When I arrived in Abidjan, I was more excited for the food than anything else. I had dedicated time to researching the cuisine before I arrived and was very impressed with the mix of local and French influences, seafood options and typical dining establishments. And the possibility of having my first croque monsieur in eight months. Here’s a quick guide to the cuisine of Cote d’Ivoire based on my experiences in this West African nation.
Where to eat?
In Abidjan, the country’s most populous city, there are plenty of restaurants that cater to the ex-pat community and tourists. Most of these establishments have superb food, but also cost as much as a decent restaurant in many parts of Europe. The alternative – and my preference – is the maquis. These grills are scattered throughout the large cities and can be found along the road in rural areas. Maquis often are grouped together, which means a bevy of open-air dining in plastic tables and chairs. A maquis will offer a few staple dishes every day, all of which are freshly cooked. A filling meal and a drink at a maquis will result in a bill of a few US dollars.
One of the maquis I visited a couple of times in Abidjan was Chez Josine. Tucked into the back corner of a courtyard filled with competitors, Josine and her crew made me feel very welcome as I relaxed with a beer or my lunch. I love the bright colors of the walls of Chez Josine, which was rebuilt after being damaged during the country’s most recent electoral strife.
I also found a nice maquis in the coastal town of Grand Bassam (the first image in this post), where the owner encouraged me to take photos of her wall decorations – and wanted a photo shoot of her own.
There are various specialties in Cote d’Ivoire, from strikingly large land snails to chicken and seafood. Poulet braise (grilled chicken) was one of my favorites. The chicken is marinated in a mustard sauce before it hits the grill and is served with an onion-based veggie mixture. The end product is a sublime combination of tastes and textures. When I ordered spicy fried chicken at a waterside maquis (one of their house specialties), I received a portion that easily would have sufficed for three people.
Snails? You can read about my experience with these truly Ivorian creatures here. I really enjoyed them, too.
With its ample Atlantic Ocean coastline, grilled fish and other seafood are readily available in many Ivorian restaurants. Fish is served at most maquis, while higher-end restaurants in beach towns prepare shrimp and langoustine. In addition to the fish and chicken mains, kedjenou, a slow-cooked chicken and vegetable stew, is very popular (unfortunately did not have the opportunity to try this one).
The two most common side dishes I encountered were alloco (also spelled alloko) and attiéké. Alloco – which is also perfect as a stand-alone snack – consists of banana slices fried in palm oil, onions and chilies.
Attiéké is made from grated cassava, one of the main tubers consumed in this part of Africa. A couscous doppelganger, attiéké is ideal for sopping up the sauces of many Ivorian dishes. It doesn’t have much taste, so it absorbs those spicy tomato bases nicely.
French wine is not widely available where I am currently based, so I had a lot of rosé and younger reds while in Cote d’Ivoire. In terms of local beverages, there are three main beers: Flag, Tuborg and Castel. While Tuborg is a Danish beer, the Tuborg served in Cote d’Ivoire is brewed locally. Castel Group owns both Flag and Castel.
All three are classic light African lagers and taste quite similar. The only difference I noted was that Flag finished slightly more watered-down than the others. However, with the humidity that cloaks many parts of the country, the cool bottle is always welcome and the taste becomes secondary.
In addition to the beers and foreign spirits available in Cote d’Ivoire, palm wine is produced. I didn’t find any, but will search it out the next time I’m in an Ivorian restaurant.
The food and dining in Cote d’Ivoire satisfied me on a number of levels. First, the accessibility and the friendliness of the maquis make me smile whenever I remember them. Second, the spiciness of the dishes was extensive enough that I never had to ask for chili sauce. Finally, I greatly appreciated the pride and expertise that went into every dish. The Ivorians clearly care about making delicious and fresh meals and this attitude pays off for anyone visiting the country.
Head over to my friend Alina’s blog for a fun kayaking post that incidentally has a tantalizing donut shot.