There was a thread on Twitter recently about how limited Naija cuisine is, and how basically we just have yam, rice and fufu, aka swallow. That post reminded me of a radio programme I stumbled upon where the presenter was listing all the healthy foods we ought to eat and did not mention a single food local to us. And of another one where a lady (I can’t recall if she was a guest or the host) kept insisting that she couldn’t, wouldn’t eat anything she didn’t know the name of (in English). Like one of my secondary school teachers was fond of saying, familiarity breeds contempt. Between the ignorance of the range of our native cuisine and the tendency we have to favour oyibo food over ours, Naija food don suffer!
I was lucky to be introduced to the diversity of our cuisine at a relatively young age and therefore to be humbled by how much I didn’t know. At FGGC Abuja, back in the day, we had a food committee made up of representatives from every class; the dining hall prefect, the head girl, the principal, the cooking staff and, I think, the matron. The job of the committee was to draw up a different menu (was it every term now? I don’t remember) that was illustrative of Naija’s multi-culturality. I was introduced to dishes I had never heard of and fell in love with most of them. I particularly loved the kunun gyada we had for Saturday breakfast one term and the Thursday Ewedu (and eba) lunch one term. I don’t remember that we ever had any difficulties coming up with a variety of dishes. If there were any issues, they were related to how to choose from such a wide pool and ensure that each meal was healthy. It shocked me, therefore, given the context of my secondary school, that anyone would consider Naija cuisine as being limited to just yam, rice and fufu. Achebe quotes an Igbo proverb in Things Fall Apart which says that “The world is a dancing masquerade. If you want to understand it, you can’t remain standing in one place.” One does not watch a masquerade from one spot. To see the masquerade in all of its grandeur, to see it well, one must move around. Adapting it to the issue at hand: you cannot ‘see’ all Naija cuisine if you (and your palate) stay firmly with the familiar. It is, in my opinion, rather arrogant to think, that there is no other local dish beyond that made in your own home.
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Nigerian cuisine also suffers from our peculiar snubbing of (some) Naija foods. There is food one eats or admits to eating in public and the food one eats in private (or ignores because it isn’t ‘funky’ enough). The first time the man who would become my husband took me out, he took me to a restaurant. I was an undergrad, a campus babe and where his mates would have taken me somewhere fancy to eat orishirishi, he took me to eat santana and oha ( still his favorite Naija dish to this day ). Kai! I am ashamed to say that while I loved santana, I opted for something more babelike- probably jollof rice. Later, he asked why I didn’t eat santana if I liked it, and it was in explaining to this oyibo man that a chic didn’t eat akpu in public that I realised how silly it sounded. He kept saying, “But it’s food and you like it? What’s wrong with eating it in public?” His confusion made me understand the ridiculousness of not eating what I wanted in public because it ‘wasn’t done.’ Dear Reader; it also cured me of that silliness.
Not only does this illogical food hierarchy pitch Naija dishes against each other, it also places ‘oyibo’ food above ours. The radio presenter in Port Harcourt talking about healthy eating did not include one single Naija food. When she talked about foods that are good for the skin, she skipped over our own super healthy and super versatile ukwa, for example. Ukwa ( breadfruit) is apparently rich in riboflavin, iron, niacin, thiamin, iron and phosphorus. It contains minerals like potassium, copper, iron, magnesium, calcium, zinc, manganese, selenium and phosphorus. It is low in saturated fats, cholesterol and sodium. The high amount of Vitamin C in ukwa arguably helps in the production of collagen which helps skin elasticity. This lady could have Googled all the local equivalent of the oyibo food she was telling her listeners to go and eat. It took me less than a minute to pull up the info. on ukwa. We buy bitter leaf tablets but snub bitter leaf soup. We buy processed and packaged ‘super food’ from supermarkets but do not acknowledge the power of the food we can buy fresh from our local markets. Busy parents dump cartons of low- nutrient indomie for their children (they’d probably be better off soaking garri and groundnut if you don’t care for nutrients and time is a constraint) and ignore the organic fresh fruit and vegetable their kids can snack on all year round. Fela would have blamed this on colonial mentality.
Bottom line? Our kitchen is rich and diverse and anyone who claims otherwise is standing in one place to watch the dancing masquerade that is our wonderful Naija fare.