BOOK REVIEW: Hearty and hilarious taste of Nigerian life
Deftly written food essays delve into myth, marriage, maize — and mucilage (it’s not as bad as it sounds)
The prize-winning Longthroat Memoirs: Soups, Sex and Nigerian Taste Buds is a collection of 40 essays written by Nigerian food writer Yemisi Aribisala.
With chapter headings ranging from Ram Testicle Suyato Okra Soup and the Demonic Encyclopaedia of Dreams, she traverses Nigerian food culture, recipes, politics, anthropology, folklore, sexuality and more.
She works her way through the marketplace, picking a plantain here, a yam there and fermented locust beans everywhere. While Aribisala starts with basic cooking ingredients, her writing is provocative, unique and highly amusing.
The oral tradition of storytelling is ever present in a book that has delightful touches of magic realism. The term long-throat refers to gluttony or a love of food, suggesting a large appetite and gullet.
Aribisala recalls street hawkers walking past her home with food on their heads, calling out their wares. This had the effect of "forcing you to make constant interaction with food and food aromatics, constant imaginative connections between eating and speech. Your mind created images in response to the words offered by the food vendors," she explains. "You might say it created longthroat on the street."
Her essays have a similar effect — imagery and words inducing hunger and longing. Redolent with spice, rippling with humour and sexual innuendo, her memoirs conjure up fantasies that can only be satisfied by reading another chapter.
Aribisala explains that in Nigeria, food has not traditionally existed as a "persona", a topic of conversation. She suggests this reticence to discuss food may be "a way of keeping that which is sacrosanct just so, by not tainting it with words".
THAT WHICH YOU EAT ENTERS YOUR WHOLE BEING, FINDS ITS WAY INTO YOUR SOUL AND TOUCHES YOUR DREAMS
Nigerians have been more concerned with enjoying food than with "dressing it up to global fine-dining standards", she writes.
"While the rest of the world has gone on and on about their cuisines, we have remained mute, with our mouths full of food. We love our food but we’ve not tried to win the world over with it."
Soup is one of the mainstays of Nigerian cuisine. Cooks are appraised by the "draw" of their soup. This has much to do with mucilage, a word frequently used in Aribisala’s depictions.
Snails are a prized ingredient and okra has a starring role in her descriptions of soups with the correct "mouthfeel".
For readers unaccustomed, mucilaginous texture sounds challenging, yet it becomes enticing if only to experience the scoop and the draw Aribisala so evocatively describes.
According to her, preparing and cooking meals is "a holistic exercise that can never exclude the spiritual. That which you eat enters your whole being, finds its way into your soul and touches your dreams."
Many of her essays explore the mythical dimension of Nigerian food, with soups for every occasion ranging from those offered to small children to those imbued with the power of seduction.
In Fish Soups and Love Potions, Aribisala suggests that soup and sex are inextricably bound up in Nigerian culture. She outlines the requisite qualities of a good wife and a good mistress – the assumption being that a middle-class, male public servant will have both. Her list of requirements is reminiscent of Jane Austen.
Aribisala’s gently satirical tale explores beliefs about a woman’s ability to attract or bewitch a man with a good soup.
While a suitable wife is required to be a good cook, she concludes that a shrewd mistress has to be a great cook.
"A man does not eat snails in okra soup cooked by just any woman," she writes.
Aunty Thelma’s fisherman’s stew recipe follows, before Aribisala presents an exposition on the relationship between smoked fish, mucilage, salt and female pheromones.
In Sweet Stolen Waters, she relates a customary belief about the need to plant maize in silence "because maize have ears and it is rumoured that they respond to negative remarks". I will never look at a mielie in quite the same way.
Yet the message is serious. Aribisala concludes with an economist’s warning that developing countries, lacking scien-tific assistance for agriculture do not have the capacity to adapt to climate change.
One of her funniest stories is about eggs. Fainting at the Sight of an Egg segues from the Nigerian disdain for sell-by dates through a recipe for egg and sardines cooked "well well", to a story of a disciplinarian matriarch who tested the virginity of teenage girls in her care by attempting to insert an egg.
Aribisala rejects the notion of squeezing Nigerian food under the umbrella of "African cuisine" as if the continent can be commodified. In A Bowl of Aloof Nigerian Soup, she rails against the way in which Nigerian food has been served up to a western cookbook-reading audience.
She resists the idea that "our food can be simplified and reformulated/recast/reconstituted into something else, something it is not."
In an e-mail exchange, she comments further about authenticity. "If okra soup is no longer mucilaginous, then how can it be okra soup?" she asks.
"My issue with adaptation is that there are often self-esteem issues masking as palatability. This happens with many things that are idealistically from the continent of Africa: New York or London is presented as the centre of the world and we are working hard to tweak ourselves for the approval of their tastebuds there.
"Their palates should instead bend over in reverence and acknowledgement of what has nurtured millions of people for hundreds of years. They should acknowledge that our food is perfect the way it is."
In The Snail Tree, Aribisala describes a workshop where participants are reminded that "Africa is in".
She lists the attitudes a successful Nigerian writer is required to promote — being a feminist, antigovernment, anti-Pentecostal Christians and supportive of gay rights.
In a prescient sentence, Aribisala writes: "I want to win a prize, and the polarising prose might win me an international one, which I’ll pretend not to want if I get it."
Get it, she did. In 2016, she won the prestigious John Avery Award, a UK-based food and drink book prize. "I was beyond elated, winning was just downright fantastic," she says.
Aribisala believes that one of the easiest ways to understand other people is through food. Winning the award suggests to her that readers have responded positively to the showcasing of Nigerians through her writing.
"We certainly need less West-centric food narratives as doors into culture, both for our education and for those who are foreigners to the continent," Aribisala says.
"The book presents a perspective that has never been proffered. The threads of narratives on Nigeria are pretty set (politics, Boko Haram, letters in your mailbox soliciting funds for something or other) and there is a presumption of and generalisation of what Nigerians are interested in (politics, soccer, religion, music).
"Longthroat Memoirs disregarded the templates and offered a book on something as personal as the mouth and palate, and something as extensive and diverse as a cultural landscape of a country called Nigeria."
TITLE: Longthroat Memoirs: Soups, Sex and Nigerian Taste BudsAuthor: Yemisi AribisalaPublisher: Cassava Republic