyam has more nutritional qualities than fufu made from cassava alone. Yet, fufu is mostly carbohydrates, which diminishes its chances of making it onto the wealth of low-carb diets.
By leveraging national media platforms to introduce dishes such as fufu to Americans, culinary stars such as Adjepong are increasing the profile of African foods. To gain more prominence, fufu may need to take a page from Jollof, perhaps with a social war of its own. Whether through this method or other means, it’s clear that African food culture is making an imprint in the United States, and fufu’s moment on “Top Chef “ opens the door for more African dishes to join the ranks of jollof on the national stage.