In Bassam, Côte d’Ivoire, you’ll find an elderly lady and some of the best plantain and palm-oil fritters in the world.A former capital of this West African country, Bassam is squeezed between the ocean and the lagoon, and it is a hidden gem that’s filled with food specialties, brick houses built on sand, and hundred-year-old mango trees.
The elderly lady sits at a street corner. Talk to the locals and you’ll find her. She cooks the plantain and palm-oil fritters on an old-style charcoal furnace. She has a large pot of prepared batter by her side and in a smooth, repetitive, effortless movement, she forms small lumps and drops them into the shimmering-hot palm oil. You can only watch in awe at her skills, her shy smile, and the deep wrinkles in her parched skin—it is all part of the experience. She goes on unfazed, almost ageless, and most definitely timeless.
The Bassam locals, or those in the know who come from afar to spend the weekend or a day at the beach, know where to find her. I remember, when I was a child, her little snack stand was the highlight of all our trips to the beach. I remember being giddy with excitement and begging my parents to go there. The beach, the hot and humid day, the walk on the sandy streets, the unfinished houses, the old staircase leading to the sky and there she was—the old lady selling the fritters. She never disappointed. It didn’t matter if I had just savored a full lunch of grilled fish, chicken, attieke, and aloco at a restaurant on the beach. This wasn’t about hunger at all. It was—is—all about pleasure.
The first bite into the hot plantain fritters, which burn the tongue both because of their temperature right out of the pan and because of the heavy dose of chili peppers in the batter, is worth it. The warm fritters, wrapped into banana leaves, curl up onto one another, waiting for your bare fingers to untangle them. Don’t worry if your fingertips get stained with the red palm oil. You will soon have forgotten about any other sensation, except for the explosion in your mouth and the amazement in your brain. You will not stop just at one. If you can take the spice, and actually even if you can’t, you will find a way to eat more, many more fritters. When done, you will realize that you did not just have just a tasty snack. You will realize that you ate more than seasoned plantains coated in red palm oil. You will realize that what you had was savoir-faire, tradition, bliss made into food. You will be conquered.
How about you? What is your favorite snack from an African country? And why?
Linda Dempah co-founded and writes for Tropical Foodies, a blog dedicated to dishes using tropical ingredients. She is enjoying a lifelong passion for plantains and is sharing her enthusiasm for all the other tropical ingredients on her blog. Follow her on Twitter (@tropicalfoodies) and like the blog on Facebook.