African Cookbooks and Excess Luggage

By Yemisi Aribisala

CookbooksThere is a sense of justice and spirit of resignation in paying for excess luggage because of cookbooks, even if my pocket hurts badly. And there are some books that I will never again leave behind. This resolve is crammed full of reasons collated with hindsight. I did not come to the Western Cape, South Africa, expecting to search in vain for books on my kind of food. Did not expect to search the shelves of bookshops in the flesh, and online, desperate to find what we eat from Mauritania to Guinea. No West African food. No plantain roti, pepper soup, banku, kenkey, no adayi-like gbegiri, no cassava leaves pesto. Food that I’ve been dying to cook, tweak, eat, imagine. The fact that one cannot buy one black African cookbook in a mainstream Western Cape bookshop with hundreds of cookbooks stunned me. In the end, I wanted to stand in the middle of Exclusive Books and yell: “Do you people know you have to fly over us to get to Nigella!”

Then I found the food differences between “us” and our hosts complicated and simple, principled and factitious, an unwritten rule book. I found with astonishment and annoyance that the rights of guinea-fowls are inviolable. South Africans have a thing for them. One man’s meat is another man’s totem, never forget. There is a pair of these blue-headed birds, and I cannot be sure if they are married or dating, that keep returning to my door with audacity. (One of them has a limp, this is how I recognise them.) They wake me up with dull pecking against the glass. They must think my house belongs to well-to-do-guinea-fowls. I throw a shoe at the door and the bang sends the small-brained animals flapping away. For the record, we don’t call them birds in Nigeria. They are sweet, dark, lean, oleaginous meat attired in black and white polka dotted pyjamas.

My neighbours in the estate in Somerset West have statues of guinea-fowls on their front patio. The fat squatting light-blue models make my Nigerian pikins giggle. In our new residence, in shops and craft markets, gracing coasters and fridge magnets and table linen, large paint canvases too, guinea fowls are commemorated birds. In Lagos, a guinea fowl would not dare knock on my door first thing in the morning. It will end up boiled and stewed or skewered for suya.

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This review appears in Chronic Books Foods, a supplement to the Chronic, April 2017.

I therefore have both motivation and provocation: the breach between the buying power of people who eat similar to what I eat and the Caucasian residents of the Western Cape who are rather conservative meat-eaters – the people that bookstores cater for; the fact that I have been attempting to buy books and have had to import them with the help of a bookshop in Cape Town (the only one who bothered to hear me out and agreed to source the books for me); and the annoyance of unwelcome break of day guinea-fowl visits. Oh I’m just dying to shake up this well-manicured estate brimming with overindulged, strutting, loud-talking birds. Fried guinea fowl is the very thing that will reduce my blood pressure. I tell myself there is a need for an emergency cookbook bag that travels everywhere with me, excess luggage considered and provided for, in spite of the pain. These are the books that will be in that bag:

The Groundnut Cookbook by Duval Timothy, Jacob Fodio Todd and Folayemi Brown. Any book that unzips with groundnut stew has my strong allegiance for the duration of the journey. The three young men, ranging from cute to sinewy, with glorious heads of hair, boast of family backgrounds encompassing Ghana, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Kenya, South Sudan and South London. As might be expected, their background informs the recipes in their book. I love the way they don’t presume you can fry dodo or that you know how to suck an orange “the proper way”. I plan to make their maize meal noodles, their moin-moin steamed in Titus sardine tins, pineapple jam (with my own twist), garri oatcakes, plantain roti, injera pikelet (a flat bread that is a cross between injera and crumpets), and page 274’s tomato stew with guinea fowl (naturally).

Senegalese Chef Pierre Thiam’s two hardback books – Yolele: Recipes from the heart of Senegal and Modern Senegalese Recipes From the Source to the Bowl. The latter is his new book and is bewitchment from start to finish. Ravishingly photographed with images of freshly caught fish, places of worship, homes, multicoloured fishing boats, the Casamance River with “rice paddies, palm wine, palm oil, honey and fresh oysters”. Interspersed with portraits of lamb shank mafé, fonio pilaf, sorrel-okra sauce, Nigerian kilishi, coconut mussels with crispy yuca fries, red palm brownies and poached mangoes…“This book is meant to transport you deep into the vibrant, diverse food scene… you’ll learn about the different regions of Senegal and their unique cooking styles and ingredients.” And Thiam delivers on his promise.

Fran Osseo Asare’s cookbook, The Ghana Cookbook, is co-authored with Barbara Baeta. It’s a sensible, structured, extremely sure-handed book that is like a Nigerian aunty who has cooked for half a century. I trust the book’s good sense and placidity. It has a recipe for Ghanaian jollof rice – which I prefer to Nigerian – and indispensable twists to familiar ingredients. Aside from stewed bambara groundnuts and one pot coconut bean porridge and palavar sauce, it features garri, one of my favourite foods, in a one pot dish with scrambled eggs, leftover meat, fish or corned beef and tomato gravy. The dish is called gari foto. I plan to make Ashanti fowl, stuffed deboned chicken, for a grand occasion.

Then there’s Mpho Tsukudu and Anna Trapido’s EAT.TING: Lose weight, gain health, find yourself. I have to admit to buying this book impulsively because it is the first food book with black authorship that I have seen since I moved to the Western Cape two years ago. I am delighted to open the pages and find millet (uphoko) and sorghum, anise and yogurt millet breakfast porridge, classic dikgobe – black-eyed beans cooked with sorghum. Overjoyed to find mucilaginous root vegetables, amadumbes, cooked with bacon, cream and rosemary; five-hour oven-cooked oxtail, and tripe and trotters curry. Mabele (sorghum meal) with coconut cream and peanut butter. Amasi curd cheese. There is a sense of rightness with the world when a book confesses that “chickens from the shop don’t taste good… their muscles are soft even if it says ‘free range’ on the packet. I go to Diepsloot to buy a real ‘Hard Body’ township chicken.”

Mabel Segun’s Rhapsody, a celebration of Nigerian Cooking and Food Culture was a book I found hiding behind other books in a bookshop in Lagos. I bought it as a gift for a friend and never delivered it. I flipped through the pages and immediately put it away among my own books. It is priceless. Not only full of recipes, it is full of rationales for eating and powerful food/life adages. Words swimming effortlessly between cooking, living and eating: “A woman must not buy only one tuber of yam from the market; she must buy at least three.” Or “Very hot stew is licked from the side.” (Delicate issues must be tackled with care.) The conversation that runs alongside the delivery of recipes in Mabel Segun’s Rhapsody is hearty and utterly irresistible.

The Maggi Family Menu Cookbook, compiled from the popular 1980s television series sponsored by Nestle Foods Nigeria, PLC – out of print for over 20 years, dog eared, stained, wet-and-dried rippling pages held together by prayers and therefore irreplaceable, this book features recipes for dambun zogale made from moistened ground maize, zogale leaves and mai shanu; Cameroonian ndole; the renowned Ibadan abula, and banga rice. It has an indispensable Nigerian ingredients glossary with photographic representation.

A Taste of Calabar (Selected Efik recipes to warm your stomach) by Arit Ana. I have no recollection of buying this book; it walked into my kitchen many years ago. By virtue of its doing so of its own accord and special powers, and because tucked in its pages is a strong aroma of my years lived in Calabar – of ekpang nkukwo, ukang ukom, fresh fish stew, afia efere – it will be carried henceforth from continent to continent in my bag of cookbooks.

Last but not least, my heat and spice scriptures: Ian Hemphill’s Spice and Herb Bible, and The Spicy Food Lover’s Bible by Dave Dewitt and Nancy Gerlach. Heat and aromatics are noncommittal standpoints in many countries’ cuisines, especially so in the Western Cape, where many guests often complain of the heat of our Nigerian dishes. Yet, what is life without the addition of hot pepper and the excitation of the palate with spices. What is guinea-fowl stew without heat to cut through the oiliness of the bird’s flesh? These bibles are as essential as street navigators. May it never be said that Yemisi traveled abroad and got lost in the bland, pepper-less cuisines of foreign lands. Amen.

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This piece appears in the Chronic (April 2017). An edition which aims to complicate the questions raised by food insecurity, to cook and serve them differently.

Food is largely presented as scarcity, lack, loss – Africa’s always desperate exceptionalism or exceptional desperation or whatever. In this issue, we put food back on the table: to restore the interdependence between the mouth that eats and the mouth that speaks, and to delve deeper into the subtle tactics of resistance and private practices that make food both a subversive art and a site of pleasure.

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