Food is such an important part of travelling and discovering a new culture, and this is no different in the Ivory Coast. During my time here I have had an on-off relationship with food. I’ve been eating almost entirely local food, which is yummy, but which has also landed me in hospital (!) due to an infection.
If it wasn’t for the fact that I’m living with Sarah* (my Ivorian hostess) and working for a small local company where I eat out daily with my colleague Clare*, there is no way I would be as familiar with the Ivorian cuisine as I am. Instead I would almost certainly be doing all my food shopping in the big supermarkets and making a good spag-bol every other night. The street vendors can be pretty tricky to navigate when you don’t understand what’s on offer! Here is my step by step guide to choosing your perfect Ivorian meal out, and to eating a little bit more like the locals do here in Abidjan.
Choose your meat or fish
If you are frequenting one of the many “maquis” (small street restaurants), you will pick out your meat or fish yourself. Options that you will regularly find include: white fish, tuna steak (the main component in a meal called Garba), chicken, beef, lamb and bushmeat (often without specifying which animal!). I personally love the fish here. I have also recently tried a snail kebab which was quite nice!
.. or some eggs
For the veggies out there, you can almost always substitute meat with hard boiled eggs as shown below (and yes, you can order more than two eggs) however other than eggs there isn’t a huge amount on offer. Ivorians like meat, and I have yet to hear of someone with any kind of dietary requirements.
Add some flavour
Ivorian cuisine is composed of a huge variety of sauces, which form the basis for many meat and fish stews. Sauce varieties include (but are certainly not limited to):
- “Sauce Arachide” which is peanut based
- “Sauce Graine” which gets its name from the grains of palm oil featured in the recipe
- “Sauce Gombo” in which okra (a plant valued for it’s green edible pods) is the main ingredient
- “Sauce Claire”, a light clear sauce containing aubergine
- “Sauce Feuille”, literally translates to “leaf sauce”, which is composed of a variety of vegetables and resembles spinach
When the meat or fish isn’t cooked in a sauce, the meal is more likely to be accompanied by “pâtes”, a thicker dipping sauce, often tomato based. All “maquis” will also offer fried or raw onion and chopped tomato to accompany the dish. Mayonaise and coldslaw may also be on offer. Finally, every Ivorian meal comes with a side of “piment” (ie. chilli) unless specifically requested otherwise (which I hate to admit, is what I often do – although living here has certainly improved my tolerance to spice).
Choose your side dishes…
Now this is definitely my favourite part of Ivorian cuisine, and it is quite common to order 2-3 different sides. In maquis, portions will vary by how much you pay for each, so even if you are alone you can oder Attiéké worth 200CFA, with 100CFA worth of Alloco and 100CFA worth of Ignames.. but you probably don’t know what all these dishes are yet so without further ado:
Ivory Coast’s national dish, which resembles couscous but is made with cassava. You will probably notice attiéké being sold on street corners in little plastic bags as below. This dish is very easy to squeeze into a ball and eat by hand. I actually tried to eat attiéké with a knife and fork once, and after a couple attempts in which most of the grains fell off my fork, I realised how much easier it was by hand.
If attiéké doesn’t take your fancy, boiled rice is often an alternative, and is especially served alongside a stew. Fried rice is also widely eaten, and is generally fried with vegetables.
The easiest and yummiest side dish in Ivory Coast (biased opinion from an Alloco-lover) (yumminess due to large volumes of oil used in food prep). Not only will this be on offer everywhere you eat out, but it’s also incredibly easy to make yourself: chop up some plantain bananas and add the pieces to a pot of hot oil. Potentially not the healthiest option… but I guess you are still eating bananas… a bit like all the potatoes you eat in a Happy Meal right?
Speaking of potatoes… if you order “patates” here you are essentially ordering fat french fries. These fries will be dipped into a “pâtes” dipping sauce mixture – slightly spicier than ketchup!
These look very similar to patates, but are made with yams instead. Tastes just as good too!
Foutou is a dough-like dish made from cassava, plantain bananas or yams. To prepare the dish, the boiled mixture is beaten as depicted below. Many Ivorians say you shouldn’t eat foutou outside of your own household due to hygiene in the beating process. Foutou is always accompanied by a stew, as it is best when eaten with liquid sauce.
Placali is very similar in texture to Foutou and is made from fermented cassava. (Notice how many of these primary ingredients are repeated. Says a lot about Ivory Coast’s agricultural specialisms)
If the French have left one thing here other than the french language, it is the art of good pastries! and boy am I glad! A baguette will set you back a measly 150CFA (20p GBP or 25cents EUR), and a croissant 300CFA. Bread shops are found all over, and are an easy option for breakfast on the go, or to accompany lunch or dinner.
Now dig in!
I mean that quite literally. Most food is eaten by hand here (but make sure it’s your right hand! I was told quite quickly that it’s not polite to use your left hand, or both hands for that matter) so tear off a piece of chicken from the bone, squeeze some attiéké into a little ball and dip the combo in some sauce before popping it in your mouth. I can’t say my technique is quite up to scratch yet but I manage to get by! (Fortunately stews are usually served with a spoon). I previously mentioned that fish often contains bones – but how to avoid these without a knife and fork? Well locals deal with little bones by spitting them out onto the ground as they eat! Though I can’t quite bring myself to do that, I subtly pick them out of my mouth with my hand. “But isn’t hand-eating unsanitary, especially when food is often shared”. Before and after every meal a bucket of water will be passed around the table along with a bottle of hand soap. Though it was strange to get used to, I now quite enjoy eating with my hands, and already fear unintentional bad table manners on my return to Europe.
… and for after dinner
To anyone who likes yoghurt, this is for you! Dèguè is a mixture of yoghurt, crème fraîche and millet grains, and can be bought it any supermarket.
If you after something alcoholic.. sit yourself down in a maquis after a long day and ask if they have any bandji. The cloudy white drink they will serve you is “vin de palm”, wine made from the sap of palm trees, and it tastes good!