For writing on a blog about food, I’ve been remarkably slow in getting down to the nitty-gritty of eating in Nigeria. So here it is: I’m going to tell you about my favorite Nigerian meal. I’ll even include the recipe so that you can all run out to the store, pick up some ground/dried cassava and melon seeds and make your very own eba with egusi!
Break out the pots and pans:
Me: E kuuse.
Tomato-seller: Ooooooo!!! You speak Yoruba. You are really trying, o.
Me: E se. E jo, I’d like to buy 100 of tomatoes.
Tomato-seller: Ahhhh! She said “e se”!!! How long have you been in Nigeria?
Me: Five months.
Tomato-seller: Do you take our food?
Me: Bee ni. Mo feran eba ju lo.
Tomato-seller: Ooo! You have tried, o.
This is a conversation I have every. single. day. Asking whether you eat Nigerian food is the ultimate test of the extent to which you’ve embraced the country. I can criticize the failure of leadership in Nigeria, the lack of basic human services, the rampant corruption and the gang-like mentality of the police (these are all popular topics of conversation), but if I pack away a plate of iyan and ukazi soup, I must really like this country.
Which, of course, I do. So I eat lots of Nigerian food. Here in Ibadan, one must be able to eat amala to prove true devotion to the Yoruba people. No gathering is complete without plates of amala . . . I’ve been told that people will talk for weeks if you dare to get married without the requisite offering of amala to guests. They will go home hungry (nothing else qualifies as “real food”) and grumble about your hospitality.
I first learned about culturally-based conceptions of food (and not just what tastes good to people) when I took my host family out for pizza in Accra. I thought it was the best meal I’d ever eaten, while my family wondered what they should have for their dinner. Apparently, even when eaten at 7pm, pizza is just a snack. So are sandwiches, hamburgers and spaghetti. A meal must include a large serving of starch. In Nigeria, it is called “swallow food” – food that you have to really work to eat, but leaves you feeling full for hours (sometimes days) afterwards.
For my money, eba is the best of the Nigerian swallow foods. It is made of gari – dried and ground cassava – that has been mixed with water and cooked into a paste. You can eat eba with almost anything, but I love the egusi stew. The main flavor in this dish comes from ground melon seeds (“egusi”) . . . I sit here trying to think of an equivalent flavor in the American palate, but nothing comes to mind. I guess you’ll all have to make a trip to Nigeria to experience the deliciousness of egusi – and have I mentioned often enough that you get to eat with your hand?! Down with forks!
Egusi – an approximate recipe
(And by ‘approximate,’ I mean that Abigail gave me all quantities in Naira: 50 Naira tomatoes, 100 Naira eja, 30 Naira crayfish. But she was very specific about cooking times! Oh, and the recipe serves 4 people. Approximately.)
- Blend 4 small tomatoes, 1 medium onion, ¼ cup ground crayfish, pepper and Maggi to taste. Bring mixture to a boil on stove until it reduces to a slightly-watery paste, then fry the paste. (No one said this would be easy.)
- Transfer paste back into large pot and add 1 cup meat stock. Taste and season with salt and/or more Maggi (Abigail wants me to emphasize the Maggi) here.
- Add 1 medium dried fish (eja gbigbe), shredded, to the pot.
- If you’d like, add some meat. Allow contents of the pot to boil for 2 minutes.
- Add 1 cup ground egusi. (Don’t worry, I’ll bring some home in my suitcase.) Allow pot to boil for 5 minutes.
- Add 3-4 cups of a shredded green leafy vegetable. (Abigail typically uses ugu, but you might try collard greens.) Combine everything and then cook for 3 minutes.
This dish should not be too watery. You can serve the egusi with rice or as a side dish. It is really just a fancy way of preparing greens – which are called ‘vegetable’ here . . . which makes me wonder if there is a generic word for, you know, all vegetables. Hmmm.