Few outside Ivory Coast are aware of her delectable cuisine, which fuses French fine dining with traditional African ingredients and techniques. More than anywhere else, Ivorians abide by George Bernard Shaw’s aphorism: ‘There is no love sincerer than the love of food.’ Furthermore, the choice is far broader and the ingredients generally of higher quality than neighbouring countries such as Ghana and Guinea.
The most common dishes are juicy barbecued meat and fish, and hearty stews liberally dosed with palm oil and accompanied by either rice or foutou, a kind of dumpling made from pounded cassava and a touch of plantain, which gives the concoction a slightly sweet undertone.
A rarer alternative is toh, a maize-based foutou with the consistency of blancmange. The ubiquitous main lunch or dinner course is poulet braisé, which is chicken that hasn’t been braised so much as marinated in garlic, lemon juice, mustard, pepper and chillies, and then cooked on an open charcoal grill and served with a tomato and onion salad. Other accompaniments include attiéké (a light, couscous-like preparation made from ground cassava pulp) and/or alloco (sliced plantains pan-fried with onions, chilli and salt). Poisson braisé is prepared and presented in the same way as poulet braisé except the chicken is substituted with carpe (carp), machoiron (sea catfish) or capitaine (hogfish).
Brochettes are decent-quality chunks of chicken, beef, fish or liver cooked on skewers on the same types of barbecue used for the braisé dishes above. In addition, up north you’ll find little brown paper packages of mouton (mutton) slow-cooked in the drawers of a wood-fired metal oven. Sauce claire is a casserole with a distinctively sweet-sour yet briny flavour that’s derived from slow-cooked aubergines, shrimp paste and fish scales. A warming broth of garlic, onions, tomatoes, chilli and palm tree grains, sauce graine’s killer ingredients are kable, an indigenous aromatic leaf and akpi, an African spice that not only thickens the sauce but adds a smoky dimension to the flavour. Sauce graine is so versatile that it works with chicken breast, beef thighs and white fish. Sauce arachide comprises chicken, mutton or fish in a creamy groundnut sauce, while the thick, earthy thono is a delightful combination of spinach and tuna fish.
Senegalese cuisine has caught on in Ivory Coast in a big way. Like Moroccan tagine or Indian biryani, kedjenou (a fish or chicken curry) owes its full-bodied and intense flavour to hours of cooking in a sealed pot over a wood fire. Generous doses of ginger, fresh chilli and black pepper make this one for spice fans. Another filling Senegalese repast is tchep, usually consisting of dried fish or a barbecued chicken leg, red rice, boiled yams and other vegetables.
In even the tiniest village you’ll find plenty of lip-smacking hot and cold street food. Mais (corn on the cob) varies in quality, but more consistently tasty are boiled or fried yam, beignets (sweet or savoury doughnuts), poisson (crispy smoked fish that you’ll need to peel the skin off before consuming) and oeufs (hard-boiled eggs with a sachet of piment or chilli powder). Not unlike tempura, mille is a sort of millet fritter cooked in palm oil and lime juice. Smaller snacks include arachides (roasted peanuts), dattes (dates) and kola, an extremely bitter-tasting nut with an uplifting effect close to caffeine.
Ivorians claim to have the cleanest tap water in Africa, but it is still recommended to stick to drinking inexpensive, bottled mineral water. The main brands are Awa, Celeste and Organe, available in 1.5 or half-litre bottles. Sucrerie is a catch-all term covering tinned and bottled Coca-Cola, Fanta, tonic water and other globally recognised carbonated soft drinks, also widely sold in stores, maquis, restaurants and hotels. Lipton and Nescafé seem to have a grip over the tea and coffee market and should be ordered by brand name to avoid confusion. Only high-end restaurants and hotels will have real filter coffee.
For a more local flavour try kinkéliba, an aromatic tea made with herbs from the north, and hot or cold bissap, a sweet and sticky beverage made from sorghum, hibiscus flower and vanilla sugar. For some reason the finished product tastes like blackcurrant. Also consumable hot or cold, gingembre is a tart and spicy brew of ginger, lemon and pineapple juice. For next to nothing and particularly along the coasts you can purchase a nutritious and delicious coconut from a machete-wielding vendor, who will chop the top off so you can drink the juice and then cut the fruit in half so you can eat the flesh.
Lager is Ivory Coast’s number one alcoholic tipple, served ice cold in more or less every hotel, restaurant, maquis and magasin (convenience store). Flag and Castell are the most popular brands, followed by the gassier Bock Solibra, nicknamed ‘Drogba’ after the country’s best-loved footballer due to its large, litre-sized bottle. Locally produced and scandalously good value, Valpierre would give any mid-priced French vin de table a run for its money. Most bars and higher quality eateries stock US and European spirits, from blended whiskies such as Chivas Regal and Johnnie Walker to Smirnoff vodka and Gordon’s gin. Ivorians are also partial to foreign liqueurs such as Campari, Chartreuse and Baileys.
In the villages and more provincial towns and cities, palm wine is well worth a try, although its zesty, grapefruit-like flavour tends to deteriorate when stored for too long. Another indigenous concoction is mille (millet beer), which may be too spicy for some palates. Street vendors push trolleys around of dirt-cheap coutoucou (a kind of super-strong schnapps) and other homemade hard liquors created by distilling gin and rum with local roots and herbs. Unregulated and varying greatly in quality, these tipples can cause sickness and – in rare cases – death. Avoid them.
Evening maquis tend to double as watering holes, with a full menu of beer and wine (and occasionally spirits) available until the wee hours. Abidjan, Grand-Bassam and Yamoussoukro are the only cities with anything approaching Western-style bars, nightclubs and live music venues.