Uche Iroegbu was only 21 years old when he immigrated from Nigeria. He followed a cousin to join a small community of Nigerians in Brooklyn Park. He says the Nigeria he left was politically corrupt and dangerous for dissidents.
As he settled into Minnesota he began missing the cooking of home.
“It’s just one of those situations where you go to a new place, and you're excited about trying what they have,” he said. “And then you realize that you're pretty good with what you've had. You're gonna go back to what you're used to what you're raised on.”
And that was fufu, a cornerstone of the West African diet. It’s made of yams, pounded in a wooden mortar and pestle until it’s smooth and sticky like dough. True African yams can be difficult to transport because of their enormous size — growing up to 100 pounds — so Uche uses a yam powder reconstituted with water.
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“Fufu is very quintessential African delicacy. It's not just Nigeria,” he said, standing in his kitchen preparing to cook.
‘Wash your hands and get into it!’
Uche is a local freelance photographer. He exudes his strong Nigerian identity, wearing colorful dashikis, eye-catching jewelry and chunky glasses. He also talks at length about Nigerian cooking, and the communal eating tradition.
“Fufu is not something you eat with a spoon and a fork or a knife. You know, you have to wash your hands and get into it.”
It’s a dumpling, which might remins a newcomer of uncooked bread dough in its consistency, gets served in a baseball-sized piece. You tear off a bite, and use to scoop up various stews, like the ones Uche is cooking today. He points out some of them.
“Egusi is melon seeds. And melon seeds basically form the base of the sauce itself. And egusi is going to be made with spinach,” he said. “Because I mean, back in Nigeria, we use other vegetables that we don't have here. And then we're making some okra. And then we're gonna make some tomato stew.”
If you’ve ever eaten soul food, it’s easy to imagine that these are the roots of that cooking. The egusi has the deep earthiness of collard greens, and the tomato stew is fragrant, with respectable use of scotch bonnet pepper.
But before Uche taught himself to cook, based on the memories of his grandmother’s meals, he says he remembers when it was more difficult to come by this food in Minnesota.
“Sometimes we young, single dudes, then we'll go to parties just for the food, you know, and you meet people that look like you people that speak talk like you and eat like you. But, when it comes to restaurants, I would honestly say that Nigerian restaurants were very far and few in between, and the ones that were available then most of them have gone under.
He’s not sure why that is, however, because when he shares Nigerian food most people tend to like it a lot.
We shared it with friends at a dinner party.
“Wash your fingers!” Uche laughed, pointing to the fingerbowls on the table, as the guests reached for their fufu.
Uche says that perhaps one of the reasons Nigerian food hasn’t been successfully marketed to American audiences is the different flavor profiles. Palm oil, dried fish, and heavy use of chile are quite different for the American palate. And, he says, those differences can easily translate to marginalization.
“African cuisine, as a whole was being demonized. You know? Africans get, not just chastized, but insulted for smelling like crayfish, smelling like fish, you know? And then suddenly you're like, I don't want to have people taunt me like that. And then you find yourself excusing yourself from who you are.”
Of course, this experience is a very common one for immigrants, but Uche says he now recognizes there is nothing wrong with the food of his homeland
“I can honestly say that, that saved my life in a lot of ways. When it comes to what I eat. What I ingest, basically.”
He scoops up some stew with his freshly made fufu, and almost squeals with delight.
“Yep! That hits pretty much you'll know it's a success by taste. So I think it's good. It is like food. Tastes like love.”
A taste of home, a taste of identity. A taste of fufu.