Yemisi Aribisala’s Paean to Nigerian Cuisine
It must have been about two years ago when I first heard that World Jollof Rice Day was being celebrated on August 22 and what a thrill it was for me to see this celebratory dish from the land of my birth being given the international prominence it rightly deserves. No matter what sort of day you are having, jollof rice is guaranteed to make it all the more better. I am not sure who came up with this bright idea, but there is a website for it and #WorldJollofRice has turned all the social media platforms into a Naija block party.
As the world is ablaze with celebration of the beloved West African delicacy, I thought it might be the perfect time for me to share my long overdue take on Yemisi Aribisala’s Longthroat Memoirs: Soups, Sex and Nigerian Taste Buds. This book kept me company for nearly a year, not because it is a tedious read, quite the contrary, it was quite a revelatory read for me. It took me on a journey and like most journeys, you have to calmly and studiously savor the sights and take it all, in this case, one page at a time. The meticulously composed paeans and assiduously accurate dissections of Nigerian cuisine were outstanding and I was sad when I turned the last page. Here are some of the things that I got from this journey.
Forget what you thought you knew about Nigerian cuisine in general. Here is an example: So moin moin is another Nigerian dish that deserves its own day. Perhaps the future will gives us #WorldMoinMoinDay, but I digress. I have always described moin moin as ground beans steamed in banana leaves. And therein lies my grave error, grande faute, if you may. Ms. Aribisala’s book gave me the most accurate description of moin moin: “seasoned ground beans steamed in thaumatococcus leaves“. And yes, I scrambled to Google to find out what exactly thaumatococcus leaves are, misspelling it twice, coming away with a renewed sense of pride in Naija food and the utmost reverence for the author of the book that I was reading.
You will probably adopt new cooking methods. From the moment I started reading it, I was taken over by a strong and overwhelming desire to try some of the recipes or food cooking recommendations in the book. These sudden bursts of epicurean inspiration have now become the norm as life sees me toasting grains of couscous before cooking them, adding balsamic vinegar when preparing stewed beans. Finger licking goodness.
It will make you hungry. I think this book should have come with an advance warning. Do not read while hungry! So there was the time, when I was reading the book and a few minutes in, I was hungry. It was not just any sort of hunger. It was the hunger that grips you when you are a Naija girl and you just have to have something that tastes Naija, otherwise, life as you know it will never be the same. I recognized these emotions because I have nurtured them before (more on that later). So, I did what any other sane person in my position would do, I cooked Naija food. Amala and ewedu an all-time favorite, was my delicacy of choice. And the result is the in the 14 second video below:
You will become more aware of Nigeria’s rich cultural diversity. While this book covers a wide range of Nigerian culinary delights, it is remarkable to note that it only begins to scratch the surface when it comes to covering the length and breadth of Nigerian cuisine. The South Western and Eastern cuisine of Nigeria are well represented here, but the Northern part of the country is largely absent. It was in realizing this that I got an acute awareness of just how rich and diverse Nigerian culture is, food and all. While I admit, that this should not exactly be news to me, I still remember the moment that this thought gripped me and how awestruck I was by the realization.
I know it may come across as slightly platitudinous to say that Ms. Aribisala’s book is a gift. At least I think it does coming from an unrepentant bibliophile like myself, who thinks that most books are gifts anyway. The difference here for me is how real and relatable I found many parts of the book. I have long been of the opinion that gastronomy in and of itself is very emotional and you can trace what you like to eat back to a time and place that is more often than not associated to where you were born and raised and what your tastebuds grew up becoming accustomed to. For me, having spent my early life in Nigeria, but now having lived outside of the country for longer than I can openly admit, Nigerian food is the only type of food that really does it for me. Here’s a story: years ago, when I lived in the UK, there was a period where my lifestyle was extremely itinerant to the point that I had to forage for food in restaurants, other people’s homes, etc. In other words, I did not have much time to cook anything. If I was lucky, I would get a nice Nigerian delicacy from a friend or family member. There was this day when felt nauseous to the point where I felt that my tongue no longer belonged in my mouth. I was hungry, but none of the food offerings available to me were anything that I felt I could nourish my soul. In a bit of anguish, I wandered into a restaurant and grudgingly ordered some soup. I can’t remember what kind of soup it was, but suffice to say that I undoubtedly anticipated a bland taste. A few days before, I had had dinner at an aunt’s home and she had gifted me with a container of ground red pepper which I was still carrying around in my purse. So, still feeling yucky, on a whim decided to sprinkle some of the ground red pepper on the soup. It was the instant remedy I needed. I slurped up the soup and ordered a second bowl and did the same thing to the next bowl of soup. There is something liberating when you discover how therapeutic food can be. By the time I left the restaurant, I had a different kind of spring in my step and of course was feeling tons better. It was at that point that I realized how my taste buds are inextricably tied to the food from the locale of my birth. I need Naija food to function properly
Using charming and incisive wit and remarkably inventive chapter titles, reminiscent of the title one of the books in J.K. Rowlings’ Harry Potter series: Okro Soup and the Demonic Encyclopedia of Dreams, Ms. Aribisala delivers this gift. She highlights the distinct importance of Nigerian cuisine, what sets it apart and how diverse it is. What makes the inhabitant of the Western part of the country cringe is regarded as a gastronomical delight to the inhabitant of the Eastern part of the country. And vice versa. But, I can say this, since it is World Jollof Rice day, no matter what part of the country you are from, Jollof Rice will always transcend distinct epicurean cultural nuances and bring all of us together.
Here are the author’s own words about Nigerian jollof rice:
Every single colloquialism I possess is of food, like the jollof rice that you cannot cook anywhere else in the world, because you will not find the necessary environmental redolence anywhere else in the world: no firewood smokiness, no accurate hit and temperament of locally grown hot peppers. This isn’t Maya Angelou’s red rice. It isn’t the original Wolof rice. It is its own person.