Up the Mountain Called Okele

Food writer Yemisi Aribisala on the story behind Nigerians’ love of starchy mounds and soups

By Google Arts & Culture

Yemisi Aribisala is a Nigerian essayist, writer and food memoirist. Her first book, Longthroat Memoirs: Soups, Sex, and the Nigerian Taste Buds, won the John Avery Prize at the André Simon Book Awards 2016. Here she takes a look at why we crave our starchy mounds and soups.

A mound of fufu so high

There is a mountain at the heart of Nigerian food -- the very koko of the issue. Over a decade, I have tried to put my finger on it; on what makes Nigerian food like this so satisfying ‘to us’. Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart talks of one such mountain. The story is told during every new yam festival: “...of a wealthy man who set before his guests a mound of foo-foo so high that those who sat on one side could not see what was happening on the other, and it was not until late in the evening that one of them saw for the first time his in-law who had arrived during the course of the meal and had fallen to on the opposite side. It was only then that they exchanged greetings and shook hands over what was left of the food.”

Eliot Elisofon, 1960, From the collection of: LIFE Photo Collection
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Someone, a Nigerian, a long time ago, loaned me a charming definition of the word “Òkèlè” – mound of swallow, he said whether gari, àmàlà, pounded yam, semovita, a hill or mountain that must be erected, built up, only to be razed, levelled, debris swept clean. The word Òkè in Yorùbá means hill, elevation, mountain. Our Nigerian stomachs and palates require the gastronomic conquering of solid mounds of food.

With all our fluency and friendliness with other countries’ cuisines – weeks of happily eating salad and pasta, grilled sandwiches and sushi – at the end of the day, there is that familiar malaise that descends and drags the soul into a funk. The only remedy is swallow and soup – a mountain surrounded and immersed in a lubricating hot broth.

Steaming hot amala in 'Kokorin', 2019, From the collection of: The Centenary Project
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Craving something hot and heavy

Why does it feel like the world is ending if I don’t get my swallow and soup with my dose of pepper and dawadawa? Maybe it’s just me, but sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night, not craving ice cream, cake or leftover tiramisu, but gari and hot okro soup with shitake mushrooms and fermented locust beans, with just a bit of chicken-breast that has slept soundly in that soup for a few hours and a dollop of red palm oil, exhaling the warm, irresistible breath of tamed habaneros. Or sometimes its ripe plantains steamed in their skins, then peeled and pressed into a bowl of ogbono before being scooped up again… sweet and savoury and soft, hitting that deep hankering.

Mixed okro soup 'Ila alasepo', 2019, From the collection of: The Centenary Project
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Food will never only be about eating

Our original agrarian communities were run on bellies filled with complex starches to carry out the hard tilling of ground under scorching, humid conditions. The genetic imprints of this still run in our veins, but what is the real rationale for that powerful craving for starch and soup? I surely won’t die if I have to eat miso soup and avocados for the rest of my life, but why doesn’t my heart believe it?

Food in any culture is never just about filling stomachs in any case. It is about love affairs and pleasure, passion and myriad routes to meeting the restless targets we call appetite. It’s about textures and aroma, addiction, cultural identity, and even the end of husband and wife quarrels. If it were just about the functionality of fueling the body, then it wouldn’t matter what we eat as long as we’re full, but as it is we must consider many symbolic level to satisfying hunger.

Amala, Gbegiri, Ewedu soup, and stew, 2019, From the collection of: The Centenary Project
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Finding a home away from home in a hill of Àmàlà

I know a story of a man who lived in London, whose sisters came to visit from Nigeria. This was a good thing for him because they would take turns in cooking the foods that he had missed but couldn’t really cook himself. But, his kitchen, as you can imagine, was a ‘London’ kitchen. The floors were not made to bear the moving weight of pestle and mortar. It was too cold and too embarrassing to take the pounding of yam outside into the backyard, in view of neighbours peeping out from behind the windows of their semi-detached houses.

To pound yam in the back garden, to lift a pestle up high and bring it down with force, over and over, the alien kpo kpo kpo sound filtering over into the neighbours homes. You need to do it quickly enough to stop the boiled slices of yam from freezing over and refusing to give you that desired elastic texture after all the hard work and exposure to cold and horrified stares from everyone around… Was it worth it in London? In Nigeria, if you brought your pestle and mortar out into the garden to pound yam, no one would pay any attention to you. They would glance quickly and go about their business. In London, it was unwanted attention when all you were trying to do was make a mound of delicious pounded-yam.

Turning of pounded yam, The Centenary Project, 2019, From the collection of: The Centenary Project
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The sisters agreed they would make Àmàlà instead. Another hill, but one that can be created safely indoors. Safely, but not easily. Àmàlà made for more than four people categorically cannot be made on the hob. It’s hard enough to make it in a Nigerian kitchen where the floor will be the appropriate concrete or terrazzo. Even if one starts making it on a hob, it eventually ends up on the floor where some vigorous beating and turning is administered.… So the sisters started to make the Àmàlà on the stove; hot water briskly added to yam flour until a stodgy light brown mixture is formed.

Then the important skilful, quick beating and turning to ensure not a single lump begins to form. The beating is obligatory otherwise the Àmàlà won’t be fluffy and light and smooth at the end, or slip down into the stomach and spread like a warm blanket.The sister picked the pot of Àmàlà up to transfer it to the floor. She wrapped a rag around the pot so that it could be maneuvered without burning her hands and feet, which are used to hold the pot in place on the floor. So far, so good, but wait, in barely a few minutes, the pot burnt burnt a hole straight through the flooring!

Elubo 'Yam flour' for preparing Amala, 2019, From the collection of: The Centenary Project
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Bowling ball and nine pins

Maybe what makes Nigerian food so special is the way that a spoonful of rice enters the mouth, tiptoeing on the tongue, moving between teeth and passes down the gullet that is somewhat too gentlemanly for the Nigerian palate. I’d suggest that we are addicted to the feeling of heavy foods move down our digestive systems.

It is far more satisfying to carve out the sides of the hot hill, roll it into a judiciously-sized ball, put it like a weight on the tongue, send it past the throat, down the oesophagus, whole and intact; with a dull resounding thump you imagine hearing echoing at the hollow pit at the bottom – like the final sound of nine pins falling down...

Amala preparation, 2019, From the collection of: The Centenary Project
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Starchy but trendy too

Nigerians are not out of touch with food trends, or ignorant of the fact that the global discourse is centered on cutting down on calories, demonizing fat and castigating palm oil as being akin to the river of blood that flows through hell. But even if Nigerians no longer romanticize the pot bellies, friction thighs and rotating bottoms that are the sure end result of eating gari and soup every day, the ‘swallow’ and soup isn’t going anywhere any time soon. It gives us the fullness that we recognise and love.

The irony is that the idea of ‘swallow’ is in itself neither stagnant nor solid. We Nigerians are willing to think outside the box and innovate. We’ll pound plantains with cassava, mix starch with palm oil, add millet to sorghum to guinea corn, yam to wheat to tapioca. We will blend up oats and congeal it with boiling water; anything to hit that spot, so long as the end result is a hot solid mound, hill, mountain.

Yẹ́misí Aríbisálà, Helena Krige
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Credits: Story

Nigerian-born author, Yemisi Aribisala is best known for her thematic use of food to explore Nigerian stories. Her first book, Longthroat Memoirs: Soups Sex & Nigerian Tastebuds uses Nigerian food as a literary substrate to think about Nigeria’s culture and society. Longthroat Memoirs won a Gourmand’s World Cookbook award, was shortlisted for the 2018 Art of Eating Prize and won the 2016 John Avery Prize at the Andre Simon Book Awards. Her second book, Wait! I’m Bringing a Bird Out of My Pocket, will be published by Chimurenga, Cape Town. She lives in London with her children. Her most recent articles on food and Nigeria can be read in @Popula: the alt-global magazine of news and culture.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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