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Through the palm-oil layer

Decades after leaving Nigeria, Marion Coutts still likes to conjure up its national dish

Marion Coutts | January/February 2015

I am not Nigerian. Nor was I ever. But I was born there. One Saturday, four of us spend an afternoon in Brixton market shopping for the ingredients to cook egusi, the soup that is Nigeria’s national dish. The shopping is easy, as all the ingredients are available within ten minutes of my house: melon seeds, crushed shrimp, palm oil, chilli, thyme, curry powder, red onions, chopped tomatoes, pepper, collard greens, stockfish, boiler chicken and oxtail.

For the vegetables and spices we go to the Nour, a local cash-and-carry that specialises in Caribbean and African food and much besides. The place is like an ark. Foodstuffs come in not so much two by two, as 12 by 12. It has 1.5 running metres of pickle stacked five deep, and people linger at the spice row like a perfume counter.

Egusi goes well with creamed rice, but in the shop I choose garri, a flour made from cassava which I remember with pleasure from childhood. With the garri we will make foofoo balls.

An early metaphor: The author (right) and her brother (middle) in Lagos, 1967. The rabbit on the left is their friend Timothy

I have few memories of Nigeria. I was born in Eket, a place that wasn’t much of a place; it sits on the Kwa Ibo river, tucked into the armpit of Africa at the fold where it heads south. My memories hang on food and flowers, and one of the strongest sensations was of squatting on a concrete floor around a shared bowl of garri and egusi.

The structure of garri when boiled is memorable. It is like a very thick, grainy wallpaper paste and its smell is distinctive. You eat it with your hands, taking a small piece of the sticky dough that adheres so beautifully to itself and rolling it into an oily ball between your palms, to make a neat dumpling that you can swallow whole. This was before I encountered Plasticine. You dunk the ball into the soup through a topmost layer of vivid orange palm oil, into the swamp-green leaves of whatever else I didn’t know then lay below. Going through the palm-oil layer with the foofoo ball into the hot, dark taste beneath was an early metaphor of moving from one register of being to another. It was a phenomenon: my first food experience.

Much later, my father gave me a book of Yoruba stories illustrated with elegant woodcuts, white on a black ground. We used to read them at bedtime and my favourite was “The Palm-Oil Daughter”. In it, a childless woman magics a beautiful girl-child out of palm oil and then puts her to work. The woman doesn’t want a daughter, she wants a slave, and it ends badly in a puddle of orange oil, found too close to the fire. This rang true. Palm oil is so intense, so luminescent that it seemed solar, and you could imagine that it was capable of autogenesis. (The Nour has a section devoted to palm oil, with jars lined up like bottled fireballs.)

After two years we moved to Lagos, where I started nursery school. The flowers were the ones that grew around the balcony of our flat: hibiscus, or maybe bougainvillea, with giant pink and red blooms against waxy leaves that poked through the balustrade. It made a decorated cage, probably very small but then so was I.

Egusi is an incredible concoction. Because in Brixton we are novices, we use every pan in the house and it takes hours to make. What emerges is a fantastical dish. Smells of poultry, fish and meat embroil in the kitchen like a game of Exquisite Corpses, generating a whole new beast, robust and alive. Having summoned the beast, by nine o’clock all four of us are sitting round the table in amazement to eat it.

On the side, we have boiled okra, but we don’t know the right way to do it, or perhaps—even more terrible—this is the right way. The okra gives out a whitish spume that doubles its bulk in translucent slime. It is the ectoplasm of the devil and no one can touch it.

We were too timid when adding the palm oil to the egusi and did not achieve the chemical mystery of green heat under orange that I remember. But my tongue is newly stung, and the smell of the chimera lingers in the house for days.

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