Nigerian Food Culture Explained in 3 Yorùbá Sayings

Linguist Kọ́lá Túbọ̀sún on the philosophy behind Nigerian food culture

By Google Arts & Culture

Kọ́lá Túbọ̀sún is a Nigerian linguist, writer, and scholar. Here he examines the philosophical underpinnings of Nigerian food culture, through the sayings we still use today.

There are three Yorùbá sayings that best illustrate the Nigerian attitude to food. Though the country has over 250 ethnic groups ⁠— each with its different cuisines, culture, and culinary cartography ⁠— these sayings have held through, from the deserts of Sokoto through the savannah, all the way to the swamps the tributaries of the Niger delta.

Roasted Meal Dished On A Plate, 2019, From the collection of: The Centenary Project
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1. Oun t’a ó jẹ l’àgbà oun ta ó se: “What we want to eat is, on the hierarchical scale, superior to what we want to do.

Rather than a rejection of work – far from it – this saying is actually a complement to it, highlighting the importance of fuelling the stomach before getting started. Traditional Nigerian societies were agrarian (based around agriculture and the land) and therefore heavily relied on physical energy: to till the farm, to weed a forest, to trap a wild animal, to carry crops, to process food, to carry children over long distances, to dance, to wrestle, to make huts out of leaves, stems, and shrubs. Waking up at dawn was standard, with the whole family heading out to work on the land before the scorching sun rose high enough to make hard labor impractical. With all of this physical effort, the food that started the day was very important: heavy starch with protein to keep the body agile and sturdy, ready to take on the most important tasks.

The saying has continued into the present. “Breakfast is the most important meal of the day,” we often hear, especially from doctors urging us to never let our bodies face the day without proper nutrition. What better way of understanding this saying in the modern era, than as about this foundational set-up for a productive day? Ògì, pap made out of plain white or yellow corn, taken with either mọ́ínmọ́ín, àkàrà, or even plain milk and sugar, is a staple breakfast item around Nigeria today. And, in cities and other middle class areas, it can be bread and fried eggs, boiled yam and fried eggs, or bread and butter. This saying tells us to fuel the body and the spirit.

Chopping fluted pumpkin leaves, 2019, From the collection of: The Centenary Project
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When we are full enough to joke, we say “iyán l’oúnjẹ, ọkà l’oògùn”, meaning “pounded yam is food, while ọkà/àmàlà is merely medicine” even though both would look good on a big plate with a gathering of ẹ̀fọ́ rírò or ẹ̀gúsí or even edi kang ikong floating nearby on a steaming hot state. The reason why the pounded yam is given this kind of hierarchy in the order of food is probably lost to time. It’s even more curious when we realize that both iyán (pounded yam) and ọkà (àmàlà made out of yam flour) are both products of yam — they just go through different processes. It’s because of the yam that we have the annual Yam Festivals. No other crop gets this first class treatment.

Woman enjoying starch and banga soup, 2019, From the collection of: The Centenary Project
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2. Ebi kìí wọ’nú k’ọ̀ràn mìíràn ó wọ̀ọ́: “Hunger does not enter the stomach and allow anything else in.”

The Yorùbá’s fascination with hunger is legendary. There are whole verses of Ifá, the Yorùbá literary and religious texts, dedicated to its feeling and dynamics.

“Hunger is the cry of a god,” Wole Soyinka translates in Salutations to the Gut, a pocketbook on Yoruba gastronomy, “and two gods do the humans worship — the head and the stomach... We know the body will survive without Head sustenance, but the Stomach, the god that rubles and thunders when sacrifice is late, this god cannot be slighted.”

When hunger strikes, so many things can go wrong. Hunger can even bring a king down to his knees. The gut lives by its own rules. “The path to the stomach is the path to heaven,” is another saying, exaggerating the importance of one’s throat in the pursuit of happiness. Satisfy it and paradise is yours.

Habanero pepper, 2019, From the collection of: The Centenary Project
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Modernization and the pressures of the big city have increased the need for street food and road-side grub. Go to Marina in Lagos, the most famously populated bank road in Nigeria, and see bank workers in suits and ties sitting in crowded bukas sweating it out over hot plates of amala or semo or pounded yam, all served by old women whose dexterous hands-for-spoons (“ọlọ́wọ́ ṣíbí,” as people whose meals are a notable delight are often called) have prepared the hot delicacies throughout the day (not to mention throughout the history of African women sweating it out by the hearth to feed families for generations).

The food wins. Hunger loses. And when, in traffic on the way home, the pangs of hunger raise their ugly heads again, you can stretch your hand out of the car and buy one of the many snacks being peddled on the roadside in the constant Lagos hustle. Gala on one end, plantain chips on another. With orange juice-in-a-box, or a cold water in a bottle. The day is saved.

Smoked crayfish at a market, The Centenary Project, 2019, From the collection of: The Centenary Project
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3. Tí ebi bá kúrò nínú ìṣẹ́, ìṣẹ́ bùṣe: “When hunger is taken out of poverty, poverty ends.”

This saying draws on a simple reality that appears to elude all modern theorists on the nature of poverty. When there is abundance, there is life. So, wash your hands. Prepare your palate. Let us eat.

Young girl enjoying pounded yam and okra soup, 2019, From the collection of: The Centenary Project
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Credits: Story

Kọ́lá Túbọ̀sún is a Nigerian linguist, writer, and scholar.

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