NEWS Finding Fufu: Australia’s growing appetite for West African food | Food and drink Australia

IIn Australian cities, Ethiopian and Sudanese restaurants introduced diners to injera, the marvel of the leavened flatbread; while home cooks’ growing familiarity with Moroccan and Egyptian cuisine means ras el hanout is in our global pantry To have a role to play. These eating habits reflect waves of immigration over the decades – historically, Australians of African descent have mostly come from South Africa, Zimbabwe, Egypt, Somalia, Sudan and South Sudan.

But if new Ghanaian, Nigerian and Cameroonian food businesses are any barometer of demographic change, the West African community and diaspora are growing and customers are actively seeking out its cuisine and ingredients. This is backed up by the latest census figures – the Australian population born in Nigeria has grown by around 50 per cent in five years, from 8,493 in 2016 to 12,883 in 2021.

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

Ahmed Inusah, the Ghanaian chef and owner of Akwaaba restaurant in Melbourne, said that the main ingredients of West African food are rice, cassava, plantain and taro. But each country and even each family may cook differently. “I would say that West African food is carbohydrate and meat based and has an earthy taste. Palm oil is also important. We cook with it a lot,” he said. Unrefined palm oil has a rich, earthy flavor with a hint of nuttiness that lends a golden-red hue to dishes.

Cameroonian owner and chef Ashley Vola of Vola Foods in Melbourne expands on the hyper-regionalization of West African food influenced by colonization, trade and terrain. “In Cameroon, there’s an English section and a French section. Each province will also have its signature dish. At my mom’s, it’s achu, made with taro and a little mashed banana. At my dad’s, it’s fufu And njama njama, which is a vegetable like spinach.”

Ashley Walla
‘In Cameroon, there is an English part and a French part. Each province will also have its signature dish. : Ashley Vola, chef and owner of Vola Foods in Melbourne. Photograph: Penny Stephens/The Guardian

If fufu — a mashed, doughy starchy dish — sounds familiar, it’s probably because it’s popular on social media. It is traditionally made with any starch such as yam, plantain, tapioca or taro – sometimes a mixture of starches. Recipes vary, but the product may be boiled, pounded in a mortar and pestle until it reaches a fluffy, dough-like consistency, then rolled into balls and served with soups or stews.

Goat Pepper Soup at Akwaaba in Melbourne.
Goat Pepper Soup at Akwaaba in Melbourne. Photograph: Penny Stephens/The Guardian

Today, for those with limited time, plantains, or those who don’t have access to a mortar and pestle, there are handy dehydrated rot packs. Aime Ruigira, owner of Adelaide’s African Pride Superstore and Restaurant, can attest to the growing popularity of the staple. “I started in this business 14 years ago, and today my bestseller is fufu,” he said. “Clients tell me they saw it on YouTube and wanted to try it. I think it’s popular because it’s gluten- and nut-free, so it’s suitable for people with food allergies.”

Another dish most associated with West Africa is the jollof, a one-pan tomato rice dish cooked in layers that varies widely across countries, regions and households. It’s also the reason for diplomatic incidents, outrage over Jamie Oliver’s version and good-natured banter among West Africans who all claim their version is the best. Vola describes her version as a tomato stew thicker than passata; it could also be described as a vegetarian paella. In other versions, the rice may be cooked in broth.

Kumkum Kalam Stirring a large pot with a wooden spoon
Chef Kumkum Kalam prepares fufu in Akwaaba’s kitchen. Photograph: Penny Stephens/The Guardian

The rice dish is a staple at Naija Jollof, a Nigerian restaurant in Sydney’s inner west, designed by Oluwaloseyi Tajudeen Olateju and Hawanatu Wanda Koroma. “Everyone has their own version of jollof, but the main ingredients are tomato, onion, chilli and rice. The seasoning is up to you,” says Koroma. This may include a range of herbs and spices, including thyme, rosemary, ginger and paprika.

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 offers an easier option for beginners: char the peppers first. “And always use red peppers, never green,” she stresses.

A whole cooked fish served on a plate with three small bowls of dipping sauce
“Australians generally don’t like bones in fish, but I couldn’t bear to change that!”: Vola Foods’ Cameroonian fish. Photograph: Penny Stephens/The Guardian

Fufu and jollof have crept into our shared culinary lexicon, but Vola has introduced a little-known dish from her homeland: raw fish. “It’s a whole fish marinated in spices like njansang [a nutty seed from a tree of the same name] and a kind of Cameroon nutmeg, then grilled over charcoal. Aussies generally don’t like bones in their fish, but I couldn’t bear to change that! We’re really lucky that we’re located in a part of Melbourne where people respond really well to new foods. “

Despite Australia’s growing West African community and restaurant scene, chefs still have to compromise on local produce. “We have a stew called kontomire made with taro leaves that is not readily available,” says Inusah, who substitutes silver beets or spinach.

six women sitting and standing at dining table
Vola Foods owner Ashley Vola (middle) and staff. Photograph: Penny Stephens/The Guardian

Because of this, Vola hopes that local growers will identify gaps in the market. “Parts of Queensland might be suitable for yams, plantains and okra. Maybe bitter leaves for soup.” It’s an interesting challenge and a sign of what might be in our shopping baskets for years to come.

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