Getting your Trinity Audio player ready...
This year started on a high for Houston-born Kavachi Ukegbu, a third-generation chef-restauranteur with deep roots in her Nigerian culinary heritage. The “good blessings,” as she called them, came in the guise of a $10,000 grant “to do our Art of Fufu show for the city of Houston.”
It is clearly a well-deserved windfall. The dynamic 36-year-old has been working with commitment for more than ten years in diverse ways and with a big-picture vision, which is two-fold. On the one hand, to “spread the love of fufu” to the world. On the other, to create a culinary melting pot, as in facilitating cross-cultural understanding and unity through food.
A Melting Pot of Cultures and Food
“For example, I don’t know what is going on in my Jewish neighbor’s kitchen,” she says.
Or take the humble tomato. “For the Mexican, this may become salsa. For the Italian, a sauce. For the Nigerian, a stew. I don’t know of a better way for people to share their cultures than through food. People say the U.S. is a melting pot, but what about us melding together?”
Melting and melding cultures, palates, traditions and business opportunities with food as the focus. To this end, Ukegbu has studied, rallied people, run workshops, taught, engaged in marketing for self and others and lots more. The Art of Fufu is one arm of her business, this being an educational resource at its heart. Education through the eponymously titled book, The Art of Fufu; through the recipes and articles on the website; through workshops, teaching and travel.
Her company, Grubido, is another arm of her business; grubido being a Nigerian slang term for a person who loves to eat. Or if you prefer (the website gives both options) a person devotedly interested in food, especially in cooking, eating and developing a palate for high-quality foods.
Part of her commitment with Grubido is to link international culinary communities by introducing them to tastes from around the world via live food events, website reviews and a demo space. And by way of The Art of Fufu show, funding now received, planned for Fall 2022.
“The Art of Fufu,” the book, is a Grubido project. Yes, they are interlinked. Marketing is pivotal to what she does. And now, given the blessing of the grant, she has upped the ante on possibilities. Perhaps down the line, she will include New York, Chicago, Atlanta and California in her plans. Follow Grubido on Instagram to keep track.
- Mai Burnette Serves West African Flavors That Are Just a Cookbook Away
- Move Over Jollof Rice, Fufu is the Next Big Thing
Then there is Ukegbu’s other work where she is heading when we get off our Zoom call. “To go debone goat meat and pound yams.” Using wooden spoons and spatulas on the yams to get rid of the lumps. Rolling them into their customary shape. She laughs in a bemused and amused kind of way as if she cannot quite believe it herself.
She pounds between 100 and 200 yams a day, she tells me. This is at the restaurant, Safari, the longest-standing and most successful Nigerian restaurant in Houston founded and ran by Ukegbu’s mom, chef Margaret Jason.
So What is Fufu?
If you Google this question, first up is the Wikipedia fufu link, which will tell you it is a dough-like food found in West African cuisine, made from fresh or fermented cassava (called akpu by Nigerians), which at some point is simmered, the viscosity adjusted according to preference.
It is pounded and formed into fufu rolls, which you can see in the pictures we share with this story. Fufu is eaten with the fingers, pieces pinched off to form bite-size balls, then dipped into an accompanying stew, soup or sauce.
If you follow Ukegbu’s Art of Fufu on Instagram, you will see numerous images and can ask her questions about this beloved staple.
“In the 70s, a lot of Nigerians were coming to the U.S. Fufu wasn’t available. Being creative, some of them started using biscuit mix to make a version of fufu. They were used to the doughy feel. But the biscuit mix was unhealthy. Wheat flour (used for the biscuit mix) and vegetable flour (used for fufu) are different.” And most fufu options are sourced from vegetables. “Plantain, cocoyam, taro, cassava, pounded yam, garri…” She reels off the familiar names, points out that fufu is gluten-free, and says oatmeal fufu has been introduced in the U.S. in response to health kicks and demand.
The rolled plastic-wrap encased balls of fufu, as sold in the markets of Lagos, look identical to those Ukegbu makes in Texas. Because that, quite simply, is how they are done. She also explains that while these are fufu, I need to understand that fufu is not just the prepared rolled ball. In a sense, fufu refers to the whole meal—the eating, the conversation, the ritual. The soup or stew that is shared.
“Central is, you use your hands. No knife. No fork. Fufu is a vehicle. You use bits you pull from your fufu roll to dip and eat. You use it to capture the soup, the shrimp, the goat meat. I’ve come to realize a lot of people take it as dough, but it is actually cooked.” Like a large, soft gnocchi — only better, is how she describes it in the book’s preface.
Fufu, she says, is how you commune after a long day. “I still work at the restaurant [Safari] and currently, I kid you not, I see these busy men, women, sisters, family, friends, come in. Each person will have their own fufu roll, which could be garri or fried cassava or plantain or oatmeal, and they will be sharing one big bowl of soup. Breaking off bite-size bits. Dipping. Talking. Eating. Having their conversations about the issues of the day.
“I tell people that rice, for instance, jollof rice is not core to our culture. On the other hand, each soup comes from a different tribe or region in Nigeria or any other West African country. So people know who you are. They can identify where you are from by your soup.”
She points out that fufu is perfect for the vegetarian. “On top of this, a person with gluten allergies can say, I don’t have to eat bread, I can eat yam or plantain fufu and get all the nutrients I need to sustain. And of course, all our soups are vegetable based. You just need to use a little palm oil and vegetable broth.” The seafood, the meat are optional.
Teacher, That’s Bonkers!
It was the impact of a brainless comment on top of a witless decision, both made by the same third-grade teacher, that steered Ukegbu in the career direction that now informs her life. The Houston school had an international day. Children were invited to bring food representative of their culture.
Ukegbu will tell you that she pestered her mom to make her favorite red stew with lots of tomato and rice. She will tell you that she dressed up in traditional garb. That she looked cuter than a button and was reveling in the response. Loving being part of the action.
But when she looked for her mom’s stew on the table laden with brought-from-home treats, hers wasn’t there. Instead, the teacher gave her back the entire dish at the end of the party, telling the mortified child she (the teacher) hadn’t put it out because she didn’t know what it was.
Ukegbu will tell you how very hurtful this was. That memory lives with her still.
Click on this link to listen to her tell the story and explain Grubido.
“Truly, how I was brought up and since my mom has been cooking Nigerian in Houston since long before I was born, in a sense, I feel we may as well have been living in Nigeria and I’ve never left,” she laughs, and I picture many good food memories to offset that indelible bad one.
Safari, Fufu and Houston
Ukegbu’s personal food story is rooted in Nigeria. It was there that her mom’s mom, “my grandmother,” had a restaurant.
Her mom moved to Houston, as Ukegbu shares, “When she was 17 or 18. The college brought her here. She came to study criminal justice, to be a lawyer. But you’d be so tickled if you met my mom. She has the gift of the gab. A good pitch. Can you believe she had to drop out because every other year she was pushing out a baby? Nine kids. All girls and one boy. Like okay, that is very ambitious. All while working and building her business and making a name for herself in Houston. Cooking and selling her plates and ingredients outside of her car with us in it.” Finally, in 1996 opening Safari.
“The Art of Fufu,” the book, Ukegbu dedicates to her mom and dad. “I was thinking my mom should expand. But now she says she’s done. She wants me to take things over. She’s comfortable in the community being this voice, helping people who come from overseas to figure out their way. Yes, and still feeding them.”
Ukegbu sees the target market for the book as being Nigerians in the diaspora. “Houston has a huge Nigerian community and a lot of African restaurants. But not everyone is lucky enough to be here.
“In America, we have people like myself who have grown up eating fufu. But their parents have passed away, so they don’t really know about fufu.” Which includes the soups and the stews. “One interesting thing, for example, in our culture, nothing is measured. We ‘eye’ things.”
Which, she points out, is not going to be helpful for the Millennials.
“We’re trained to measure things. So the book explains this, gives recipes and quantities, tells readers how to pronounce certain words, what the ingredient is, where it comes from, what it tastes like, what might be substituted. I’d say it is essential for anyone who wants to know about and learn how to make staple dishes from West Africa.”
For those who don’t fancy doing it themselves, she and her mom are working on a fufu box that will be available for order. Different boxes. Different fufu options. Different soups. All the ingredients for each in a box. Order. Open. Follow simple instructions. Eat.
Art of Fufu on Steroids
Part of the photoshoot for the book was done in Nigeria. But fufu, like Grubido, is not just for Nigerians in the diaspora. It is also intended to bring diversity to the table. Any table. “People are inclined to look at ingredients according to their culture. So yuca, for us Africans, is cassava. Same ingredient loved differently.”
Many of the ingredients, she points out, are seen in different cultures. How they are prepared differs. “So the real purpose of this book is, people don’t know what they don’t know until you tell them. We have lessons on how to prepare and recipes to make fufu from scratch. Easy for anyone to start making.”
And meanwhile, she has made a start on her plans for the Art of Fufu show. An early version was held in 2017. It drew 134 people. This year, with the grant from the city, it’s going to be Art of Fufu on steroids. Over the next few months, Ukegbu will be pulling teams and collaborators together. Using her dynamic energy. Infusing the project with creativity and flavor.
Make sure you click through and follow the action on the links we’ve shared in this story. Think of it as happy fufu to youyou.