Attieke, a “New” Staple

Last week while shopping at Sun Foods—a large, well-stocked ethnic market on University Avenue in St. Paul—I bought a packaged product I had never tried before called “attieke.” Although unfamiliar to me, attieke represents a significant staple food in large parts of West Africa and the Ivory Coast. I called a college friend whose father worked in the Foreign Service there. She told me that she ate it nearly every day as a child, scooping it into mounds with her then small hands as a backdrop to most meals.

Attieke, a fermented food made from cassava root, is small and has a pale yellow hue. It could easily be mistaken for couscous in look and feel and is listed on some packages as couscous de manioc or cassava. The flavor, however, is distinct. Like fresh cassava, attieke tastes and smells tropical with nutty vanilla tones, and evokes images of palm trees and an unrelenting sun. Also like fresh cassava—a vegetable used to make some of the world’s gooier foods, such as tapioca pudding—attieke is both starchy and sticky and a carbohydrate-laden food.

A short fermentation process—typically a few days—gives the grain a slightly sour, even funky flavor. Like most fermented products, that “funk” can be off-putting at first. However, the fermentation and the resulting extra layer of flavor and complexity give attieke special character and appeal, similar in tartness to mild sour dough bread. The tangy flavor makes it unique amongst other starches and grains I’ve tried.

Serve attieke with stewed meats, poultry, fish, and vegetables. The sauce from a stew soaks into the grain and balances the slightly sour and tropical flavors much as it does in traditional couscous in northern African cuisine. Try using attieke with garlic, parsley, and a little olive oil for a tabbouleh salad. In general, use attieke as a replacement for other grains.

Tasty, novel, and fragrant, it may become a new favorite. Who knows, it may even become the new “it” food.

How to cook Attieke
Attieke can be cooked in nearly the same way as couscous. Mix equal parts water and attieke in a bowl (non metallic if you plan to use a microwave). Wait 10 minutes. The attieke will swell as it absorbs the water. Then stir in some salt and melted butter or olive oil. Wrap the bowl with plastic wrap and cook in the microwave for 2-3 minutes per cup of attieke. As an alternative to the microwave, steam the swollen attieke in a cheesecloth or kitchen towel-lined steamer. For more flavorful attieke, use broth instead of water and add spices or herbs with salt.