Oh this is a stunning, delicious feast of a book.
When it popped up on the short list for the prestigious André Simon Food and Drink Book Awards 2016, many food writers, even those with a keen radar for culinary literature and a rapacious appetite for it, had never heard of Nigerian author Yemisi Aribisala. Thank goodness the awards brought this mightily talented writer and her wonderful book Longthroat Memoirs
(it took out the John Avery prize) to our attention.
Through a series of stories told with a bold, quirky, warm and witty voice, Aribisala explores the relationships between food, sex and culture in Nigeria. The food, she admits, is an enigma to many of us. "While the rest of the world has gone on and on about their cuisines, we have remained mute, with our mouths full of food," she explains. Indeed, this is unknown culinary territory for me, so it was a joy for Aribisala to take me by the hand and lead me through the food markets, kitchens, ingredients, memories and gender politics that make up her epicurean world.
The pages sing with her clever, beautiful prose and sharp eye. In the chapter Longthroat Memoirs, she vividly recalls the food hawkers carrying basins on their heads as she watched them from her grandparents' balcony as a child. "The balancing of the weight was done with so much impossible grace that you watched the necks of the hawkers as they passed, wondering if they would not snap in two." She describes the "distant suggestion of onion" wafting from a pot of moin-moin being cooked (a kind of steamed bean pudding) and the loud clang of women's cooking pots that "immediately set everyone's salivary glands into overdrive". I read this on a Kindle and my pages are a rainbow of multi-coloured highlights marking out passages of her wickedly clever and often hilarious prose.
There are tantalising recipes, too, and droolworthy descriptions of vibrant soups and starchy stews. There are strange and exotic (to me) ingredients, like fermented locust beans, Aridan fruit, "magnificently aromatic hot-aniseedy Calabash nutmeg", fermented cassava tubers and alligator pepper with its "powerful zing of heat and sweet floral nasal notes that spread warmth into the stomach."
As Andre Simon food assessor Bee Wilson says, this book will make you yearn for okra soup and Nigerian stews. It's true: seek it out.
Published by Cassava Republic Press, £12.08