One could never meet a Liberian and not know about fufu and soup.
Africa’s markets are distinguished and run mostly by persuasive women traders who sell anything and everything that you will need; from manufactured and imported foods to produce, tools, medicines, footwear, clothes, pots and pans, etc. Your soul is recharged by the market energy and humor as you stroll through, bargaining for fresh fish, meats, rice, fufu, vegetables or fruits. The market evokes the sights, sounds and smells of the aromas of Liberian cookery and waters your mouth as you move from stall to stall, imagining the spread on the table once the shopping is home and the cooking completed.
To “burst your belly” (Liberian slang to over eat) is a self-imposed habit of eating in Liberia. A well-prepared Liberian dish makes all other dishes seem insipid. Whether it is filling your plate with tender-cooked rice and pouring over this fluffy mound of rice, palm butter, exquisitely rich in flavor, or embellishing your soup with pepper that is cruelly hot, several mashed boiled okra and pasted benne seed (sesame seed is parched and pounded into paste) for your fufu or dumboy soup. When consuming these sizable meals, you speak very little and never think, at all, of your waistline. You eat. Then you look for a reasonably cool and quiet place in which to sleep. You rise slowly, relying on significant support from the chair to locate your bed or a sofa, or preferably a hammock under the shades between two trees, and proceed to lie down. When you wake, you are likely to crave something else, like a slice of the unmatched sweet Liberian pineapple or delicious plum (mango).
“Come leh eat O,” says the host to a visitor—be it a relative, neighbor or stranger—who enters a home while dinner is being served. It is a taboo in Liberia not to invite someone to join you while you are eating (no matter how much food you have available). It is also an insult to refuse the invite.
In the village Africans eat together like brothers, dipping their hands in the same bowl. In fact, this is where the bonding begins. It may be that the children that are gathered for dinner, hunches around a big enamel pan, buttocks, low to the earth, knees cupped in armpits, bodies rock on splayed feet in a flow of eagerness and joy. Their little elbow swings out as tiny fingers curl rice into balls that are greasy with palm oil. It is satisfying for the parents to watch their little ones chins become slick with palm oil.
Although rice is king in Liberia, fufu is treated special. Fufu is a derivative of cassava or plantain. In Liberia, fufu is prepared from the flour of dry retted cassava. You either buy it at the market or make your own.
To make your own, whole fresh cassavas are selected (without rot), all skin removed, washed, and immersed in water and soaked for 3-4 days, which promotes fermentation (the softening of the cassava roots need to occur for their processing into fufu). When sufficiently soft, the roots are taken out, broken by hand, and sieved to remove the fibers. The sieved mass is allowed to sediment in a large container for twenty-four hours. After sedimentation, water is poured off while the fine, clean sediment (mainly starch) becomes the fufu pulp. Finally the wet fufu pulp is molded into golf-size balls and sold at the market to shoppers. These molded fufu balls are dissolved in cold water and strain to get rid of any solid cassava particles. The mixture is poured into the cooking pot and set aside for about 20 minutes so that it settles. When the fufu sediment has settled at the bottom of the pot, the liquid is poured out. Fufu is then cooked over low heat, stirring constantly with a “fufu-stick” (wooden spoon) until it thickens, changing from a white starchy consistence to firm clear-color dough with heavy thickness in texture. It is removed from the pot and placed in a large pan for cooling.
When the cooked fufu reaches a tolerable temperature (don’t allow it to get too cold; it becomes difficult to mold), it is shaped into a sizable portion of serving (having the shape of a disk) by repeatedly folding over, pressing and squeezing the dough with your hand. As you mold your fufu, a “sprinkle of water” is used to free the dough from the pan. The dough is turned over and placed—smooth side up—in the serving bowl. Pepper soup or any sauce of your choice (palm butter, okra or palava sauce), may be added.
I’d rather have pepper soup with my fufu.
To eat fufu, make an indentation at the edge of the disk-shaped dough with your spoon, tear off a bite-sized piece (not too big because fufu is swallowed instead of chewed. There’s no rule for eating fufu. You may chew it if you like) and scoop up some soup, or sauce, with it. Fufu is slightly sour in taste, which is due to the process of fermentation. However, your taste buds are exclusively directed to the tasty soup or sauce. Adding certain condiments like benne seed (sesame seed is parched and pounded into paste) boiled bitter balls, okra and lime to the soup for your fufu or dumboy dish will kick it up a notch.
Dumboy (another variation of cooked cassava, like fufu) is boiled cassava pounded into thick, viscous dough. You cannot buy this at the market, and its preparation is laborious. First, you peel the cassava, cut into pieces, wash it thoroughly, and place it in a pot to cook for about fifteen to twenty minutes (the cassava should not be too soft). Drain off the water. After the boiled cassava cools, cut into mid-size chunks. Put the pieces in a mortar, the eminent food processor tool in all of Africa kitchens. With the use of the pestle (companion of the mortar), beat/mash/pound the cassava pieces continuously as the dough will become sticker and sticker. To prevent the dough from sticking, occasionally dip the pestle in water to moisten it. Keep beating until your dumboy is of the desired consistency. During this preparation, stroke of the pestle hammering the dough in the mortar produces sharp popping sound, a sort of understanding that is music to one’s ear. The belly growl and your mouth waters. After reaching your personal desired consistency, the dumboy is prepared like fufu (the molding process) and placed in a serving bowl. Adding certain condiments (benne seed, boiled bitter balls or okra and lime) to your soup kicks it up a notch.
The supreme companion for your fufu or dumboy
In Liberia, no matter how it is prepared, no matter what preferences of ingredients used, no matter what it looks like—redden with tomato paste or not—Pepper Soup, for the most part, is sacred. It is the cure for under-the-weather illnesses (common cold, hangover, heartache), the perfect stabilizer for your over-consuming of alcoholic beverages and, of course, the utmost companion for fufu or dumboy. Pepper Soup is serious business, y’all, no fooling. It is equally full of flavor as it is complex. The mystic of Pepper Soup is, it can be as equally tasty when prepared with very minimum ingredients as it is if prepared with every conceivable element that can be added to a dish. This dish is magical, especially cooked the Liberian way! Some ingredients could include, beef, bitter balls, bony fish, bouillon, cow foot, chicken feet, catfish, fish head (snapper, grouper, barracuda) dried fish, goat meat, crab, pepper, tomato paste, trap, salt, spices, crayfish, Kitili, and many other things.
When Caribbean star, Calypso Rose, visited Liberia and ate some Pepper soup, she returned to her home and, right away, penned the song “Pepper soup”, naming every ingredient imaginable. There has never been a Liberian party where her song is not played or pepper soup served.
Be Encouraged to try something new, eat some fufu with pepper soup.