by Marta Maretich
I am a Nigerian. You wouldn’t guess it to look at me and when I reveal this fact to other Nigerians, they tend to laugh politely and edge away, thinking, “Clearly, this white lady is a little nuts!”
But it’s 100% true. I was born in Port Harcourt. This fact is in my passport and distrusted by border guards the world over. They look at my documents, then at my pale face, then back at my documents. They frown, they appear confounded, they call their friends over and talk about it for a while. Then they lead me into little booths and ask me a lot of questions, which I answer as best I can.
I may be one of the world’s least likely Nigerians, but the accident of my being born in that country (which has always seemed like good luck to me) has made me take a lifelong interest in all things Nigerian. So I was delighted to dig in to my advance copy of Longthroat Memoirs: Soups, Sex and Nigerian Taste Buds by Yemisi Aribisala and find a book as surprising and stereotype-busting as my own passport.
Every so often a book comes along that defies categorization. Longthroat Memoirs is one of these. Part straight cookbook, part cultural history, part travelogue, part intimate confessional, it’s as complex and mysterious as one of the Nigerian soups Aribisala describes so evocatively in its pages. It would be a mistake to try to boil this book down to a simple summary—and that’s exactly the point its author is making, eloquently, about Nigerian food.
The book’s title gives the first clue that this is not going to be your usual African cookery book featuring recipes made with yams and peanuts and—what?—maybe some okra.
No: Longthroat Memoirs is, from the first page, a very different kettle of fish. Not only are the fish inside different, the kettle itself is unfamiliar and even the flame it cooks over uses a fuel we haven’t really seen before. This book is fresh, and adventurous.
The author starts by pointing out, in a charming way, our total ignorance about the cuisine of her homeland. Nigerian food, she tells us, is “a person the world hasn’t met yet” and this is because Nigerians themselves don’t actually talk about their food. Unlike us westerners, who discuss our culinary traditions endlessly, Nigerians haven’t created an identity for their food “from speech and stories and exaggerations.”
Aribisala is about to change all that. She understands that food is something made of words, memories and feelings as much as it is of raw ingredients. It’s an idea she shares with food writers like Claudia Roden and Regula Ysewijn for whom writing about cuisine is a way of delving deeply into the heart of cultures. In Longthroat Memoirs, Aribisala opens her mouth (or rather takes up her pen) and begins to conjure the “person” of Nigerian food into vivid existence for us.
The book works like a sort of incantation. But the experience of reading it often feels most like a wild road trip.
A fearless guide, Aribisala takes us all over her country, and into its psyche, introducing us to the private life of Nigerian food. She is willing to travel with us down culinary byways and into cul-de-sacs where some might fear to tread. I mean, Nigella might pout at us suggestively, Jamie might act like our bestest, bestest mate, but which of them would dare take us to The Dog Joint where canine dishes are the stars of the menu?
Aribisala dares—and more. She does it not to shock us but in the interests of introducing us to a local food custom, showing its “normalcy” and getting us to look it square in the eye, the way she does.
Other food writers could learn a lot from her daring spirit and her honesty. The racy chapter headings give a sense of the scope of her fearless explorations: “Kings of Umami”, “How to Make Meat”, “Dead Man’s Helmet”, “Okro Soup and The Demonic Encyclopaedia of Dreams”. Everywhere Aribisala takes us, she is interesting company. I for one am fascinated to hear that Yoruba families always have a pot of stew on the go and that the Cross Riverians are “the culinary heavyweights”, but “the Niger Delta has the most sophisticated aromatics.” Who knew?
There are certainly straightforward recipes included in Longthroat Memoirs: “evocative of outdoor cooking Jollof rice” and “peppered puff puffs with the aroma of newsprint” are dishes I plan to make. But Aribisala’s ambition goes far beyond getting people like me, people outside of Nigeria, to cook Nigerian dishes. She wants us to absorb the context, touch the meaning, and try to grasp the sometimes ungraspable spirit of Nigerian cuisine.
Read more about Marta Maretich’s novella about Nigeria, The Possibility of Lions.