Long afternoons on my grandma’s porch were often interrupted by the sickly thud of avocados hitting asphalt. Contrary to my expectation that fruit only falls off of trees when ready to eat, these avocados were green and unyielding. The abundance of fruit stirred my
appetite imagination and soon I’d convinced my brother to join me in trying to harvest ‘good’ looking ones with a fallen tree branch. Eventually one of my uncles took pity on us, dislodging several with one deft strike. Unfortunately, they were all still hard.
In my last post, I alluded to the fact that I cannot converse with my grandmother. It turns out that like love, food does not require translation. However, the question ‘what can I do with 15 unripe avocados?’ still does.
In fact, that was the question my dad posed when the bucket arrived the next morning. ‘Eat them, of course’, was my response, hoping that the 40 degree weather would do the needful. This was met with satisfaction, because apparently when he was young, no one ate avocados – they just fell to the ground and rotted.
This was not surprising as fruits and vegetables have not factored highly into my experience of Nigerian cuisine. Until this trip I’d been a passive consumer of most Nigerian foods (only in part because of the arsenal of oatmeal and instant noodles we usually bring, the reasons for which I will address in Part 3). But this time I was determined to learn the basics. Let me introduce you to a few of the usual suspects:
Based on personal experience and my cousin’s confounded expression when I suggested making dinner without it, meat is an essential component of Nigerian cooking. Living without electricity meant that each day we had to figure out how to get meat, lest we fail to provide our guests with proper meals.
Owing to our weak jaws, (and maybe a few other factors…) preparation wasn’t as easy as throwing it into a pan. Instead, my cousin boiled the meat before introducing it into the main dish, to ‘make it soft for us’. Unfortunately it still required an average of 5 minutes more chewing time than any of us were prepared to put in. I’m not saying it’s correlated, but all of my Nigerian family members have beautiful teeth…
The Taste Nigerians Prefer
Meat is often accompanied with prodigious amounts of rice or gari (ground cassava, cooked until it’s thick enough to pick up with your hand and dip into soup). Younger generations, tired of the occasional rocks in gari, opt for semovita, which as far as I can tell is nutritionally devoid, finely ground wheat. One thing that links stew, rice, and basically every other cooked thing that I consumed under the tutelage of my cousin, is Maggi. ‘Why would you bring that, when we have it here?’ asked the U.S. customs officer when I confessed to having it in my bag. ‘Because it’s not the same’ (or so I’ve heard). For those of you unfamiliar with Maggi, essentially it’s a bouillon cube. Stop at any market stall selling seasoning and you will find at least 5 variations on the theme. My cousin, insistent that they are different, made sure I bought 3.
Essentially, at just the right time (meat boiling, sauce simmering, before serving), you add anywhere between 1 and 3 Magi cubes – to everything. I almost don’t want to tell you this, given it’s centrality to the ‘Nigeria taste’ – but then again it might support a small importation business of the ‘right’ flavor in the future.
I said there was one unifying factor in modern Nigerian cuisine, but really there are two. Dried hot red pepper is also an essential component. So important that my cousin had my aunt bring us a special blend of Cameroonian and Nigerian pepper to take back to North America. I also bought some pepper at the market, waiting as this machine was painstakingly cleaned and then fed my assortment of chilies.
It was while watching the operator skillfully avoid catching his fingers in this contraption that I came upon a grand idea – combining the flavours of my Mexican neigbourhood in the U.S. with those of my Nigerian one. Tomatoes, onions, hot pepper, salt, Maggi and, of course, the ripened avocados! Naijaguac was born. It took more than a little cajoling to get my relatives to try it (given our daily oatmeal regimen, I’d say they were rightly skeptical). But pair it with ¾ of a litre of Star beer and some plantain chips, and you have a snack you can’t say no to.
I bet it’s catching like wildfire, right now.