Attiéké. Akyeke. Aky3k3. Attieke. Acheke. Adj3k3. However you want to spell it, there is no denying that the Nzema staple attieke has been popularized for international customers over the past several decades by Ivory Coast. Well done! But now Ivory Coast wants Intellectual Property Protection for attieke. That gives me pause. Let me explain.
What is Attieke?
The Nzema staple attieke is made from fermented ground cassava tuber. Cassava is a shrub native to South America. Also known as manioc or yuca it is the third most common source of carbohydrates in the tropical regions of the world after rice and corn. The root of the cassava is cyanogenic so improper preparation can lead to cyanide poisoning. It is also highly perishable so traditional processes have been developed to preserve it. Cassava products include tapioca flour & pearls famously used in boba tea, farofa & farinha of Brazil, and gari of several West African countries.
To make attieke, cassava is peeled and grated into a mash. The mash is fermented for several hours to a couple of days then the liquid is squeezed out. It is not unusual for mash at different stages of fermentation to be combined leading to nuances in the taste of the final product. The dewatered cassava mash is sieved and rubbed in circular motion in the palms to create smooth round grains. It is a very tedious process. The grains are dried in the sun for about an hour and then steamed to produce attieke. Shelf life is only a matter of days. Attieke is eaten for breakfast, lunch, or dinner. It can be eaten with soup or stew but it has been popularized as eaten with grilled tilapia or grilled chicken. It is said if you are Nzema and you don’t eat aky3k3 then you are not a true Nzema.
Gari on the other hand is peeled, grated, pressed/dewatered/fermented over several days, seived, then roasted. Shelf life of gari can be up to two years. Nowadays, some shops and restaurants sell steamed gari as attieke. It is not. It’s steamed gari and tastes nothing like attieke.
Who are the Nzema?
The Nzema (Nzima, N’Zima N’Zi mma) people live on the coast of West Africa. They settled there over 500 years ago. They number about 300, 000 today with 80% residing in what is now the south-western region of Ghana and the rest across the international border on the south-eastern region of the Ivory Coast. This is because the British and the French split up the land when they colonized it. The Nzema are named for the Nzi River. They are also known as Appolo or Appolonians, because the Portuguese traders who first arrived on their coast in the late 1400s/early 1500s called it the Kingdom of Appolonia because they arrived on the feast day of St. Appollonia. The Nzema are generally thought of as belonging to the Akan family but some purists say their ancestry links them to the Guan.
Why do Ivorians Think Attieke is Their Food?
Grand-Bassam, an Nzema fishing village in south-eastern Ivory Coast, was a major seaport for French colonials before the existence of Ivory Coast as we know it. In fact this historic UNESCO World Heritage town was the French colonial capital from 1893 to 1896. Even after the colonial capital was moved because of a wave of yellow fever, Grand-Bassam remained an important commercial hub well into the 20th century. It is not hard to see how the Nzema staple attieke could have travelled far and wide across Ivory Coast and indeed Francophone West Africa.
Furthermore, the economic capital of Ivory Coast, Abidjan, historically an Ébrié fishing village, also lies in south-eastern Ivory Coast not too far from the Nzema people of Bassam. Once again, the Nzema people, even though small in number, have had a greater opportunity to influence the general culture of what is now Ivory Coast.
On the flip-side, even though the majority of Nzema people live in what is now Ghana, and even though the first President of Ghana, Kwame Nkrumah, was Nzema, Nzema people are a minor ethnic group. In addition, the economic and political capital of Ghana lies remotely, a few hundred of kilometers away to the east in the land of the Ga people. It is the Ga people and the ubiquitous Ashanti who get to influence Ghanaian culture the most.
I can’t begin to recount the number of Ghanaian people I have met here in the States who don’t know where the Nzema people are from. When I lived in Accra in the early 1990s people did not know what attieke was yet it was what we ate all the time when we visited family in the village. In fact I remember being taunted with “attieke” by one or two boys in JSS who I’m sure had no idea what it was but had heard about it from the only other Nzema person in the class. For the longest time, when an Nzema person was coming back to the States from Ghana the number one request was for attieke. Now attieke is sold in restaurants in Accra as a Francophone import. Shame!
Can a Country Claim Intellectual Property of a Dish?
The demand for attieke in Ivory Coast grew exponentially in the 1970s and 1980s to the point that local women processors could not deliver and certainly could not keep the market to themselves. Thus, Ivorians have been industrializing the production of attieke for a while now trying to meet demand and lengthen shelf life. Globalization is such that attieke is being introduced around the world by Francophone African restaurants. I remember my excitement when I first saw attieke on the menu of a new Senegalese restaurant in Boston about 7 years ago. It turned out not to be proper attieke but no-one else would have known. I have seen the boxes of attieke on various grocery shelf stores and I’ve stayed far away. Attieke is not supposed to be dry. I have seen balls of frozen attieke in various African grocery stores and I’m disappointed when I take them home. So I am still getting my attieke directly from Nzema via courier.
Attieke is a good couscous or rice replacement and the fact that it is gluten-free works in its favour at this time. It’s easy to prepare and the way it is advertised with grilled tilapia or grilled chicken and a side of vegetables is absolutely delicious and an easy crossover for people unfamiliar with African food.
I’m surprised to read in the BBC report that there is a severe shortage of attieke in Ivory Coast this year. Shocked that possibly there are cartels involved in the attieke trade. But this line “They use the Ivorian name to brand and sell a uniquely Ivorian product …, said government spokesman Bruno Kone” was the most upsetting. No. Kyekye. Non. Nein. Nyet. Do Not Pass Go. The attiéké spelling may be the most familiar of the many variations but the name and the product are not uniquely Ivorian.
Despite my objection, I would rather Ivory Coast claim attiéké the name and the manufacturing process than say China or France. But they need to come correct. We are honoured that our food is now your national dish but never forget that Attieke is Nzema staple food along with plakali and mbotol3mba and that the majority of Nzema people live in Ghana. While we are at it, don’t forget that the word alloco is also Nzema.
Ivory Coast the country would have to pry attieke the cassava couscous from the cold dead hands of Nzema the people. What’s next? Nigeria announces its wish to trade-mark jollof rice?