Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Ofada, Where Art Thou?

Whenever my bush-er Nigerian friends start to make bota/pako comparisons, placing me in the former category, I have a tendency to balk with indignation. Ah no be bota, I will usually say in Pidgin, just to prove it. And I really believe I'm not. I may have been born with a silver spoon in my mouth but the advent of SAP quickly saw that utensil replaced with something plastic, something with rough, unfinished edges. How many ajebotas can say they spent a good part of their adolescence living in a two-room boys' quarters with seven other people, including a senile grandmother who considered this living large and her illiterate, village-raised granddaughter whose frustration at not being able to express herself in idiomatic English usually led to a fist fight?

I have handwashed white denim to blinding success; I have de-husked rice with a mortar and pestle; I considered soaked gari a staple in my diet. Hell, whenever I came into money, I would go crazy and buy five nairas' worth of kulikuli, raising this dish from dull to delicacy. I even rode a night bus from Jos to Lagos once (and back!). Granted, most of my family doesn't know (or care) that I lived this way for years, but the reality of this part of my history surely earns me at least part-time membership in the Pako Hall of Fame.

But there are times when I concede to the razz, the local champions, the akpu nwas, that they may be right after all. That no matter how much gari I have soaked, no matter how hard I had to scrounge for kulikuli, these are not the things that make me a pako. Food is not the great equalizer in Nigeria; the perpetuity of generational hardship is. No matter how much a wealthy man loves to eat akpu, he and his gardener will not eat from the same plate, or even at the same table. And we do all eat the same things; yet rich and poor are divided by how much meat they can afford to put in their stews. There will always be a way to separate the 'us' from the 'them' in Nigeria, whatever the context.
Still, there are many things I love about living pako. And the signs that I, indeed, have lived across the tracks from 'las pako', are glaringly apparent. Like when I had to confess that I had never heard the term takpas before this year, or eaten ofada rice. What a wretched omission of joy from my bota'ed life! It is my own private delight when I espy a Nigerian man dressed to the nines for a formal event, and he is wearing takpas. I laugh 'til tears are pouring from my eyes, because the word sounds like the catapult he must have used to get himself into those tight pants. Takpas! It was not just elbow grease he used to squeeze his sizeable African thighs into resistant cotton; it was sheer willpower. Takpas! I love that word.

And now I can't believe I went my whole life without ever eating ofada rice. When I discovered mama-put jollof, I honestly believed it was the final frontier. The smoky flavor and aroma, the individual grains dancing a spicy tango on the tongue, getting intimate with your tastebuds. There was nothing like mama-put jollof, also fondly referred to as party rice. But now there is ofada. After one plateful, I converted and never looked back. Today, I am passionate about ofada rice. I eat ofada rice with my eyes closed, leaving my left hand free to caress my throat, chest and stomach as this deliciousness travels to my gastric cavity. I don't know what it is that makes me feel so...satisfied. Perhaps it is the rice grain itself. Not content to resemble its tame, ivory-tinted cousins from Asia and the Americas, ofada wears a brown-flecked coat. This gives it character. Like the plastic spoon in the mouth of pako newborns, ofada grains are rough around the edges and create a mild, popping sensation around the gums while one chews.

Or maybe it is the stew. If only I knew how to make ofada stew. The ubiquitous tomato and tatase paste of all our stews is fried to within a hair's breadth of utility in palm oil then flavored with stockfish, pomo and MSG. Pomo: that emptiest of nutritious foods, yet so much fun to eat. Someone had the brilliant idea to cut pomo into tiny cubes when making ofada stew. It was probably to stretch the availability of the "meat", to disguise the fact that there wasn't much to make this cheap meal properly attractive. (After all, what is food in Nigeria without meat? A mere waste, a whiling away of one's life until real food makes its appearance, preferably bleating, crowing or mooing on its way to slaughter.) Whatever the case, one man's deception is my happy time. I love tiny cubes of pomo. When I bite into a cube, unexpectedly, as I savor ofada rice behind closed eyes, it's like eating caviar. It's like finally being able to soak gari with kulikuli. It's like eating February 29th: oh my goodness! Is it you? Here? Oh...and just like that, you've gone but, I know, you shall return.

The rice and stew are served on a banana leaf, for reasons unbeknowst to me, but since this leaf is usually the only green that appears on the plate - inedible or not - I welcome its verdancy, the way it complements the brown-red stew. My mouth is watering. The first and only time I tossed this delightful culinary creation, rice on stew on rice, I had no idea what to expect. I was just hungry. Hungry and visiting Henrietta (not her real name) whose chef I will now worship forever and ever. Henrietta felt like cooking and offered to make me grilled salmon and roast potatoes. If I were any less hungry, I might have agreed. But now I am grateful to whichever spirit it was which told me to resist the lure of exotic foods in Nigeria and just eat whatever I could smell coming from the kitchen (which only smelled hot and fresh, not great. Ofada, like most other African meals, promises far less than it delivers. If we Africans judged food by its smell, we would never cook).

I'm in Europe now, in a large city where food from all over the world is never more than a bus ride away and always available at reasonable prices. But all I want is Henrietta's chef to make me ofada rice. I want to scrape up the last few grains of rice from the bottom of my plate, destroying part of the ceramic design, before helping myself shamelessly to a second helping I know I have no business eating. I want to eat alone, so that I can moan euphorically as I chew, without raising eyebrows. But I cannot: there is no ofada here. (Or is there?)

Just as soon as I possibly can, I am going to swoop into a lowly canteen (or Henrietta's kitchen) and place my order for this thing of delight. Like manna to the desert-roaming Israelites is my ofada to me. If you chance upon me on this occasion, I beg you, ignore the palm oil running down my chin. I will have been oblivious to it, not caring in that moment what class of person I am, just that I relish what I am doing.


geisha said...

...and all the old posts are back too! yay!!!! *bbm dancing smiley*

Myne Whitman said...

And now you have me craving some ofada too. I love pomo soft and spicy so if ofada has it, why not?

ps, I wonder why people do not like to be called Bota?

kulutempa said...

nobody said anything about soft pomo, ms. whitman! how many nigerians do you know with the patience to cook pomo until it is soft enough to slurp?

AlooFar said...

hahaha "Pako Hall of Fame"

This writing is so fluid.

kulutempa said...

oh, whitman: i think - and i can only speak for myself - the desire to separate oneself from the botas is a desire to separate oneself from the ostentatious, sometimes greedy wealth that we display in nigeria, in the face of all that murky, grimy, cruel poverty. i also think it's over-compensatory, the same way white people in america feel 'guilty' about slavery. it's not necessary, but i just want, sometimes, to say that i haven't lived a fairytale. and sometimes, that response comes out as, "ah no be bota."

9jaFOODie said...

o waooo.... all I want right now is OFADA rICE! tHANKS TO U. GEEZZ..EXCELLENT WRITE up!

mj said...

wow..this subject made me hungry..Excellent post and pictures as usual...more picture please..

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Anonymous said...

Can you post more articles about Nigerian food?

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banwait said...

I am also crazy about different kinds of food