I recall my mouth drooling at the prospect of digging into a plate of abacha (a meal made from cassava that had been cooked, thinly sliced, thoroughly washed with water to remove the cyanide and then sun-dried) anytime I am in the city of Enugu, south east Nigeria.
Abacha is indigenous to the Igbo speaking part of southeastern Nigeria and, like most foods eaten in different localities, is prepared differently by different communities. My maternal hometown is about 20 kilometres from my paternal hometown, but while abacha is prepared without heat in my hometown, in my mother’s hometown heat is essential.
In my hometown, potash is essential in the preparation while in my maternal home potash is not an ingredient. Thus, what you have are two distinctively different varieties of abacha (also called African salad in Nigeria—a name I consider to stem from acute colonial mentality: that tendency to replace ethnic names with western, usually English, variants even though that only leads to confusion). I must add here that there are other ways of preparing of abacha that involves effectively blending the two methods I mentioned above.
When you consider the above and delve into the whole Jamie Oliver jollof rice debate, you would understand the flaw in much of the arguments against Oliver adding ‘his twist’ to jollof. The point here is that there is no one way of cooking the most staple of our foods and even where we claim ownership, and we have a right to, we have to acknowledge this fact.
This is not to say that Jamie is right, far from it. Jamie Oliver’s creation – which I must admit looks a thousand times better than the white-washed ‘jollof’ that Tesco served up earlier – suffers from a syndrome that has come to reflect the West’s attitude to Africa and Africans: acute disrespect.
So let’s say Jamie was doing a Japanese dish and wanted to put his swing to it, he definitely wouldn’t reinvent the whole thing like he did with Jolof. He would first do some real research, not the Wiki-thingy he did with the Wolof of Senegal, and speak to some Japanese people, maybe even grandmothers who are noted for their finger-licking cooking – and get all the right recipes. Jamie might even travel to Japan, to see the hills, valleys and tummies that inspired the dish, and when he finally gets down to his interpretation, he would most probably say ‘The people of Osaka use lamb and cucumber for sushi but I will be using pork and egg plant for mine’. What this does is that it shows respect for the original recipe and militates against the palpable fear that when the world finally discovers the tongue curling beauty of jollof, it would be Jamie Oliver’s version they would take as the benchmark or root (I refuse to talk about Tesco’s insulting attempt).
The importance of respecting other people’s culture and tradition, which I think food exemplifies very well, can never be over-emphasised and I think a chef of Jamie Oliver’s quality understands this. That’s why when he talks about chicken tikka masala he knows enough to present it in what looks like an authentic traditional Indian setting (wire mesh, open charcoal fires and all). The thing he needs to learn is to accord the same type of respect to Sub-Saharan African cuisine.
The response to Jamie Oliver’s jollof came late, but this counts for nothing in a world governed by trends, and in the end he was forced to respond.
The reinventing of jollof’s ingredients, the main issue people here had with his attempt, is not a cross that Jamie alone bears. Still up in BBC Good Food is the jollof recipe that includes okra (yes, okwuru, as my ancestors originally called it). I refuse to comment on that one-o.
After all is said and done, I like that we are speaking out and are now using our connection to the net to do more than make fun of our accents and skin shades. The only way to get respect is to totally own your heritage and stand up to correct any attempt to distort it.
The battle is not yet won and the journey to winning it has only just begun. Did somebody not tell me some months ago that one of the biggest port cities in Nigeria is named after an English paedophile?