Finding fufu: Australia’s growing appetite for West African food | australian food and drink

In Australian cities, Ethiopian and Sudanese restaurants have introduced diners to injera, that wonderful fermented flatbread; while home cooks’ growing familiarity with Moroccan and Egyptian cuisine means that ras el hanout has its place in our globalized pantries. These eating habits reflect waves of migration over the decades: historically, Australians of African descent come mostly from South Africa, Zimbabwe, Egypt, Somalia, Sudan and South Sudan.

But if the new food businesses in Ghana, Nigeria and Cameroon are any barometer of demographic change, the West African community and diaspora are growing, with customers actively seeking their cuisine and ingredients. This is also supported by the latest census data: in five years, the number of people in Australia who were born in Nigeria increased by about 50%, from 8,493 people in 2016 to 12,883 in 2021.

Ahmed Inusah in his restaurantPalm oil is also important. We cook with him a lot’: Ahmed Inusah, chef and owner of Akwaaba restaurant in Melbourne’s St Kilda. Photograph: Penny Stephens/The Guardian

The main ingredients of West African food are rice, cassava, plantains and cocoyam (taro), says Ghanaian chef and owner of Melbourne’s Akwaaba restaurant, Ahmed Inusah. But every country or even every home can cook it differently. “I would say that West African food is based on carbohydrates and meat and has earthy flavors. Palm oil is also important. We cook a lot with him,” he says. Unrefined palm oil has a rich, earthy, slightly nutty flavor and gives dishes a golden-red tint.

Ashley Vola, Cameroonian owner and chef at Vola Foods in Melbourne, talks about the hyper-regionalization of West African food, which is influenced by colonization, trade and terrain. “In Cameroon, there is the English part and the French part. Each province will also have its star dish. On my mother’s side, the dish is achu which is made with taro and a little mashed banana. On my father’s side, it’s fufu and njama njama, which is a spinach-like vegetable.”

ashley flies‘In Cameroon, there is the English part and the French part. Each province will also have its star dish.’ : Ashley Vola, chef-owner of Vola Foods in Melbourne. Photograph: Penny Stephens/The Guardian

If fufu, a batter-like dish of pounded starch, sounds familiar to you, it could be due to its popularity on social media. It is traditionally made with any starch such as yam, plantain, cassava or taro, sometimes a combination of starches. Recipes vary, but the product can be boiled, pounded in a mortar to a fluffy, dough-like consistency, then rolled into a ball and eaten with soups or stews.

Goat Pepper Soup at Melbourne's Akwaaba.Goat Pepper Soup at Melbourne’s Akwaaba. Photograph: Penny Stephens/The Guardian

Today, there are easy-to-serve packets of dried fufu for those with limited time, bananas, or access to a mortar and pestle. The owner of the African Pride Superstore and Restaurant in Adelaide, Aime Ruigira, can attest to the growing popularity of this staple dish. “I started this business 14 years ago and today my best seller is fufu,” he says. “Customers tell me they saw it on YouTube and want to try it. I think it’s quite popular because it’s gluten-free and nut-free, so it’s suitable for people with food allergies.”

Another dish best associated with West Africa is jollof, a one-pot tomato rice dish that is cooked in layers and varies significantly between countries, regions, and households. It is also the cause of diplomatic incidents, outrage at Jamie Oliver’s version, and jokes among West Africans that his version is the best. Vola describes his version as a tomato stew thicker than the passata; it could also be described as a vegan paella. In other versions, the rice dish may be cooked in meat-based broth.

Kumkum Kalam using a wooden spoon to mix a large potChef Kumkum Kalam preparing fufu in Akwaaba’s kitchen. Photograph: Penny Stephens/The Guardian

The rice dish is the main act at Naija Jollof, a Nigerian restaurant in Sydney’s inner west by Oluwaloseyi Tajudeen Olateju and Hawanatu Wanda Koroma. “Everyone has their own version of jollof, but the main ingredients are tomato, onion, pepper and rice. The seasoning is up to you,” says Koroma. This can include a variety of herbs and spices, such as thyme, rosemary, ginger, and chili powder.

The key to a good jollof is its distinctive smoky flavor, which can be achieved by cooking over a wood fire or dehydrating the tomatoes before making the stew. Koroma has a simpler option for beginners: char the pepper first. “And always use red pepper, never green,” she emphasizes.

A whole cooked fish on a plate with three small bowls of sauces “Usually Australians don’t like bones in their fish, but I couldn’t bear to change it!”: Cameroonian-born fish at Vola Foods. Photograph: Penny Stephens/The Guardian

Fufu and jollof have crept into our collective culinary lexicon, but Vola has introduced a lesser-known dish from his homeland: born fish. “It is a whole fish, marinated with spices like njansang [a nutty seed from a tree of the same name] and a type of nutmeg from Cameroon before being grilled on a charcoal barbecue. Australians generally don’t like bones in their fish, but I couldn’t bear to change it! We are very lucky to be in a part of Melbourne where people respond very well to new food.”

Although Australia’s West African restaurant and community scene is growing, chefs have yet to engage with local produce. “We have a stew called kontomire made with taro leaves, which is not easy to come by,” says Inusah, who substitutes silver beets or spinach.

Six women sitting and standing at restaurant tablesVola Foods owner Ashley Vola (center) with staff. Photograph: Penny Stephens/The Guardian

Because of this, Vola is hopeful that local producers will see a gap in the market. “Parts of Queensland could be suitable for growing yams, bananas, okra. Maybe bitter leaf for soup. It’s an intriguing challenge and a sign of what might be in our shopping baskets for years to come.

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