Food in the Ivory Coast was not what I expected.
I recently spent several weeks eating my way through the economic capital of Abidjan, doing my best to sample as much of the local cuisine as possible. I was expecting some similarities to east African cuisines, which generally have soft and mild flavours, but west African food is not like that at all – it’s sharp and spicy, with extra chilis on top!
As your intro to Ivorian food, I’ve collated a list of 16 things I think you should look out for on your next visit.
Attiéké is one of the main staples in Ivory Coast and you will see it everywhere.
It’s made from fermented cassava, which is granulated so it becomes like couscous in texture. You usually eat it with your hands – just smush it into a ball and pop it in your mouth, similar to how the Indians eat rice and curry.
It can be served with almost anything; you will see it served as a side with most dishes, or sold streetside on its own in small plastic bags.
What’s it taste like? Mild, it’s a little bit sour. Really filling too, so you should never be hungry here. Out of the staples listed below it was probably my favourite, I found myself choosing it for most of my meals!
It’s made from plantains (green bananas), which are cut up into bits or slices, then deep fried until they’re super brown and crispy. The serving is usually large and they’re soaked in oil, so you know eating them will make your arteries cry (but of course you do it anyway because they’re so yummmm).
They have a touch of sweetness which makes them a nice change from french fries, plus they’re softer and chewier too. You see this eaten a lot more at nights, usually with the all the chickens being grilled around town. The locals love it.
Foutou is an interesting dish, I actually watched one of my friends make it from scratch and it took forever.
First, the cassava and the bananas are boiled.
After that they are left to cool a little, and then they get pounded in this big bowl. They need to be pounded one by one so it doesn’t come out lumpy, so it takes a long time.
Once it’s all pounded into a mush they mold it into these big balls and let them sit.
In the end they have this big lump of sticky yellow goodness, which is typically eaten with a sauce dish.
It tastes how you’d imagine (like banana) but it’s sticky and quite difficult to eat. I learned this the hard way but you need to wet your fingers first (in the sauce) before you start grabbing at it. Otherwise you’re going to be gnawing at foutou glued to your hands like a tourist dummy.
This is quite hard to find at night, so go searching for it at lunchtime if it’s what you’re looking for. Definitely something you need to try for the full west African experience 😉
Placali is another staple, this one made from fermented cassava dough.
It’s cooked slowly with water and then set aside to cool. When served it’s going to look like a huge dumpling which you pick at with your hands, similar to the foutou.
It also tastes sour, like a sourdough bread, and is normally served with sauce dishes. I remember getting served this and thinking it would definitely not be enough, but even a small portion is so filling that I was struggling to finish it.
This is also something you can only find during lunchtime – search out some local food spots around midday and it will be easy to find.
“Sauces” are really popular in Cote d’Ivoire and there are a lot of them.
Sauce kopè translates to “sauce okra”, which is a very gooey and spicy sauce. It’s usually eaten with placali like you see in the photo.
Common ingredients in the sauce are crab, escargot (snails) and fish or beef.
Eating this dish is labour intensive and messy; the placali is already a sticky challenge and the sauce is also a little difficult to handle. By the end of your first time eating it you should get the hang of it, but if you’re like me you might feel a bit goofy in the process, especially while dripping sauce everywhere with placali plastered all over your hands. Don’t worry, it’s all part of the fun.
How does it taste? Okra has a semi-neutral flavour to begin with, so it depends on what it gets cooked with. Seafood is popular, so if it’s crab or fish it will probably have a seafood chowder like taste, and it’s usually spicy too.
Mine had snails in it which you’ll come across a lot in Cote d’Ivoire cooking – they taste mostly like shellfish but a little firmer, nothing to be afraid of!
Overall sauce kopè wasn’t my favourite sauce but it wasn’t bad – definitely worth trying if you see it on the menu.
Sauce arachide is a spicy peanut based sauce, this one more often eaten with rice.
I think the usual main ingredient is chicken, but the one I had (in the photo) was made with fish which was also good. If you can imagine half a fish cooked in a big bowl of spicy satay sauce, that’s pretty close to what you’ll get. Pretty good!
When it comes to sauce dishes in the Ivory Coast, the menu changes daily so it just depends on what they’re cooking that day. The two above are the ones I tried but there are lots of others too. They’re not really available in the evenings, so check out the local eateries around lunchtime, that’s when you’ll find them!
Anything braisé in the Ivory Coast is a treat.
Poisson braisé translates to “braised fish”, although I don’t think it’s actually “braised” as we understand the word in English.
First the fish is marinaded in some basic flavours (garlic, lemon, parsley, pepper etc) and then cooked slowly on a hot grill. Afterwards it’s topped with sauteed onions and tomatoes and served with a side of attiéké or alloco. You always get the whole fish too so it’s usually a huge meal.
Because Ivory Coast is on the coast (duh) the fish is almost always fresh. I don’t think I ever had a bad fish during my trip!
Poulet braisé translates to braised chicken and is cooked in much the same way as the poisson braisé – marinaded in spices and then thrown on the grill for a slow cook.
This is a really popular dish at night and you’ll smell the chickens grilling as you walk around Abidjan after dark.
One thing that stands out about the poulet braisé (and many other dishes in Cote d’Ivoire) is the chili sauce they add on the side. It’s literally the spiciest sauce I’ve ever tasted and I couldn’t even touch it. Those Ivorians seem to just eat it by the spoonful. Madness.
If you’re not a spicy food guy, be careful not to mistake it for an innocent tomato sauce – it definitely is not!
Other than that this tastes like your standard grilled chicken – I ended up eating it a lot as it was easy to find and cheap, usually around 2,500 CFA ($4 USD) for half a chicken.
Choukouya is the west African version of flame grilled meat. It’s the classic nighttime meal and you’ll find it getting cooked all over the city in the evenings.
As far as I understand it choukouya can refer to many different kinds of meat, so you can have chicken choukouya, beef choukouya, goat choukouya and so on.
Once it comes off the grill it’s chopped up, topped with onions and served with the usual spicy-as-hell sauce on the side. Most people eat it with fries or alloco (and lots of beers).
Poisson en papillote
Poisson en papillote translates to “fish in foil”, which is exactly what it is.
When I ate this I’d just done a long day of surfing and I asked the barman what I should eat. He recommended the poisson en papillote avec riz (fish in foil and rice). I didn’t even know what that meant but it turned out to be awesome. I think I had it again the next day.
I’m not certain how they cook it, but I know they wrap the fish in foil with some kind of lemon marinade and maybe some tomatoes, then cook it until it’s saucy and delicious. Luuuurved it.
This is a very local dish, which consists of attiéké, topped with diced onions and tomatoes and several pieces of fried tuna. You can eat it with your hands – simply grab a piece of everything and pop it into your mouth. The tuna is very salty so you need to get a good chunk of attiéké and tomatoes to mellow it out. It’s a perfect combination if you get the mix right!
This is one of those classic “poor man meals”, so you’ll find it being sold streetside in many places, mostly in the mornings.
Why mornings? Because it’s popular to eat for breakfast. Or at least how it was explained to me; you eat it for breakfast on a Sunday or a day you don’t need to do anything. It’s a very heavy meal so the idea is you can just overeat and then enjoy your food coma for the rest of the day.
Poulet piquet is chicken on a stake cooked over a wooded fire. You’ll notice it very quickly by the big sand/dirt pits they use for cooking outside the restaurants.
The funny thing about eating out at night in Abidjan is everywhere is so dimly lit, so often you can’t really see what you’re eating. Sometimes you see people holding their phones in one hand and eating with the other because it’s that dark! So, when I tried poulet piquet I didn’t really get a good look – I do know there were a couple of sauces on the plate, that were yum, but no idea what they were…or what they looked like.
It was noticeably less greasy than a regular grilled chicken though. That means you can have it with some greasy alloco (fried bananas) and not feel too bad! 🙂
This is pretty to easy to find, you’ll find it being served during the night in lots of food spots around town.
Kedjenou is a traditional Ivorian chicken stew.
It’s cooked in a sealed dish, sometimes some vegetables are added, then it’s left to slow cook in the meat’s own juices. At the end you’re left with a very flavoursome and saucy stewed chicken, best eaten with attiéké or rice. If you’ve been to Morocco, it might remind you of the tagine. Of course they add a few chilis too, so be ready for some heat.
This one is another popular lunch dish, but I saw it served at a few places at night too.
Banane braisé are plantains slow cooked over hot coals.
The end result is a hot banana which is browned on the outside but still very soft on the inside. This is a classic Ivorian snack and you’ll see it being sold roadside all throughout Abidjan.
There was a lady selling these just across the road from my apartment, 100 CFA (20 cents) for the small ones and 200 CFA (40 cents) for the big ones. Can’t find many cheaper and healthier snacks than that!
I was on the lookout for this for many weeks and didn’t find it until my last night in town. I was having ice cream with some friends very late (around midnight) when we saw a guy making pain brochettes across the street. Of course I had to go try one!
How it works is the guy will have a few beef (I think) skewers on the grill. He’ll slice a baguette in half and when the skewers are ready to chow he’ll clamp them inside the bread and pull the sticks out. Then he adds a whole bunch of stuff – mayonnaise, egg, some sauces and seasonings (I really have no idea what it was) and then it’s time to eat!
How’s it taste? It’s really just like a regular beef sandwich. Super cheap though. And tasty 🙂
However it was one of the “rougher” street foods I saw, so if you’ve got one of those sensitive stomachs try to choose your pain brochette place carefully. I’ve also got a guide that you might find useful!
I had a friend bring me a bottle of this one morning, insisting that I try it. I just thought it was yogurt but a few weeks later I found out it’s actually a traditional Ivorian drink.
It’s made by mixing yogurt with millet flour, and they must add a lot of sugar and/or honey because it’s very sweet. Tastes like an oat smoothie or maybe even one of those Asian sago desserts and goes down super easy. It’s sold everywhere in restaurants and supermarkets so you won’t have trouble finding it. Try it – it’s different!
And there’s your introduction to Ivorian food. Shout out to my friends Orphelie from Culturiche and Yasmine from Afrofoodie for taking me out to some of their favourite eats in Abidjan, if you want ideas on things to do in town be sure to check out their blogs 🙂
I also have a beginner’s guide to Abidjan for anyone heading that way, so be sure to check that out.
Have you been to Cote d’Ivoire? What was your favourite food? Let me know in the comments 🙂