Up the mountain called Okele

Join author Yemisi Aribisala on a culinary adventure exploring the heart of Nigerian food.

By The Centenary Project

Moistened pounded yam (2019) by The Centenary ProjectThe Centenary Project

A mound of fufu so high...

A mound of fufu so high...The reasons why the mountain must be negotiated is at the very heart of Nigerian food, the very koko of the issue, and I have attempted for over a decade to place my finger on the compact pulse of what makes our food satisfying ‘to us’. 

Eliot Elisofon, 1960, From the collection of: LIFE Photo Collection
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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.”

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, leveled, debris swept clean. The word Òkè in Yorùbá means hill, elevation, mountain. Our Nigerian stomachs and palates require the gastronomic conquering of solid mounds.

With all our fluency - at and friendliness-with other countries’ cuisines- weeks of perhaps happily eating salad and pasta and grilled sandwiches and sushi - at the end… without warning 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 lubricating hot broth.

Red habanero pepper (2019)The Centenary Project

Craving something hot and heavy

Or shall I speak for myself, talk about waking 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 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 every point of deep hankering. 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?

Steaming hot amala in 'Kokorin' (2019)The Centenary Project

Food will never only be about eating

Past the historical pointers to our original agrarian communities run on bellies filled with complex starches to carry out the hard tilling of ground under scorching, humid conditions – The genetic imprints of that still runs in our veins I agree but the other compulsions behind bowling ball and nine pins? What is the subterranean 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 is my heart not invested in that commonsensical assertion?

Amala dunk in Gbegiri, Ewedu, and Stew, 2019, From the collection of: The Centenary Project
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Food in any culture is never just about filling stomachs in any case. It will never… ever be. It is about love affairs and pleasure and passion and myriad routes to nurturing restless targets we call appetite…scratching itinerant itches; about textures and aroma, addiction, about cultural identity and the end of husband and wife quarrels… If it were just about the functionality of eating, then it wouldn’t matter what we eat as long as we are full of food, but as-it-is we must consider many symbolic and somatic challenges in satisfying hunger.

Elubo 'Yam flour' for preparing Amala (2019)The Centenary Project

A hill of Àmàlà

I know the 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 cook with any real integrity himself. His kitchen as can be imagined 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.

Pounding Yam, Adeola Balogun, From the collection of: The Centenary Project
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To pound yam in the back garden; to lift such pestle up high and bring it down with force, over and over, the alien kpo kpo kpo sound filtering over into the neighbours homes: To do it quickly enough to stop the boiled slices of yam from freezing over and refusing to yield that desired elastic texture after all the hard work and exposure to cold and horrified stares from all around…Was it worth it? 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.

The sisters agreed they would make Àmàlà instead. Another hill but one that can be conjured safely indoors. Safely…not easily mind - Àmàlà for more than four people categorically cannot be made on the hob. It is hard enough to make it up in a Nigerian kitchen where the floor will be 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 skillful/quick beating and turning to ensure not a single lump forms…The beating is obligatory otherwise the Àmàlà at the end won’t be fluffy and light and smooth and 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 the hands... and feet… used to hold the pot in place on the floor. So far so good…but wait in barely a few minutes after the pot was on the floor there was a hole burnt straight through the flooring!

Display of newly harvested yam (2019)The Centenary Project

Bowling ball and nine pins

Perhaps there is a way that a spoonful of rice enters the mouth, tiptoes on the tongue, moves between teeth and is passed down the gullet that is somewhat too gentlemanly, for the Nigerian palate, as compared to carving out the sides of the hot hill, rolling it into a judiciously sized ball, putting it like a weight on the tongue, sending it along the alley, past the throat, down the esophagus, whole and intact; the dull resounding thump you imagine you can hear echoing at the hollow pit at the bottom - final sound of nine pins falling down...

A Pestle, The Centenary Project, 2019, From the collection of: The Centenary Project
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I would like to suggest that we are addicted to the way in which heavy foods move down our digestive systems. In contemporary settings there is not a ground to till, no need for 6:00am fufu, but the craving need-not make corporeal sense if we acknowledge there is the brain in the head and one in the stomach. Everybody has a reference point in memory to somebody, some Nigerian who they have offered a meal: rice? fried plantains with stew? That person scratches their head, shuffles their feet, frowns, their head moving demurely from side to side “hmmm” “Okay gari?” You offer, and immediately, their face breaks open like the sun from behind clouds.

Amala dunk in Gbegiri, Ewedu, and Stew (2019)The Centenary Project

Starchy but trendy too

Not that we are completely 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 the river of blood that flows through hell. Even if Nigerians no longer romanticize the pot bellies, friction thighs and rotating bottoms that are the sure end result of swallowing gari and soup every day, the swallow and soup is going nowhere. It provides the quality of fullness that we recognise and love.

Yẹ́misí Aríbisálà, Helena Krige, From the collection of: The Centenary Project
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The irony is that the idea of swallow is in itself neither stagnant nor solid. We are willing to think outside the box. Well… 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.

Credits: Story

Yemisi Aribisala

A 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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