Something will catch your eye the first time you encounter the Long Throat memoirs book. The vibrant cover with a portrait of a black woman armed with a wooden spoon amidst flowers and butterflies will most likely make you pick it up. And if you have the added knowledge of what it means to be a “longer throat”- your interest will probably cause you to scan the book – peruse the back page and flip through the inside.
The inside of the cover page has a beautiful anecdote on Nsala soup which happens to be my all time favorite Nigerian soup. A silky, warm and husky flavorsome kind of soup – you can’t really explain to anyone who hasn’t tried it. I knew how I felt about Nsala but had never seen it described in such a romantic and eloquent way – quite like it’s taste.
Nsala soup is cooked with chicken, with love, or something akin to love, with lovemaking masquerading as contention. The soup has national character; an established personality. It is cooked with palm oil and black fermented locust beans. It’s base is silky stick coaxed diligently from fish-head bones melded with piquant, sweet and fragrant spices.”
Between work and life – reading can be tasking, so this book stayed in my handbag for over a month – picking it up when only when I could. In bouts of Lagos traffic, at lunch time in the office and sometimes, not always – in bed with me. And when I finally gave the book some time – I began to pay rapt attention. I was learning something I had never known – who Nigerian food is.
The more I looked at the cover, the more I saw. Like if you look closely into the photo of Yemi – there is a muriel of ingredients, food, herbs and even a bright yellow molue bus. It was then I realized that my lack of attention to the detail of the cover, mirrored almost identically, my attitude towards Nigerian food my entire life. “Oh, whats that?” I would peak at a pot bubbling on the fire in my mother’s kitchen – drawn in by the curious smell. This curiosity would cause me to pinch at it, taste it, most likely be surprised by it – my taste buds reacting to it pleasurably but quite soon after – completely forget about it.
Nigerian food would never grab my attention like say a coffee and a croissant would sitting neatly on a quaint little table in a Parisian style café. This set up would appear so visually beautiful to me it would cause me to stand up, take a perfectly square photo and press upload. The 50 likes that I get in return would then affirm my visual instinct and I would be happy with myself. But a pertinent question lingered at the back of my mind. Why didn’t Nigerian food evoke this kind of reaction in me? Do I have some kind of unresolved hatred for my own country’s cuisine?
Yemisi quickly settles my paranoia and moments of self doubt by the 3rd chapter by describing Nigerians character towards Nigerian food in the most frank and poignant explanations I have ever read.
“The relationship of the nouveau middle-to-upper income earning Nigerian and their food is a mixture of love, snobbery, the passion that results from the snobbery, and social repression. It’s like loving fat women but being compelled to marry a thin one to keep up appearances: it makes the clandestine meets with the fat one all the more scorching. Nigerians will sit in restaurants in every part of the world, in Lagos, and in Abuja, and eat sushi, fugu, Peruvian ceviche and piure. They will eat it all with an open mind, a fierce worldliness and a sexy congeniality and then they will go home and bring out the amala and ewedu and crown the night with sighing, with tears in their eyes and noses weeping beads of sweat. But we won’t start a public discussion with those who do not know our food intimately; a discussion that will open the door to some painful, uneducated remark about the fat mistress.”
So, where does this nonchalance come from? Why do we celebrate foreign cuisines and stay mute about our own? A combination of shame, curiosity and determination came over me after this paragraph – to read this book properly and finally meet, acknowledge and celebrate the fat mistress that had been in my life, all my life.
In the book, Yemisi talks about the importance of making a distinction between ‘African food’ and Nigerian food. According to her the term African food is an “exotic simplification” and she wonders why Nigerians agree to use this term. “The British and the French would feel their food was being belittled if you tried to lump them all under the term European food”, she says. She draws further parallels saying the average Nigerian doesn’t know about Congolese food just as the Congolese man knows nothing about Nigerian food – so why have we agreed to this blanket ‘African’ term that does nothing to describe our rich, flavorsome and diverse local food?
The abundance of our local produce is reiterated over and over again in the 357 pages of this book. Yemisi recounts an incident where she stumbled across a local food called “Usu”. To her disbelief, this usu happened to be a truffle – a fist full of which in other parts of the world, could cost over a thousand euros. But to the old lady seller, this was just usu, nothing more, nothing less. She goes on to say it is “not unusual to run into world renowned delicacies pretending to be nobodies; strawberries up on the plateau at the Obudu Cattle Ranch; sole peddled out of old basins on Hawkins Street; lime-green and red rambutans hawked on little girls’ heads in may. And now, Usu which might be the tartufi binachi, one of the most expensive luxurious foods in the world.”
From the technique and light-handedness required to create the perfect degree of draw in the classic Ogbono soup, to the shelling of eguisi seeds, to a well executed bowl of okro soup – Yemisi’s descriptions of how these soups are made and their cultural importance will stay vivid in your mind – the colors, the textures, the sweetness. Entire chapters are dedicated to the stories behind each of our soups and after you complete each story, you feel closer to the mistress – she no longer seems fat or unattractive but beautiful and important. This book will make you put Nigerian food on the pedestal it always deserved to stand on.
It is important to know that this book is no cookbook. Although, there are a few recipes lovingly hidden between stories – this is not the book that teaches you how to make Nigerian food. This is a book about Nigerian food – all the different kinds of Nigerian food in all it’s finger licking glory. This book is about the foods and herbs that grow from our earth and the tips, tricks and myths about our local food. It is about the diversity of our cultures – how the same soup is cooked differently in different parts of Nigeria. This isn’t a cookbook, it is a personal story from a woman who has paid rapt attention to Nigerian food, exploring the food researched and romancing it every waking day – finally deciding to share her findings with the world. This is not a cook book. It is a fundamentally important book that every Nigerian should read. It should be required reading in our schools, so perhaps our children and their children will not make the mistake we have all made for too long by treating our own food like the fat mistress.
“Nigerian food is often stodgy and soupy. but it is also misunderstood, atrociously photographed, not yet given it’s due. It’s a multi-faceted cultural treasure trove full of intriguing stories. It might not be gastronomically illustrious but it’s energetic and good-hearted. It belongs to one of the most fascinating personalities in the world: The Nigerian.”- Yemi Aribisala
Featured image credit: IG: @zaynabtyty