Butterflies on my tummy. The time for adventure is finally here. Up until now, at least in some form, most of the food I’ve explored on this journey I’ve had an idea of what to expect. The Foodie’s Wanderlust progress started from my home country in the Caribbean, then crossed the Atlantic to land in Europe and explore recipes there. Then the Balkans and Middle Eastern cuisine. All of them familiar because of it’s popularity and/or my own (limited) experiences.
That was a very enjoyable part of the trip, very rewarding and full of surprises. But today marks the beginning of a new part of this journey where I venture into unexplored territories, places I have no F*$(# clue of what they eat. Today is Nigeria’s day for Boil and Trouble, and I have been reading about their culture and foods for about a week. My discoveries have been in part fun(ny) and in part unexpectedly familiar.
I should’ve know. We Puerto Ricans are raised to believe, and with good reason, that our blood is the mixture of three “races”. The Taíno people, first inhabitants of the island who were conquered by the Europeans at the end of the 1400’s. That’s where the second part of our blood comes, mainly Spain, but also France, Portugal, England, Germany, etc. With the Conquistadors came also cruelty and slavery. Africans flooded our islands primarily for work, but consequently to enrich our culture and our blood with beautiful music, excellent food and wonderful traditions.
When first reading about Nigerian food I thought I was going to have difficulties finding ingredients to cook with. Little did I know that the most basic ingredients of their cooking are things I’ve been eating since I was a little kid. How is it that it has never crossed my mind the fact that Puerto Rican (and Caribbean) cuisine has been greatly influenced by African culinary traditions? I mean, I know the influence is there, but I’d never imagined how much.
Plantains, yams, cassava, lots of beans, rice, mondongo… WOW! The list of similarities goes on and on. I grew up eating root vegetables, and my favourite was yam. Now, what we call yam here is VERY different from what many countries consider a yam. Our yam is brightly white inside and dark brown outside, and not sweet. Like a potato in flavor but a bit different.
The Nigerian preparation however, is entirely different from ours. Yes, the tubers are peeled, cut and boiled in lightly salted water. In Puerto Rico we stop and serve the yams right at this point, drizzled with a bit of olive oil as a side dish. Nigerians work the cooked yam further by pounding it with a mortar and pestle, until the high amount of starches present in yams help to create a unified, sticky and soft mass that falls somewhere between mashed potatoes and bread dough.
This same method is applied to a wide variety of root vegetables, plantains and even rice. The resulting mass is called fufu, and means something you don’t have to chew to eat it. It is soft, kind of creamy and also kind of bland. Perfect to pair with one of the many soups of the nigerian recipe repertoire. Making fufu can be time consuming and totally a substitute for exercise. It took me what felt like 3 weeks to get transform my yams into fufu, ha! But after tasting it with Nigerian Pepper Soup, the pain in my biceps felt like a blessing.
It is important to note that for them to get sticky, one must use yams harvested 2 – 3 months ago, enough for them to develop more starch. Do not try this with freshly harvested yams or you’ll be pounding forever and only get mashed yams. And, I confess, I tried to cut corners by using my stand mixer with a hook attached. It DOESN’T work! Don’t be lazy like me…. It’s called POUNDED yams for crying out loud. Get pounding!
At home we have a dish called Mofongo that is made almost like fufu. We use plantains and sometimes cassava to make it. But again, we lazy people just mash the plantain into a mush and serve it. We don’t keep pounding repeatedly until it gets sticky. But still, it’s amazing how close fufu is to one of our favourite dishes at home. Even the traditional mortar and pestle used for fufu is very similar to the ones we use. I’m certainly loving the ways this trip is broadening my understanding of how big a family we all are!
- 2 lb yams
- mortar and pestle
- Peel and cut the yams into big chunks.
- Place the pieces on a pot and cover them completely with water. Season with salt until water tastes like seawater (Not the Dead Sea!)
- Bring the water to boil and cook the yams for 10 - 15 minutes until a knife can cut through them easily. Remove from the heat.
- Using a slotted spoon, place the yams in a mortar and start pounding with a pestle. Start by pounding the big pieces first, then the smaller. Work into a smooth paste that has no chunks on it. Keep working the yams without adding water until they get sticky. At this point you can add some of the starch rich water where the yams cooked. Keep pounding until you get the desired consistency.
- Use wet hands to shape the fufu into balls. Serve with Soup!