“Nigerians don’t talk about their food” states Yemisi Aribisala, the delightfully stern cook-writer of The Longthroat Memoirs. Elsewhere she expands “there is no cultural reference point for being sentimental about food”. This makes her somewhat a novelty so she must often hold back her gourmand excitement lest she be labelled a “crazewoman” at the market. The book takes its name from Aribisala’s affliction, which she tells us is to blame for her interest in food, to ‘have longthroat’ is a common Nigerian expression which means to be endlessly hungry.
Awarded with the John Avery Award at the 2016 André Simon Food and Drink Book Awards, The Longthroat Memoirs benefits in its vastness and luscious prose from the time taken by both Aribasala and the volume’s editor, Bibi Bakare-Yusuf of Cassava Press. Speaking at a London event Bakare-Yusuf told me how a significant proportion of the long editing process had taken place over WhatsApp given that Aribasala was located in South Africa whilst the publisher was based in the UK.
The writer’s passion is clear in every sentence, with each chapter of the book lovingly meandering through topics that include cooking processes, eating contexts and ingredient explorations, all couched in folklore, fantasy and memory.
“If we can use food to talk about everything and anything, then nothing is taboo. I do it because I love food and “have longthroat” a condition [my] book alludes to constantly. But most of all I love the magic that occurs when one applies words to food. It’s a very powerful equation.”
Writing articles over several years for Nigerian newspaper 234NEXT that were eventually collated for the volume, Aribasala was attempting to start that dialogue on food that she feels was lacking.
“I was attempting a conversation which had hitherto not being held on our food in Nigeria, and hoping to keep the conversation robust enough…going long enough to use food to discuss all kinds of aspects of our lives being daily lived in Nigeria. The book is for the original holders of the conversation; for Nigerians in Nigeria and in the diaspora. It is for people who love food and are curious about other cultures and want a view of Nigeria, a different perspective that is real and interesting and successfully skirts and counterpoises the muscular trend of negativity peddled about us.”
Aribisala observes that commonly popular cuisines named for their countries of origin have developed a personality on the global stage, “from eating food with people from other cultures, I learnt that you had to talk about food and this talking helped to concretise a personality/identity for the food”. Yet, until 2013 “Nigerian food did not exist internationally.”
She goes on, “The person of Nigerian food did not exist nationally. Its stories had been separated from its consumption. A lot of its stories remain untold.” In this volume she provides suggestions of what part of that personality could be for food in Nigeria. In doing so she depicts cuisines of shrugging approximation but imbued with exacting sophistication, long-winded preparations and those cut short by Uncle Ben and Maggi, all embellished with stories and context and caveat.
Context and caveat are elements commonly absented from food writing in favour of pragmatic direction and a tendency to centre the writer as the creator of the dish. The Longthroat Memoirs doesn’t just abandon this tradition, it smoulders against it throughout. Aribasala doesn’t start from an assumption of the “Nigerian food” entity and her own position as didact on it, rather she gets under the skin of any such assumptions about national cuisines with scorching scorn. Given the writer’s views on even an overarching national umbrella for food in Nigeria, she examines the idea of an “African food” culture with some derision.
“I strongly question the accuracy or the appropriateness of the paired words “African Food”. Even when you hear them, all they are suggesting to your brain is that the food is like [the food] cooked by someone who considers himself a citizen of an African country or it is food cooked by someone who knows the cuisine of one country in Africa.
Most times disingenuously it means an idea that has in it all kinds of images lifted from stereotypes. It might be a very dark-skinned woman resplendent in Bogolan sitting on a stool stirring a pot of something oily over firewood. It doesn’t even suggest that the food is cooked somewhere on the continent known as Africa or that the ingredients were grown here. The okro might be grown in Brazil. The dish could be cooked in a flat in Canary Wharf in a made in France in a stainless-steel pan.
The words are a box that the hearer is handed with a memo inside that the container must be graciously filled with “made in Denmark” fabrics and earthenware pots and beads and dancing natives, and talking drums. I think there is a lot of self-indulgence where these sorts of [word] pairings persevere without a C-caution for use. They prematurely halt deep investigations into nitty-gritty facts and different vehicles of individual, communal, and cultural expression. They certainly don’t allow the wide diversity of foods on the African continent into the equation. It is a very peculiar thing that seems to happen only with Africa where everybody’s food is just lumped into the two words. I am presently living in the Western Cape and nothing about Afrikaner cuisine is remotely familiar or similar to my own food.
The international photographic competition on the celebration of “African Cuisine” in 2014 by wikilovesAfrica proved what I suspected all along -that I have very little idea what people in neighbouring countries to Nigeria are eating or how they cook their food or the seasons in which things grow or why they eat foods, or the ceremonial aspects of cooking and eating. My Cameroonian neighbour spent many reams of words attempting to describe the seed Njangsang to me. In the end, she just had to produce the real thing and it more than slightly shocked me that no matter what she cooked it in, my palate could not reference it with any condiment that I had eaten. I couldn’t smell it nor taste it (possibly a sensory quirk) not even with the help of many comparative descriptions. This is a seed that gets carried across the informal Cameroon-Nigerian border probably every day. Part of the problem is surely that the seed is almost unrecognisable in the Nigerian food of my experience, but is for my neighbour indispensable in the cooking of Cameroonian goat peppers soup.
I scrolled pages upon pages of photographs sent to the wikilovesAfrica competition barely taking in all the ingredients, utensils, food accompanying various celebrations, methodology etc. It isn’t only self-indulgent to take all of these bytes of information running into millions and millions of units that cannot be randomly grouped together and attempt to force them into the jurisdiction of two words, it is also astoundingly reductive. It is a big question mark against our declarations of wanting to know in-depth about our world. The paired words suggest we want a confirmation of what we already know and we want it kept as simple, as comfortable and as entertaining as possible.”
Aribasala’s tone is modest; a constant explorer that effortlessly destabilises the common norms of food writing, she doesn’t attempt to find authenticity or to create a blueprint for the perfect recipe. Rather the writer revels in fluidity and difference, from person to person and village to region.
Attempting to pin down a writer that deals in ambiguities and openness I ask which ingredients could be considered the heart of Nigerian cooking. The answer is reluctant, she entertains me nonetheless.
“I would say palm oil, root starches – cassava, yams, cocoyams, sweet potatoes, rice grown locally and imported, fermented condiments, dark-greens, gourds, red meat, seafood, tomatoes – lots of tomatoes, habaneros – all the degrees of heat and aromatics available, mucilaginous pods and seeds and soup thickeners like okro and ogbono, maize when the season grants it, numerous spices and pods for both heat and aroma, fresh fruit and vegetables; probably the juiciest pineapples on the continent, probably the greenest most delicious oranges on the West coast. Definitely the most delicious.”
Similarly, the writer discusses how there are some common ways to assemble meals.
“The starch often made from some kind of root tuber flour eaten with a soup (In Arewa cuisine in Northern Nigeria, the starch will most likely be rice flour). The soup will be thickened with a mucilaginous pod or seed – this can be presented as a common pattern for a meal across Nigeria. Not all meals are prepared in this way. At the same time, our neighbours in Cameroon and in Togo and Benin Republic and Ghana own the pairings of soup and starch. They even have their own very similar fermented condiments for the soup accompanying the starch. If you asked me one thing that was unique to Yoruba-cooking contrasted against the rest of Nigeria, I could suggest plenty of hot peppers in stews made from blends of tomatoes and mild and hot peppers.”
Looking at how Nigerian food cultures stand against others around the world, Aribasala describes how countries of the world stand with and against the eating of “mucilage” which is her rather elegant word for goo.
“It seems that if you grow up eating okro and around the eating of it then you love it. If you grow up in a culture where it is despised then you are socialised into the idea that the texture is problematic which of course it isn’t. There are different aspects of Nigerian food that compare to different aspects of other cuisines. Taking the whole of Nigerian cuisine and attempting to compare it with other world cuisines is probably not a good idea. The Northern treat called alkaki -grainy fried wheat pastry dipped in honey, suggests Northern African and Arabic influences on and in the Arewa cuisine. Ways of cooking beans and spices are borrowed from our neighbours in Togo and Cameroon. The heat of the vindaloo sometimes makes me think of Yoruba stews. The akara; peeled then ground beans deep fried in oil is said to have survived the slave trade carrying Yoruba people to Brazil and Cuba. There are probably many of these kinds of viable comparisons that can be made.”
Aribasala sees the connection between sex and food, elicited in the book title to be the most natural and commonplace of themes, in pop culture, and language and music. She explains, “Sex is redeemed when expressed through the language of food…It is exactly like the palate: personal, unequivocally owned, in my mouth”.
“King Sunny Ade, one of the most influential musicians of all time croons mellifluously as if he means nothing at all by it “What do you desire? What do you have under baby? Sweet banana. Sweet banana….Bo se se oju yen sme sme, ina le ri yen, ina le ri yen paraba o le ya eni ni itan” Nigerian pop-star D Banj forewarns his beloved in his hit song Fall in Love that he is about to belt out lyrics with food and love and everything on the side: “My sweet potato, I wanna tell you my mind, wanna tell you my mind o…” Recently Tekno in the song Pana woos with almost whispered seductions “They say you like cassava, I get big cassava.
The things one can say under the word cassava, on top of it, the analogies and suggestions and coy pointers and sly looks…In one Nigerian language, an impotent man is called a cassava in babanriga. The imagery accompanying these kinds of use of language are intensely sexual, violent even. Calling a man a cassava in babanriga can make him draw a knife and tear you up. These word associations may scandalise some but for most, the words and their meanings slip under your skin. And there is a liberation in being able to express what one can’t really speak. The volume of what is being expressed is contrastingly loud to their curtailment with food terms. They bring to mind a silencer for a gun. I find all of these things deeply fascinating and I wanted to explore them in writing and document them and turn them around and look closely at them again and again. My own language Yoruba is deliberately proverbial. Many things are said in layers like juicy meat in sandwiches and you spend a long time sorting all the different ingredients out in your ears and brain and emotions. You go away from the words and approach them again to know them. It is a theme that I have only begun to explore and it excites me as an indicator of unexplored cultural intelligence.”
The Longthroat Memoirs shows the best of writing about culture for its creators and holders in a way which invites others in, but without bowing to stereotyping and exotification. Recipes come not in neat boxes but in text, surrounded in contextual prose that is as irresistible as the food itself. Aribasala’s collection exemplifies a style of writing which refuses to reduce and simplify, it welcomes visitors but brooks no ignorance. It shows that to love and appreciate food is to experience it within the interwoven layers of culture and everyday life where it resides.
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Henna is the Editor of Media Diversified, but when she gets a minute to spare she writes about food, the arts and media. In a previous life, she fed her addictions by running restaurants serving Levantine and North American-inspired menus for five years. You can find her recipes at hennazamurdbutt.com or watch her make them on IG @hennazb.