Food: Struggles and Swallow

Ikun baba orisa. – Yoruba Proverb, The stomach is the father of the gods.

Today’s post brought to you by host father wisdom. One day my host father and I were talking when he got serious and asked me if I was homesick when I got malaria. I said no, that it really wasn’t that bad and I haven’t really been homesick while I’m here. He looked at me for a while and then said “Ayodele, do you know why women live longer than men?” I told him I didn’t know. He says “when you see the market women, they cry over every little thing that upsets them. Something small and they wail and sob! Most people see this and they see weakness. But that’s not what it is. They cry and release all their stress and worries out in that instance. And then the pain is gone. Men on the other hand hold everything in. They let it eat away at them bit by bit until they are consumed by their own pain and inability to show it. The stress kills them. I am like the market women because I want to live a long time. When anything upsets me I just cry and cry, even something little, I’ll cry for hours.” Then he was quiet again for some time.

Anyway, food! I’ve been meaning to write this for a while. It actually should be the only thing I write about. It’s definitely the most important. Let’s start with a little background on myself. I live to eat. I totally love food. This isn’t to say that I’m gluttonous but I really enjoy the whole prospect of eating good food with good people.

So enter Yoruba culture. If you haven’t read anything I’ve been writing you might not know this but… food is the second most important thing behind having babies/ marriage (these seem to be tied) in Yoruba land.  If you don’t want to eat, they’ll try to take you to the hospital. Whenever I meet strangers the conversation will go somewhat like this (translated into English for time sake):

Nigerian Person: Good morning! How are you? You speak Yoruba?! White person speaks Yoruba? Where are you walking? I’ll walk with you!
Me: Good morning. I’m good. I’m going to class. Yes, I can understand Yoruba but I’m learning to speak better. I’m going to class.
Nigerian Person: Have you eaten?
Me: Yes.
Nigerian Person: What did you eat?
Me: Rice, ewa (beans), and dodo (fried plantain).
Nigerian Person: That’s it? Do you like to take amala?
Me: Yes I can eat amala. I like iyan better though.
Nigerian Person: This is too much! White person eats amala! What’s your name?
Me: Ayodele.
Nigerian Person: Give me your phone number. I’ll call you tomorrow

And so this goes. Everyone asks what you’ve eaten and to make sure you’ve eaten. Then they ask about swallow. Okele or swallow is best explained a big dough ball that comes with your stew or obe. Okele can be eba (made of gari), amala (brown and tasteless), iyan (most popular, tastes mash-potato-y), lafun, eko, and fufu. It’s called swallow… well… because you swallow it. You’re supposed to at least. I haven’t mastered that bit yet. You also eat it with your hand (RIGHT HAND ONLY! FINGER TIPS ONLY!), using the swallow to scoop up stew. If you’re lame like me you might ask for a spoon (because you’re thinking ‘well I’m already an oyinbo and I’m having a bad day and don’t want to eat with my hand’) but don’t ask for a fork. Swallow is notoriously hard for westerners to stomach which is why everyone asks if you like it and then laughs if you do. Iyan is my favorite (mashed up yams) because it sort of tastes like mash potato. Then amala, which tastes like nothing at all (it’s dry up yams). Then eba because I don’t like gari that much.

So some food (ounje) basics:

1 Spice. It’s super spicy. Although, this week I accomplished one of my major spice goals. When I first got here my Nigerian American friends first told me about Suya. It basically flank steak with this pepper mixture dry rub covering it with onions on the side. It’s awesome. But even some Nigerians can’t eat it it’s so spicy. When I first got here the spice was hard… and here’s the hardest part… breakfast was spicy too. A common breakfast food is obe ata or this red pepper stew. They call obe, what they eat with everything – it’s stew but it’s really not stew, it’s like hot sauce. I usually use no more than two table spoons with my rice and my mouth is burning. Foods so spicy because the pepper keeps it from going bad (no refrigeration really because of all the blackouts). The kids eat tons of the stuff though. But this week I was able to eat Suya! And it was great! I’m killing so many taste buds.

2 Struggle. Two things I have struggled with in my quest to try all Yoruba food. The first was a stew of greens, cow parts (no idea but the toughest ones, I’m guessing inards or skin but who knows), and snail with a huge chuck of tasteless amala and hot sauced fish on the side. I struggled through three nights. Gotta admit, not a snail girl, but I survived. The second is indomie. God I dislike indomie. It’s this really popular basically ramen that they mix with habanero peppers and oil. It’s “recommended by the Health Ministry of Nigeria” but it’s literally top ramen and tastes like slime… incredibly hot slime. We eat it for breakfast a lot.

3 No waste. No one wastes anything. I eat the last grain of rice off my plate. My host mom has this way around the house that is amazing with conservation and I’ve learned a lot of tricks from her… with everything and especially with water for cleaning things or gas for the cookers. It’s pretty amazing but nothing ever goes to waste. Except you know… all those plastic water bottles, but we find uses for them too.

4 Fish. Is the cheapest most popular protein right up there with bush meat. Then beef (parts) and then whole chickens. Chicken is ridiculously expensive. But anyway I eat fish almost every day. So basically I’m a master at two things: deboning fish like a pro and swallowing fish bones like a failed pro.

5 Drinks. Lots and lots and lots of water or omi. Sodas are expensive but popular as a treat, especially Fanta. They only sell them in the glass bottles and then take them back from you in order to refill them. It’s all the real sugar you could want. Other than soft drinks, hot drinks are nescafe and milo which is like hot chocolate. If you want to drink alcohol you can go for imported beer, imported spirits, or imported wine, but if you want to drink as the locals do go for palm wine, a sweet woody tasting white mixture that ferments minutes after its creation. 

6 No milk. NO cheese. No dairy. Okay, weird powdered milk.

7 Vegetarian? What? It’s not only weird to be a vegetarian… actually people understand being a vegetarian. The thing they don’t understand is not wanting meat with every single meal. I rarely eat meat unless I’m home actually and when I order just rice and egg at lunch people are very confused. This is fine for me, but has been really hard for my male friend. In this culture, men are supposed to eat HUGE amounts and eat certain things like meat, not being able to do so is very strange and he gets looks everywhere – he’s also vegetarian. Meat is also very different here. With every meal you get a chunk of some sort of meat. Unlike Americans, people here would never eat a piece of chicken, a steak, etc. The rice or swallow is the main part of the meal and the chunk of meat is like a treat for the end or a side dish. If you eat the meat throughout the meal, like we do in America, this is considered a sign of a greedy person who cannot wait until the end of the meal to eat their meat and thus has no patience.

Bottom line is that food is incredibly different here. Food culture is pretty communal, anywhere you are no matter if you know the person across from you, you have to greet them “wa jeun” meaning “come eat” and they’re technically according to the rules allowed to take any of your food. For the first week I thought wa jeun was literal and was super confused when people said it to me. But eating food is also a silent and speed oriented task. We never talk when eating and all concentration is placed on the task at hand not the conversation. There are also four meals a day: ounje aaro, osan, irole, ati ale – breakfast, lunch, evening supper, dinner. Dinner is usually around 10 PM at our house.

Slightly more expensive foods right now include beans, plantain, and eggs but they still love to eat them. My favorite snacks are plantain chips, booli (roasted plantain), egg-buns (a hard boiled egg in a fried bun), puff puff (donut thing), galla (sausage wrap), and imported biscuits. Rice comes three ways: iresi funfun (white rice), iresi dindin (fried rice), and iresi jollofu (rice cooked in all these spices).

Most western food is all weird plays on English food including scotched eggs and meat pies, sometimes you can find “chicken and chips” but if it’s local chicken watch out… the meat nearly breaks my teeth it’s so tough. Living with a host family, I’ve had a pretty authentic eating experience here with really no American food besides the occasional “chips” or biscuits from the snack shops. Purists will tell you thought that rice is a western imported food and okele is the only authentic Nigeria food. I drink “oti” every morning which for the longest time I thought they were saying “tea” like we would think of tea. But “oti” in Yoruba is just hot drinks. So they give me this nestle chocolate milk powder that when mixed with nescafe and hot water kind of tastes like an awesome mocha to me (I’ve been away from Portland for too long.) 

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