The night is studded with stars. Not in the sky, but at human height, swinging flimsily. Shadows flicker inside these brief yellow shafts then disappear, blurred by a screen of thick smoke, swallowed up by the surrounding darkness. A vague humming sound remains. Smells prevail. A powerful scent of charcoal, burning flesh, tainted meat and shit. The smell of Africa’s markets. The lights become clearer. A row of grills loom out of the darkness, covered in concave chickens spitting out the last of their fat. The voices become clearer, the male boom of vendors nabbing lazy buyers sitting in their cars. Too bad for the ones who don’t want to get out, for beyond this first curtain, over there where the night is deeper and the stars (simple oil lamps) skim the surface of the earth lives a unique spot : the Cocody Allocodrome.
Situated on an open air ground opposite the main market of the very bourgeois Cocody commune in Abidjan, the Allocodrome owes its name to the local treat: allocos, that is cubes of deep-fried plantain bananas. Basic, and yet… For real alloco requires other elements to take on its full flavour. Starting with a vendor sitting in front of her battered aluminium cooking pot with a collection of brown or black-skinned bananas – epending on the extent of ripeness – spattered with bruises and mould, basically virtually rotten, piled on the muddy ground at her feet. One hand stoking the fire with a piece of cardboard and the other selling bananas, counting her money and gutting fish ready to be fried as well. Which is why the oil is so important. It has to be heavy and greasy, saturated to the hilt so that it has nothing left in common with the insipid yellow trickle of the original groundnut oil, now enhanced with the debris of fish left to float inside. The fish is what makes the alloco. The aroma of the fish in the deep fat, the fish scraps crushed to a purée with a little tomato, onion and pimento for the indispensable sauce to go with it (sold in stingy portions, incidentally) provide the sharpness that exalts the sweetness of the banana without making it sickly. Alloco is still sweet, a tasty titbit normally eaten as snack, intended more to please than to nourish, a dish of melting morsels that is feminine by nature. The young women of the house don’t accidentally come to fetch it and take it home while the men eat it on the spot, sitting on a stool next to the vendor so that he can have a perfect view of the girls coming and going. And the installation of women selling alloco at the beginning of the 70’s probably didn’t give rise to the birth of this market accidentally either. They have been presiding over its opening every day at 4 o’clock ever since.
A place for food, encounters and laughter, the Allocodrome grew in size and popularity and inevitably became a trendy spot. At the end of the 70’s the well-off kids from the neighbourhood came here to show off their disco wear, strassy T-shirts and « rockafil jazz » shoes, followed by the hip-hop wave surfers of the 80’s, conscientiously robbed by hoods with flick-knives from here or elsewhere. It didn’t matter, because this was the place to hang for school kids and students. Especially as the anonymity brought about by the crowd, the smoke and the lack of lighting opened up no end of possibilities. A somewhat pimpy atmosphere, and a feeling that this is where it was at, reigned in this site of free-flowing beer and sometimes violent embraces – as far as the hoods were concerned – that stayed lively till the middle of the night.
Trends changed but the Allocodrome was still going strong because it never strayed from its principle function: feeding people. To do so it used a minimalist structure, an open air earthen ground, no electricity, no running water or toilets, not even a trash can, and a simple operating system: concentrating the supply and demand of food in the same place with a variety of dishes to keep the prices low and the clients plentiful. More substantial dishes are therefore also on offer, confoundingly natural: braised chicken and fish, fried or grilled meats « bread-kebabs » and, of course, « garba », a meal for the poor or at least for those who don’t want to spend much. A small braised fish, some attiéké, a fresh tomato-based condiment, all wrapped in a piece of paper…and there you have it. A model of balance and much more subtle than you might think. The compact form of the fish in a « garba » counterbalances the light fermented manioc seeds piled into a fragile heap like a sand castle, but this impression is reversed when you take your first mouthful and discover the density of the attiéké harmonising with the subtlety of the freshwater fish.
In order to conserve this straightforward art of eating, both regular Allocodrome customers and vendors refused to follow the bylaw passed in 1991 proclaiming the closure of the site due to insalubrity, insecurity and… unpaid commercial taxes. And because it was a blot on the luxurious Cocody landscape? The conflict was given heavy media coverage and was resolved two years later by the opening of a new Allocodrome on the same site, refurbished in keeping with the regulated norms of the commune, meaning it can now be heralded as a « Gastronomic and Cultural Centre ». A shopping centre has replaced the row of braised chicken vendors with their little starry lamps. The electric street lamps that light the place up like daytime have banished the shadows, tarmac has replaced the earth, the fixed has chased away the moveable in every respect. Each vendor has been assigned a box, duly numbered. And there’s no question of becoming an improvised host when it comes to eating on the spot; four concrete slabs have been put up to form counters. As for selling alcohol, it is now forbidden.
But, whether it delights or not, one thing is certain: the essence of the Allocodrome has not changed a bit. Because one fundamental element resists all form of control : the food on offer. « Soucouya » is still eaten there. A dish made of grilled offal from meat that is impossible to label, let alone identify sometimes, that looks delightfully like large clots of coagulated blood, glazed by the pus-like fat seeping out of the firm flesh of the chewy soucouya with its pungent taste and smell that is totally incorrect and vehemently virile. Soucouya lovers are over the moon. They can’t be regulated by norms either.