Spice, Rice, and Eating With My hands—Fufu, Banku, and Jollof Rice

Have you ever tasted fufu? What about banku? Jollof rice? Last November I tried these traditional Ghanaian dishes and almost a year later I still remember it.

Our first stop in Ghana was a restaurant serving these classic cuisines.

“I prefer the fufu, but try both to see what you like. I’m getting Jollof rice for myself,” said Neno. The rice sounded good to me but, being Haitian, I’ve had my fill of all types of rice so I wanted to try something new. I went for the fufu. My wife, Art, ordered the banku. Then we nervously waited and asked questions about the food to come.

“Della, which do you like better?” Della is Neno’s cousin, our guide for the trip, and a Ghana native.

“I eat banku all the time. That’s all I eat every day.” He said and he wasn’t kidding. For the entire time we were in Ghana, I can’t remember him eating anything else. During the pre-meal conversation, we found out that fufu is made from boiled cassava and plantains that are pounded into what looks like a ball of dough and served in a stew.

Banku is similar to fufu, but it’s made with a slightly fermented cornmeal and is served in a fish stew.

While Della and Neno were trying to explain this to me, our server came around with a bowl of water and soap. That seemed like a nice touch as a way to tidy up before our meal. Turns out that water and soap was necessary because you’re supposed to eat banku and fufu with your hands.

“Yeah that’s why I got the rice,” Neno added. Art gave me a knowing glance and said, “We can have them bring out utensils for you.”

“No, no. When in Rome…” I said. She knows I don’t like eating with my hands. Well, I don’t like getting my hands messy. The mushy dough in stew was sure to be messy but I was still excited to try this new dish.

When our meals finally came out, I was a little underwhelmed by the presentation. I didn’t know what I expected mushy dough plunked in a soup to look like but, it looked like mushy dough plunked in a soup.

“Hmm, okay. How does this work?” I thought to myself. I turned to Della and he didn’t waste any time digging in, hands ripping apart his banku and dipping pieces into his soup before gobbling it up. I didn’t mean to be rude by staring but I wanted to see how it was done by a professional. In my amateurish way, I followed suit.

The sticky texture of the fufu made me cringe a bit but I fought through the discomfort and popped a gumball sized piece in my mouth. “Shit! Hot… and… spicy.”

Uh oh. I don’t do spicy because the consequences several hours later are not very delightful. Hot going in and hot coming out. No. Thank. You. But I didn’t want to offend anyone so I suffered through a few more bites.

I looked over at Art to see how she was handling it and she seemed to be a natural. She was ripping, dipping, tearing, and slurping like a pro and like Della.

I looked at her and had so many questions: who are you right now, when did you learn to do this, why isn’t your mouth on fire?

I didn’t say any of this of course, but I thought it. What I said was, “How is it?”

“It’s good,” she replied nonchalantly. But she was killing it so that was evidence enough that her meal was amazing. I must have had a weary look on my face because she asked if I wanted a spoon. I said yes and then tried a couple of more bites.

But, even with a spoon, I didn’t even get through half of my fufu. It was just too mushy, doughy, and spicy for me. Neno recognized my defeat and kindly traded meals with me so that I didn’t starve on our journey to Togo.

So now it was time to try Jollof rice.

Like I said before, rice is a food that I know well. I grew up eating rice and beans as a side with every meal and sometimes even as the entire meal. My family bought rice in the 25- or 50-pound bags from Costco. I used to eat rice as much as Della eats banku, well maybe not that much, but a lot.

With that being said, I really enjoyed Jollof rice. It’s a mix of rice, vegetables, and spices, almost like a Cajun jambalaya. It was spicy but not as spicy as the fufu. The spices added to the flavor without being overpowering. It felt like I was back home for dinner.

What’s funny about Jollof rice is the debate whether Ghanaian or Nigerian Jollof is better and which country invented the original recipe. I find it funny that there’s a well-documented dispute about this.

When Neno ordered the rice, Della, without missing a beat, laid out his explanation about why Ghanaian Jollof rice is better than Nigerian Jollof rice. I don’t remember what he said but I do remember the passion in his voice. He was serious about Ghanaian Jollof rice and, after tasting it for myself, so am I.

I’m happy that I got to experience traditional Ghanaian food first hand despite the fact that I was overpowered by the spice of the fufu.

And I’m still trying to find my own answer to the Jollof rice controversy. I asked my Nigerian friend, Wale, which version is better. He was embarrassed that he didn’t know there was a heated debate about the whole thing, but his mom says there’s no debate because, “Nigerian, without a doubt, make the best Jollof rice!”

Have you had any of these foods before? What is your opinion?