I don’t think this blog would exist if I (Nico – but Amy, too) did not have a culinary imagination. I love planning and looking forward to future meals, remembering past foods (à la Marcel Proust), and of course imagining dishes and what they would taste like when I read of them. I don’t know what Sigmund Freud would have to say about my food obsession, but I am positive that, simply based on this confession, Dante Alighieri would immediately place me in the gluttonous circle of Hell, with the souls damned to eternal eating (which in theory doesn’t sound too bad, does it?). At any rate, gluttonous instinct aside, I am here today to share the frustrating feeling of imagining the taste of an unknown food which you cannot readily taste. Before sweet potatoes started to be a thing in Europe, I happened to read Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, where the characters often consume yam, or mention other people eating yam (or at least that’s how I recall it). At the time, though, I had no idea of what a “yam” was, and if a quick look at a dictionary or encyclopaedia was informative (a yam is technically not a sweet potato, but it looks like one), I could not help asking myself—what does a yam taste like? The idea of a new, unknown food which I couldn’t simply go and buy in the nearby supermarket and try out gave me a feeling of failed expectation and general food frustration. Now multiple that feeling by a hundred times. Throughout Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s addictive novel Purple Hibiscus, delicious-sounding, new, mysterious Nigerian food is prepared, consumed, and discussed. The mysterious air of the dishes is complicated by the fact that there are no Nigerian restaurants or shops near me where I can check them out (if you do know of a good Nigerian place in the North-East of England, please let me know…). As I was reading the novel, I kept typing names of dishes (mostly in igbo, I believe) into Google to understand what Adichie was referring to; quickly enough, the website allnigerianrecipes.com became my essential companion to complement the novel’s descriptions of food!
Being able to visualize the food (if not to eat them) helped somewhat bridge the gap between my culinary imagination and the Nigerian-specific ingredients and dishes. When Kambili, the protagonist, and her brother Jaja finally visit their aunt and cousins, Aunty Ifeoma prepares chicken and buys soft drinks as a form of celebration, but that is far from what they would normally have. The little cousins’ excitement is barely containable at the sight of a new, rarely eaten dish. Chicken then becomes a symbol of celebration and love-sharing. However, this communal sharing of food and affection can be extended to other types of food in the novel. When Papa-Nnukwu is unwell, his granddaughter Amaka knows she should make “ofe nsala” for him, his favourite dish, an ibgo dish translated as “white soup” (basically a fish soup). When Father Amadi comes round for dinner at Aunty Ifeoma’s, ube is a must – another type of yam (purple yam) – and in the book is eaten with corn (p. 132). Okpa (made with ground bambara nuts) is a typical food of the igbo-speaking region and is sometimes consumed for breakfast in the novel, as a treat, normally purchased in a shop rather than made at home. Other interesting foods eaten throughout Purple Hibiscus are fried azu (fried fish), ngwo-ngwo (goat meat soup), akara (deep-fried bean balls – also known as acarajé in Brazil) and fried yams, yam porridge, fufu (pounded yam or cassava) with onugbu soup, and of course jollof rice.
Jollof rice is the recipe for this month’s blog post. It is often eaten by characters in Adichie’s novels and it was also the one dish in Purple Hibiscus I felt more confident recreating here without having to tweak it too much, especially in terms of ingredients. There are many recipes for jollof rice across West Africa, but the Nigerian variety seems to me to be normally a rich, spicy tomato-y rice served as an accompaniment to chicken or other meat. I wasn’t too keen on having chicken with it today so I made it as a main and added some tasty peppers to it. The recipe I am offering you today is my own adaptation of three jollof rice recipes I have read online (see below for references). For our Nigerian friends out there, I’d love to hear from you and know how to make jollof rice properly! Happy jollof rice to everyone 🙂
Ingredients (4 people)
1 ½ small onions
1 tin of canned tomatoes
1 scotch bonnet chilli
2 tbsp. tomato paste/puree
250 g long grain rice
2 red peppers
1 green chilli
2 tomatoes or a couple of small plum tomatoes/cherry tomatoes
1 tsp. curry powder
2 tsp. dried thyme
1 tsp. nutmeg
1 tsp. cayenne pepper
1 tsp. ground ginger
1 pinch of smoked paprika
- Rinse rice under cold water and boil it for how long it says on the package. (If you want to go the real Nigerian way, you should parboil the rice first, and then cook it in the tomato “stew” and some chicken stock; since I decided to make it vegetarian I have avoided this step). Once boiled and ready to be eaten, set aside to cool. This can be done while preparing the tomato stew.
- Now prepare the tomato stew (basically a sauce or tomato base for many Nigerian dishes). Chop the onions finely and the scotch bonnet chilli (**please be VERY careful as this chilli is very hot – wash your hands carefully after handling it and do not accidentally put your fingers in your eyes!!**) and fry with some olive oil in a large shallow pan.
- After frying these for a couple of minutes, add the chopped tomatoes and cook for 10-15 minutes.
- Add the spices and season.
- In the meantime, cut the red peppers, the green chilli, and the extra tomatoes (if you have them) and add them to the “stew” and cook until the peppers are tender.
- Add the boiled rice and let it cook for a couple more minutes.
- Add a bit of fresh coriander and ta-dah, it is ready to be enjoyed!
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Purple Hibiscus. London: 4th Estate, 2017.
More on Adichie and food: