‘She’s eating!’ Though I was not the only one having piping hot amala in the local Ebute Metta joint, I did not have to look up from my plate to know the lady’s exclamation was about me. Since my stay in Agege last year I have gotten used to being stared at when I eat Nigerian food. It is the very reason I stopped having draw soup in public: till a certain level I have become immune to attention, but looking up with slimy ogbono threads running down my mouth to be confronted with six curious pairs of eyes upon me still makes me uncomfortable.
This time I was not going to let myself be distracted. I ignored the outcry of the woman who had just entered the busy joint and concentrated on kneading the smooth lumpless amala into a chew sized ball and dipping it in the peppery stew I’d mixed with my efo. When I felt a tap on my right shoulder, I realised this lady was not going to leave me alone. Reluctantly I let go of my perfect amala ball and turned to the lady who had stopped at my table. Her eyelids painted metallic orange and pale blue blinked theatrically as she pointed down at my food in front of me.
‘Can you eat that?’ she inquired. I looked at my food and then back at her.
‘Of course I can. I have a stomach, just like you.’
She laughed and I continued my meal.
‘You eat amala?’ is a very common question I get in Nigeria, second only to ‘Would you marry a Nigerian?’ Few things make Nigerians happier than my response that, yes, I do eat amala, preferably with efo riro or edikaikong. Food is an all round ice breaker here. Tell people you eat amala, and they take an instant liking to you. Tell them you prepare your own moinmoin, and they become your lifelong friend. A Yoruba taxi driver who took me from MM2 to my place phoned his brother and his wife driving 90 kilometres an hour on the expressway to tell them he had an oyinbo customer in his car who claimed she knew how to cook moinmoin.
Now appreciating the local food is a universal way to people’s hearts. If you ever get to the Netherlands and you manage to gobble up a raw herring with onions at one of the street stalls, you will gain popularity among all Dutch witnessing the occasion. And the Eastern Congolese in the Kivus rejoice when they see a foreign visitor devouring a good plate of foufou with sombe – pounded cassava leaves with palm oil and ground peanuts. But the Nigerian culinary pride comes across as even more intense and deep felt than elsewhere.
Admittedly: I have also fallen in love with Naija food. Every day I discover new treasures of the Nigerian cuisine. Only recently I was introduced to the sourishly fresh joy of ijebu-garri mixed with ice cold water on a hot day. (‘She dey chop garri?’ a saleswoman asked my companion when I purchased this grated cassava at my local market.) The simplicity of pepper soup that makes it fit to combine with any thinkable ingredient from snails till fish and cow’s tail (I am planning to travel east to have yam pepper soup sometime soon), ranks it second on my list of Nigerian delicacies that should become worldwide export products. After steamed bean cake, obviously. My moinmoin love affair can hardly have escaped the attention of regular readers. And just last week a Northern friend shared some of his dambun nama with me, another mind blowing culinary invention, like delicate spun sugar in savoury meat form.
Cooking is a hobby of mine and I am trying out all my favourite Nigerian recipes in my doll’s house kitchen. I also love to experiment. By doing so, I unknowingly break the unwritten rules of Naija cuisine. This is where the Nigerian appreciation of my food caprioles usually ends. My unconventional combinations or preparations make the average Nigerian cringe. People are still talking about the day I had moinmoin with my amala (in my defence: there was some vegetable soup involved) as if blasphemy was committed. Most of my Lagos friends shake their heads in disbelief about the way I cook yam, pretending it is potato and using the tuber in every potato dish I can think of, from German potato salad to Spanish tortilla omelette. I hardly dare to mention how one day I am planning to use ijebu-garri to make fried tuna fish cookies… When it comes to their food, often even the most progressive Nigerian thinkers turn out to be ultra orthodox.
I have often wondered how a country that invented such adventurous dishes has become so conservative in its cuisine. Imagine the consequences if the woman who woke up one fine morning and thought ‘Hmmm, I wonder what happens if I grind these beans into a pulp with pepper and onions’ had been told off to do so by her neighbours. The world would never have been blessed with moinmoin!
This afternoon I was driving through a little street in Mushin with a friend who was born and raised in the area. The pool sized potholes slowed my car down to a bare footpace. My friend reminisced how well paved the street used to be in the eighties, a story I have heard in many tones from many Nigerians about many aspects of society. Their love for Nigeria often translates into melancholy, because the here and now does not give them a lot to be proud of. This country is very loveable, but not easy to love.
Maybe that is why the appreciation of Nigerian food runs so deep. NEPA/PHCN will screw up, politicians will steal with impunity, services will deteriorate and buildings will collapse, but you can always count on finding a proper amala joint around the corner with vegetable soup that only your mama could have prepared better.
It might also be the reason why meddling with the traditional menu or recipe is not widely appreciated. The last decades in the Nigerian context change has hardly ever been for the better. I imagine how people wish for at least the food to stay the same: something every Nigerian can be proud of without reservation.
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