West and Central African fufu is a root vegetable dish similar to Hawaiian poi. After being boiled into a state of softness, the veggies are broken down into a paste with a mortar and pestle. It’s a starchy side dish often served with African stew. Because the diner pinches a thumb-sized piece from the paste and rolls it into an indented spoon-like shape, it is used as a convenient way to get the stew from the bowl to the diner’s mouth.
The vegetables used in in this dish vary by region, but include plantains, cassava, and yams. Some cooks include rice. Cooks use a special very large mortar and pestle to work these vegetables as they prepare the dish. The resulting paste is a complex starch that makes diners feel full quickly.
Cooks with a sense of tradition boil and beat their root veggies the old-fashioned way, but others skip the long boiling time as well as the physical labor of beating the results to a literal pulp. Powdered rice, cassava, or yam mix that does not require this step can be purchased to use as a substitute.
Fufu has origins in Ghana, where it is traditionally eaten with abenkwan peanut soup, nkontomire vegetable soup, and smoked meat or fresh fish stews. Brundians also enjoy fufu, primarily with soup. Further to the east, in Kenya and Tanzania, fufu is usually called ugali and is cooked using flour made from maize with a texture and taste similar to rough corn flour.
While ugali is filling, it is almost entirely nutritionally void. Ugali, which is the Swahili name, is very inexpensive and is made from maize, which will grow even during a serious drought. In addition, the maize flour is easily kept for long periods without becoming rancid. That means this food is especially popular with the poor, and contributes to certain health deficiencies in those areas.
This popular staple has migrated to Jamaica, the Dominican Republic, and Puerto Rico. Caribbean fufu is made from mashed yams, plantains, or a combination as its foundation. The resulting food, which is known as mofongo, is more flavorful and less paste-like in texture.