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Amala and abula

Pounding a big bowl of amala on the right, ready to serve into bowls. The orangy liquid is gbegiri and the green is called ewedu. Together they make the delicious combination of abula.

Do you take amala? is one of the first questions any Nigerian person asks me when they meet me for the first time. When I respond “Of course, I love to eat amala and abula,” they erupt into a fit of laughter and tell any Yoruba person in the near vicinity that this Oyinbo just said she likes to eat amala and abula. Amala, or oka (if you are using really deep Yoruba) is one of the fundamental Yoruba foods. Amala is made from mixing yam flour with boiling water and stirring it very fast (ro amala) on fire. Slicing a yam, drying the skin and grinding it makes yam flour. In the picture above, the amala is already made but the woman selling continuously mixes it to keep it soft.

A bowl of amala and abula on the left and gbegiri and amala on the right, ready to be filled with your meat of choice.


A bowl of amala and abula on the left and gbegiri and amala on the right, ready to be filled with your meat of choice.While we were in Oyo, another city within Yorubaland, we went to a typical amala joint. An amala joint could be a few bowls on a table under a wood stall, a road side shack or a more formal restaurant. You cue in line for your amala tell them which soup you want on top then move down the line to select your meat. The meat selection process is quite intense. You stand in front of a massive bowl filled with different shaped meat pieces in a reddish orange pepper sauce and point to the pieces you want. Nigerians like to pick and choose their food. The server calls out the price of each piece as he drops them into your bowl. You can choose from goat meat, cow meat, sometimes chicken or other types of strange meats I have not tried. Then you have the different parts of each different animal. It was an overwhelming process for me, so I just stuck with no meat. You take the bowl back to your plastic table covered with decals for one type of beer or another and wash your right hand with the jug of water provided. Then you dig in, literally, to the steaming heap of amala surrounded by the pastel orange and green mixture of ewedu and gbegiri that we call abula.

The amala joint is a unique and delicious food experience. I would love to see Anthony Bourdain critique one.

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Meeting Mama Cass

Last Sunday, the first day of our Lagos Vacation, we attended the best church party I have seen yet–an Ikeja church’s harvest party. Following the longest thanksgiving service I have experienced (and that’s not very many), the church goers convened under the shade of a massive tent where caterers in black and white outfits squeezed between tables serving heaping plates of rice, dodo, fake pounded yam and steaming hot amala.

Abike and Kayode smiling with new friends among the squalor of the harvest party.

After we had eaten our fill for the meantime, our friend informed us we would be staying for three more hours, so we decided to make friends. Everyone wants to know the only white people speaking Yoruba at the party so finding people to talk to at these events takes no effort at all–they are hooked at “E ku igbadun,” greetings for enjoying yourself. I made it to the outskirts of the tent where a group of important looking men sat around small tables with Heinekens in hand, slowly chipping away at bottles of Black Label and champagne on the table. Obviously I went straight to this table, greeted the baba’s and the one woman, held out my Chapman (a special non-alcoholic Nigerian fruit drink that is delicious) and asked them to top it off with Black Label. Elated at hearing my Yoruba, they readily obliged. The woman at the table took special interest in me. She gave me her business card and told me to please call her. The white and green shiny card said “Mama Cass” along the top. I didn’t think anything of it except that I liked the design.

Chopping away at the small cow to roast it over fire and provide small chops for the party.

I put it in my bag, picked up my spiked Chapman and merrily trotted over to see the dead cow slowly roasting on a stick.

When I remembered to mention that I got Mama Cass’s card to my Lagotian friend he shrieked with excitement. I came to find out later, while sitting in Mama Cass’s office, that she, Mrs. Charis Onabowale founded Mama Cass, a popular fast food restaurant in Nigeria years ago when the concept of fast food hit Nigeria. Mama Cass stands among the ranks of other Nigerian fast food joints like Tantalizers, Mr. Biggs, Chicken Republic and Sweet Sensation. McDonald’s does not exist in Nigeria…yet (but I did see a KFC in Lagos). Mama Cass is a successful, powerful businesswoman and also a loving mother with a kind heart. She insisted on us coming swimming at her house and fed us the best jollof rice I have ever tasted.

Tejiri, Abike, Mama Cass, Me and Kayode


She is a Nigerian woman who was born in the UK and said she loves meeting non-Nigerians who come to Nigeria to live or study. Two young women, one from Peru and the other from Russia were living with her for a few days while on a yearlong internship with ISEC. I also speak Spanish quite well and through talking with the Peruvian girl realized how much immersed my mind is in Yoruba. I still was pretty proud of myself for sitting at a table and switching seamlessly between Spanish, Yoruba and English. We didn’t get to eat at any of her restaurants in Lagos and unfortunately none have reached Ibadan yet. But I plan on keeping in good contact with her through my time here and beyond.

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Kitchens all across the United States are filled with boiling pots, hot ovens, delicious aromas and anxious cooks hoping the turkey turns out right. The last Thursday in November is the same as any other day in Nigeria. People in America ask me, “do you celebrate Thanksgiving in Nigeria?” The answer is deep. American Thanksgiving involves spending the whole day cooking an outrageous amount of food, eating it with people you love and going around the table saying what you are thankful for. Every minute, every day in Nigeria is thanksgiving. People give thanks for everything, whether it be arriving at home safely, waking up, passing an exam, after eating a meal or taking a danfo ride. They will say “a dupe,” which means “we give thanks.” Nigerians acknowledge activities with thanks that many people don’t think twice about. Then you have the weekly thanksgiving at church. Families celebrate their own thanksgivings, just a special day to give thanks for your family.

Food preparation is another part of the American Thanksgiving celebration that happens everyday in Nigeria. I can speak for Yoruba culture best when I say that Yoruba take a great deal of pride in their food. Making a meal is a serious job. From start to finish, one meal takes a lot of labor and time. The Yoruba woman also takes a lot of care in the way she prepares it. Pounding yam, making the stew, it is an art and Yoruba know the way they like it. This is one of the reasons you see Yoruba people abroad always seeking out African restaurants wherever they are. Of course there will be exceptions but it is safe to say that Yoruba people love their traditional meals so much.

Celebrating American Thanksgiving is all well and good. I love the holiday myself because the food is always delicious and the company is even better. But being here and reflecting on what the word thanksgiving means in America and Nigeria is extremely eye opening. I wouldn’t trade one for the other, but I will combine the two into my own meaning of thanksgiving.

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Food: Indomie

When it comes to a quick, grab-n-go meal in Ibadan, the options are scarce. Yoruba food is not something you pop in the microwave or throw in a toaster oven. Most people do not have these appliances at home anyway. All of the dishes require a pot, fire and preparation. They take time to prepare even though people can inhale them within 5 minutes. You have a few fast food places in the city (a post about them later) and snacks like ground nuts, bananas and kettle corn, but no quick meals except Indomie.

Indomie is the Nigerian equivalent of Ramen. Manufactured in Nigeria, the instant noodles are a quick, salty solution to hunger for college students, children and (desperate) adults. The package, which comes in regular and super pack, magnifies the words protein, vitamin A, vitamin B and calcium to appeal to the nutrition conscious shopper.

Nutrition facts on Indomie

The noodles come with a seasoning and chili packet inside. People usually add a scrambled or hardboiled egg too. My younger siblings eat Indomie for breakfast almost everyday! Can you imagine? Indomie is one of the most advertised foods around Ibadan, only competing with different types of evaporated milk, and beer. Massive billboards depicting a mother feeding her smiley child Indomie span roadways and the noodle logo covers market stalls and walls.

In my three years of college I ate Ramen noodles maybe once. Two months in Nigeria and I have eaten the local equivalent close to 10 times. The salty, pasta-y goodness is comforting when I am not in the mood for a heavy Yoruba meal. But still, I didn’t come thousands of miles from home to be eating salty, freeze dried noodles.

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Food–how we eat it, how we prepare it and who we enjoy it with is a window into every culture. Yorùbá culture surrounding food is quite different than the that in the United States and everywhere else I’ve been. The Yorùbás follow a certain set of customs when eating. While they are widely practiced, they are not mandatory.

1. The invitation to eat
Whenever you are eating in front of someone who is not, it is customary to invite that person to join you. The person without food could be a complete stranger but you will still ask them to come eat. You will say come eat, or “wa jeun.” That person can actually start eating your food if they are really hungry, or they will say may it go down well, or “A gba bi re.”

2. No drinking while eating
Many Yorùbá people wait until after they are completely finished eating the meal to drink. Not everyone does this but most older people I have shared a table with at the cafeteria do. They will shovel down their food and chug down a Fanta or Maltina (non-alcoholic malt beverage that is extremely popular here) in a couple gulps.

3. Eat with your hands
In order to explain why eating with your hands makes more sense than eating with a fork and knife it is necessary to understand the type of food Yorùbá people eat. A typical Yorùbá dish is something like a soft but stiff pounded porridge made from cassava or some type of yam (when I say yam yam, I don’t mean sweet potato). This porridge could be called amala, iyan, semofita, fufu, or eba. They are each pretty tasteless but each one definitely tastes and feels different. So you use this mashed potato like food to eat one of the many types of stews. This you do with your right hand, not the left. You take little bits of the porridge thing and mop up bits of soup, put it in your mouth and swallow it, chewing is not necessary. When you see Yorùbá people eating, it is almost always with their hands, unless they are eating rice. All the cafeterias have big jugs of water on the table to wash your hands with before and after the meal.

Amala (left) and Egusi with pepper soup (right). I wasn't up to the hand challenge that day.

4. Spoon not fork
If you do not feel like dirtying your hands, or you are not up to the challenge of eating with them, you can use a spoon. Spoon is the eating utensil of choice. Forks are rare.

5. No walking while eating
Eating or drinking while walking is taboo. You never see someone walking down the street munching on peanuts or peeling bananas (the most popular snacks here). Even drinking water while walking is not typical. It is considered bad manners to do this. People who were brought up well are expected to sit down when they eat.

6. Women only
Cooking is a woman’s job in Yorùbáland. Traditionally men planted the yams and did the back breaking work while a woman’s job was to cook for her husband. It is still the same today. I have never seen a man in a kitchen here. Women are the cooks.

7. Cole slaw pretends to be salad
The Yorùbá equivalent to salad is grated cabbage, carrots and cream, a.k.a cole slaw. So if someone asks you if you want salad, it will not be tomatoes, cucumbers and other veggies on a bed of lettuce, it will surely be cole slaw.

The list could probably go on, and over the next 8 months I’m sure I will discover more idiosyncrasies with food culture here. These are just some of the few I’ve picked up on so far. I’m just glad I’m slowly improving on taking the right amount of stew with each scoop of amala so I run out of both at the same time.

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Fried Plantains–Dòdò

Fried plantains are a staple food here and in many other countries around the world. We call it dòdò in Yorùbá. It is really hard to screw up dòdò but here is a rough explanation of the recipe. To make dòdò:
1. Buy plantains

2. Use a knife to cut open the plantain. The skin is thick so you will need a knife.
3. Slice the plantain into pieces, about an inch thick.

Slice the plantain into inch-thick pieces. You can slice the plantain length wise too if you like.


4. Pour about a cup of vegetable oil into a frying pan and heat to medium-high heat.
5. Carefully add the plantains to the oil, do not crowd in the pan. The oil should reach half way up the plantains.

Fry plantains until golden brown, continuously turning, about 1.5 minutes each side.


6. Cook them, until golden brown and tender, about 1.5 minutes each side.
7. With a spatula or slotted spoon remove from oil, sprinkle with salt and serve immediately.

Once you try this once you will be hooked. Fried plantains are delicious! This recipe also sounds amazing for making dòdò. Happy cooking!

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Food: Dried Fish

Eja gbigbe with pepper and okra soup.

I really like fish. Salmon, halibut, tilapia–yes please. Raw fish in sushi–excellent. ‘Eja gbigbe’ the curled up brown thing you see in the bowl above is a different breed. ‘Eja gbigbe’ means dried fish in Yoruba and is extremely popular here. Mainly Hausa people make and sell it. You see it all over the markets hung up on long poles or stacked high in buckets. If you don’t see it first, you will definitely smell it. You poke a stick through the head and the tail to form it into a circle and use a combination of fire and sun to get the dried effect. The fish, usually either catfish or small eel, is dried with all the bones and guts inside. The smartest first step is to take the spine out first then eat the meat while maneuvering around the smaller bones. It tastes a bit salty and mostly takes on the flavor of whatever soup/stew you eat it with. Above, I ate it with spicy pepper and okra soup. Yummy! You eat the fish with your right hand only, along with most other foods here except rice. The first time I ate it I started before the Yoruba girl across from me and finished 15 minutes after her. Eating ‘eja gbigbe’ is definitely an art.

Road side stalls. Eja gbigbe on the platter in the front left.

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