I am not sure when I discovered that Nigerian food was my love language. Perhaps at age 5 when my mother gave me the boniest parts of the oxtail to chew because she knew how much I loved chewing the bone. Or when my Father proudly proclaimed how much pepper I liked in my stew by age 10. As a British Born Nigerian the fusion of cultures has always been a priority for me, for my parents it was so important that I didn’t lose sight of my Nigerian culture or heritage. Food was at the core of this, I learnt how to cook staple Nigerian dishes from around age 12 and it was essential that I not only knew how to cook them but that I enjoyed eating those dishes too. I love Nigerian food, sometimes I love it privately. It is a comfort to me when I’m feeling down or in need of comfort, but most of the time I love it openly because it is a celebration of my identity, my DNA. When I started reading Yemisi Aribisala’s Longthroat Memoirs, I had a moment, a moment of comfort that I only have when I have satisfied my hunger for my favourite Nigerian dish, which changes depending on my mood. One day it’s Ewedu and amala, the next it’s simply Yam and egg.
Nigerian food is more than stews and plantain and jollof rice. There is so much beauty that can be found within the confines of a Nigerian Kitchen even if the preparation can be daunting as I learnt at age 12. Do not get me started on anyone trying to summarise it as African food – “People still try to take Nigerian food and squeeze it into this all-encompassing title of African food” (Longthroat Memoirs, P14). Yemisi has written a book that is an ode to Nigerian food, a love letter of sorts filled with anecdotes and stories which bring Nigerian food to life. From the “Okro Soup, Gorgeous Mucilage” chapter to “The Snail Tree”the sensual nature of Nigerian dishes, aphrodisiacs that the world are missing. I finished the booked wondering seriously when Nigerian cuisine would be taken as seriously as other international dishes and, whilst Yemisi does her best to introduce us to visionaries in this book, I am still frustrated that we have become so protective of our food that it is almost as if others are not welcome to at least try to innovate, lest we forget the Jamie Oliver Jollofgate. I really enjoyed this book and I hope that many more do so too. I had the opportunity to interview the wonderfully talented Yemisi for WFD, enjoy, share and leave a comment!
Where does your love of food come from?
The fridge was always full to the door when I was a child, no matter how loudly my mother complained of being broke. The freezer you could count on for containers of boiled, cooled pepper blend and well-seasoned cooked beef. There was always a slab of butter when you opened the door of the refrigerator even though it was expensive and we weren’t allowed to just eat it as we wished. We had the alternative of margarine “Planta” that we could spread as thickly as we liked on bread. My grandfather always turned up with crowns of bananas and long red sugarcanes and white goose eggs or chicken eggs. My maternal grandfather had a farm. Battery chickens kept in the compound of the house in Ososami, Ibadan and free-range ones from the farm were regularly being slaughtered for meals when we were in Ibadan on holidays. My mother often bought pork chops and fresh prawns for Sunday lunch. No matter what happened, we ate well and so I came to regard eating well as a given. It isn’t. It never was, not outside our house, but inside it was a fundamental premise of living well and being happy. I had friends who travelled overseas, and wore expensive clothes and owned high powered toys. I was never jealous of them. The irony was that we often ate better than they did. And so I also came to conclude that the best marker of true wealth was a relationship with good food.
For those who are yet to read your book please explain what inspired you to write this wonderful book? I wasn’t in fact writing a book, I was writing columns for 234Next under the title of Food Matters. I had to deliver my columns ideally by Wednesday evening for the next day. I wrote about everything from tribalistic lingo in identifying fruits and vegetables – i.e. Yoruba bananas, Igbo bananas, Hausa tomatoes, Calabar crayfish etc – to the price of guinea fowls over the Seme border in Cotonou’s Akpakpa market. At the end of two years and a few months, roughly between 2009 and 2011, I sent the articles to Bibi Bakare-Yusuf of Cassava Republic Press. We spent what turned out to be a few years looking over the articles, extending them, editing them, creating images, building an audience via a Longthroat Memoirs blog and slowly building a format for the book. It only became a “visible” book somewhere near the end of this longwinded process of continually revisiting the text and discussing direction. Many articles were rejected from the final collection. I realised there was no Nigerian talking about the person of Nigerian food, nor documenting why and how we ate. I watched BBC Lifestyle avidly enough to understand how easily cultural details were soaked in with the presentation, preparation and eating of food. How tables naturally bring people who might not have anything in common together in spaces where their prejudices and angst are left outside, far from the table. How goodwill is comfortably extended over plates of food. I saw an uncharted opportunity to flesh out new terms of references for the Nigerian; who she is on a day to day, what she eats, where she gets her food, what goes on in her mind with the eating. This conversation was both overdue among Nigerians in Nigeria and the diaspora, as well as between us and our global fellow citizens.
What would you say has been your greatest food-related accomplishment to date? Getting Nigerians to converse about our food. One of the first comments to my Food Matters column in 234Next in 2009 was an abrupt questioning of what I thought I was doing. “You can’t write,” the lady said “…and no one understands what you are talking about.” People that wouldn’t say it in the comments section of the column asked me in person. “Well what is this?” “A hobby?” “Do you get paid?” “Why not write on more important things?” “What is there to say about Nigerian food?” With every questioning of the value of writing about Nigerian food (when there were more important political discourses to be had), the urgency of the challenge grew. Over the months of writing the columns, I had so many comments from people who wanted to talk about their own recipes or childhood memories drawn out from the depths. On cocoa pods and ogi and tuwo and akara. They wanted to correct my presumptuousness when speaking about foods that were not from my part of Nigeria. They told me I didn’t know what I was doing. I couldn’t put onions in Ogbono for goodness sake! So many comments that I felt justified that the outpouring and passion and quarrels and insults were exactly because of the long span of silence on a topic that is fundamental to understanding identity. For some reason, I printed out every single comment from the 234Next web site. It turned out a farsighted decision because the whole website was taken down when the newspaper closed. I have reams of words from Nigerians who hitherto thought their own food was a non-issue.
What has been your biggest challenge in your “foodie journey” so far? Finding time to cook for fun! And not just because I’m meeting nutritional needs of children. If I experiment and “my bosses” hate the food, I just have to cook more food and there is barely enough hours in the day to juggle going through cookbooks and being spontaneous and feeding children.
What is your favourite meal and why? I’ve always found this question the most difficult one of all. I have days of being in the mood for eating something and then I want something else and crave it like I will just die if I don’t eat it. I don’t have a favourite meal. Sorry!
Name 3 ingredients that you cannot live without?
-Pepper – black, red, green, hot, aromatic, seeds, pods, fresh, dried every single kind I can get my hands on.
-Fresh Ginger root
What is the most sensual dish you have ever tasted and why?
Sensuousness for me is all about texture. My own home-made fufu with fresh ewedu and a dab of stew. Fufu is fattening I know, but I can’t resist the white suppleness, the softness, the heat in your stomach. Fufu eaten at night is really bad behaviour but that heat and softness and stomach fullness just sends you off to another level of sleep and beautiful dreams.
Who’s For Dinner with you? Who would you invite for a meal of a lifetime with you and why? Oh for once, I’d just like to cook a meal for myself – a grand meal in the company of a big fat book and eat all alone without having to worry about another person’s stomach.
Where to buy the book: www.amazon.co.uk/Longthroat-Memoirs-Soups-Nigerian-Taste/dp/191111526X