In Valerie Stivers’s Eat Your Words series, she cooks up recipes drawn from the works of various writers.
The Nigerian expatriate writer Buchi Emecheta (1944–2017) in her own words was a “sort of” successful novelist in the London of the 1970s and 1980s. Her books are juicy and plot-gripping, more fun to read than titles like Second Class Citizen, The Slave Girl and The Bride Price might imply. Emecheta’s topic is a difficult one—the grim fate of women in Nigerian and Nigerian emigré society, and the worsening of their already fragile social rights caused by urbanization—but the effect is often oddly consoling. There’s inspiration in her sense of injustice, in her insistence that her character’s lives should be better.
Emecheta’s personal story is also inspiring. Many of her books are set in the Ibuza of her youth, but Second Class Citizen in particular is semi-autobiographical, and tells the story of Adah, a young woman who schemes to get an education and— despite being forced into marriage at sixteen years old manages to emigrate to London. Eventually she leaves her husband—single-parenting five small children in conditions of desperate poverty—and becomes a writer.
Food in Emecheta’s books is fraught—there isn’t enough of it. It’s cooked in dire circumstances. The emigré children don’t like it. In one scene, Pa Noble, a black character who panders to whites’ stereotypes, opines thus about fish and chips: “All children like fish and chips. Ours will not take boiled or roast potatoes, but you fry them and away they go, just like that! I think children all over the world like fish and chips. It’s an international food, not just English.” This deft little nugget of stereotype and cultural solipsism leads to the children asking him about his childhood, when he tells them he was born in a tree, breast-fed until he was twelve, and “ate meat only twice in the year during the yam festival.” Adah, watching, “felt sick.”
At another point, Pa Noble’s wife, a white woman, invites Adah for a Christmas feast. The English holiday feels silent and bizarre to Adah unlike the noisy partying in Nigeria, and she’s baffled when the woman serves “jellies of different colors in a riot of Ali-Baba-shaped paper cups and paper plates and paper napkins.” Emecheta writes that, “Adah saw all the colours and thought it was a shame they had to be eaten. What were the colourings for? To make food more appetising? To make it more beautiful?…. She hoped her children would enjoy it. As for her, the whole affair was too sugary.”
The theme of comfort foods gone awry runs throughout the books. In The Bride Price, the fourteen-year-old protagonist Aku-nna is planning to have “her favorite Agbona soup” one evening, just before being told her father has died. “Agbona is a vegetable that draws like okro, and it made the swallowing of pounded yam very easy and tasted delicious,” Emecheta explains, adding in the next sentence that Aku-nna longs to “run and meet her father as he came home from work, to feel his comfort when she complained that her mother had told her off or beaten her again.”
I tried to make some of these comfort foods the right way, as Emecheta might have appreciated them. For her English expatriate days, I did an easy at-home fish and chips that required no deep fryer or special equipment. My research revealed that ‘jellies’ in U.K. English is Jell-O in the U.S., so I made a silly and elaborate Jell-o cake—just like the clueless but well-meaning white woman in the story—but with most of the sweetness cut out, using a base of coconut milk. For Emecheta’s Nigerian past, I tracked down the Agbona (ogbono), curious if a soup that “draws” (i.e. is slimy like okra) would actually be delicious when eaten with the pounded-yam balls known as foo foo, which I’ve made before and loved.
I’ve discovered while writing this column that the cooking process often echos the spirit of the book, and in this case it did. The fish and chips worked out, more or less, but only one of my two children fell for my attempt to trick them with oven-baked French fries. The Jell-O cake required days of experimentation and various off-package tricks to get it to set firmly and quickly enough to be practical. The recipe below is what worked for me in the end, but let’s just say there’s more that can go wrong with Jell-O than one would think and I’m lucky it’s cheap, since I wasted a lot of it. On my third try with the cake I got the Jell-O right but had a blender mishap that flooded my kitchen with five cups of warm milk. I felt that the writer, skeptical about Jell-O in the first place, was laughing.
A traditional Nigerian ogbono soup contains smoked fish, meat and vegetables, but can be done in a variety of ways, with beef or goat meat or specialty ingredients like cow-skin, and pumpkin leaves or okra or spinach. I settled on beef and smoked shad, plus okra and spinach leaves. Despite knowing the soup was supposed to “draw” I carefully dried and seared off my okra so I could add it to the soup without too much slime. The result was spicy, deep, flavorful, fresh, and delicious… until I added the ogbono powder and it turned into more Jell-O. Meat Jell-O. It may have been Aku-nna’s favorite, but it was not mine.
The recipes below reflect the foods as I think they should be—the ideal version of life, the one we’re striving for. Emecheta never lost sight of it.
Ogbono Soup with Foo Foo Balls
Note: This is a “draw” soup, which means it’s slimy. I’ve included the version with the ogbono, for authenticity, but the same soup can be made without. It wouldn’t be ogbono soup anymore, but I recommend it!
For the soup:
2 tbsp palm oil
1 lb beef stew meat, cut into chunks, at room temperature
2 tsp chicken boullion powder
1/2 tsp freshly ground black pepper
1 tsp kosher salt
1/2 tsp crayfish powder
4 cups water
1/2 cup smoked trout or shad, torn in bite-sized pieces
1 habanero pepper, deseeded and minced
1 cup spinach leaves, chopped
1/2 cup powdered ogbono
For the foo-foo ball:
1 African yam
Large pot of boiling water
Large mortar and pestle
To make the foo foo:
Peel and chop a segment from the middle of the yam into 2-inch chunks, making about 4 cups.
Boil for 10 to 15 minutes until a knife slips in easily.
Drain the pot, reserving 1 to 2 cups of the water.
Let the yam cool just enough to handle, then pour the wet, steamy chunks into the mortar, just enough that you have room to comfortably pound without things overflowing, and pound until the dough is smooth, stretchy, and comes together. It should be light and flexible.
If the dough seems stiff or dry, add some of the reserved water, but only once it’s been pounded to smoothness and the desired consistency.
Work in several batches. Should make about 4 tennis-size balls of foo-foo.
To make the soup:
First, brown the meat. Heat the palm oil in a dutch oven or other heavy stew pan until very hot. Add the beef and let sizzle until beginning to brown. If it releases liquid, don’t stir until the liquid has burned off. Once the meat is brown on one side, turn the heat down to medium and stir. Brown on all sides.
When the meat has browned, add the boullion powder, black pepper, salt and crayfish powder, and toss to coat. Fry for a few minutes to release the aroma of the spices. Then add the 4 cups of water, cover, and bring to a boil. When the water has boiled, turn down to a simmer and cook until the meat is fork tender (about 1 hour or longer).
While the meat is cooking, take out your okra and cook according to the following method to prevent it from being slimy: First, keep the okra dry. Do not wash. Pat any moisture on the skin dry with a paper towel. Chop on a dry cutting board, keeping the knife dry with the paper towel if any moisture begins to develop. Fry in a little olive oil with a pinch of salt until seared.
When the meat is tender to your liking, add the ogbono powder (or don’t!), the trout, pepper, and okra, and simmer 10 minutes. Add spinach leaves and simmer a few minutes more, until wilted. Serve with a foo foo ball.
Homemade Fish and Chips
For the battered fish:
1 cod or haddock fillet, about 1 pound
1/2 cup flour
1/2 cup corn starch
1 tsp salt
oil for frying
For the chips:
4 medium potatoes
2 tbsp oil
1 tsp large flake salt
To make the chips:
Preheat the oven to 400.
To cut the potatoes without a fry-cutter, cut off the end of a potato so it can stand up straight. Then slice off the sides and the other end, making a mostly rectangular shape. Discard the cuttings. Slice the rectangle into 1/2 inch slices, then turn the stack on its side and slice again. Repeat with the other potatoes.
Rinse the potatoes in a bowl of cold water to wash off the starch. Pour off the water and rinse again. The water should be clear. Dry them thoroughly. Without this step, oven-baked fries will be mushy.
Toss the potatoes in the oil, sprinkle with salt, and arrange in a single layer on a cookie sheet. Bake for 40 minutes or until starting to brown. Flip and bake for 10 minutes more, until the color is French-fry-like.
To make the fish:
Whisk the flour, corn starch, and salt together in a medium bowl. Add the egg and the beer, and stir with a fork until the egg has combined and the froth has subsided. Refrigerate the batter for 20 minutes or more.
Pour oil about 1/2-inch deep in a large skillet and heat on high. It’s ready to fry when the handle of a wooden spoon makes bubbles when inserted in the oil. Cut the fish into portion-sized pieces, salt and pepper them, dip in batter and fry until golden and cooked through, about five minutes a side. Serve with lemon wedges.
Stained Glass Jell-O Cake
5 packets of Jell-O in different colors
5 boxes unflavored gelatin (there are four 1/4 oz packets per box)
5 cups water
5 cups ice
coconut oil for greasing the tin
250 ml coconut milk
3 tbs sugar
250 ml heavy cream
500 ml water
Make the colored Jell-O for the “stained glass” blocks. Empty 1 pack of Jell-O and 2 packets (each packet is 1/4 oz) unflavored gelatin into the wide, flat-bottomed dish you’ll use to make the Jell-O. An 8-inch round dish is about the right dimensions, but some variation in dish size is fine. Stir to combine the 2 powders.
Add 1 cup of boiling water, and stir gently with a spoon until the powder mixture dissolves. Next, drop 1 cup of ice into the liquid and stir gently until it starts to gel. Quickly scoop out the excess ice. Chill. (This is a quick-set method favored by my mother. You can use 1 cup of cold water instead of the 1 cup of ice if you don’t mind the Jell-O taking longer to set.) Repeat the procedure with the other 4 Jell-O colors. With the quick-set method the Jell-O should set in 10 minutes.
Grease a 23cm bundt pan with coconut or other oil.
When the Jell-O has set, cut it carefully into squares and gently arrange them in the mold, alternating color layers to make a multicolor look. Refrigerate.
Combine the 250ml of coconut milk with 250ml heavy cream and 3 tbsp sugar in the blender. Add 250ml of cold water to a small bowl, sprinkle 2 boxes (8 packets) of unflavored gelatin over it, and let dissolve about 2 minutes. Add 250ml of boiling water and stir to combine. Add the gelatin mixture to the mixture of coconut milk and cream in blender. Blend to combine.
Pour the cream mixture over the stained glass squares in the bundt pan, filling the pan to near the top. Refrigerate to set, which should take about 15 minutes. To serve, dip the bundt pan in a bowl of hot water for 20 seconds, just enough to help it unmold, then invert.
Read earlier installments of Eat Your Words here.
Valerie Stivers is a writer based in New York.