The Day I Made Jollof

I didn’t consider my inability to cook as a big deal until life’s circumstances forced me to live apart from family and friends for a long period of time. Though I love to consume good and well-prepared food, I disliked the art of cooking. The dislike stemmed from my utter misuse of utensils and misapplication of spices. I am impatient with the accuracy that cooking deserves.
On few occasions, to overcome what was becoming a fear induced dislike, I have had to cut a finger, or particles of pepper sprang into my eye while blending them or the cover of the hot pot burned my palm or hot water peeled my skin. There was always an unpleasant incident. When it came to the food itself, it was either there was too much pepper or salt or oil or water or too less of them. I never had a smooth deal in that Hades.
I recall making one unfortunate soup during my first year in the university. It was egusi soup, my favourite. On one of my visits back home for a brief holiday, I had coerced my mother into scribbling the recipe for egusi soup on paper for me. I had learnt from experience that it was more economical to cook your own food in the hostel than patronize the canteens. I lived off the main campus and as such was not affected by the school’s law that forbade students from cooking in their rooms or their hostels’ kitchens. They were asked to buy from canteens.
My mother did, but not without some caricatures that served as her pay back for the days I refused to yield to her culinary classes before I left for the university. She had tried in those days to get me to learn how to make soups and stew, at least, but I was not having it, in my juvenile stubbornness I never imagined a day of reckoning would come about quickly.
Upon my return to my lodge, I pasted the recipe on the wall in my kitchen. Basking in the euphoria of one who has put an end to a big burden, I decided immediately to make egusi soup with the fresh condiments my mother had forced me to carry with me. But I was to learn some home truths that cooking required a great deal of artistry, patience, and common sense.
It happened that I sheepishly followed the instructions on the recipe without taking into cognizance, the appropriate time for each condiment to go into the pot. I had packed everything at once into the pot and within few minutes, I thought it was done. Pot down, the soup resembled a war front: jagged, disjointed and rowdy. The meat sank at the bottom, the vegetable on the left, the spices hid on the right, oil and water floated at the top. I managed to eat it. After all, one who was rejected does not reject himself. But I didn’t enjoy the food either. It tasted bland and peppery like a warm salad sprinkled with oil and pepper. I prayed that no visitor would show up and request to eat the soup; that would be an embarrassment taken too far. Thankfully, it went sour the next morning. According to my neighbour who was having a good laugh as I tortured his ribs with my culinary gist, I should not have closed it while it was still hot. “Thank God say I manage chop small that yesterday,” I said to him in pidgin as he roared with more laughter. I salvaged the meat from the stinking pot, rinsed and had them for breakfast and got rid of the soup of disgrace. I vowed not to inform my mother.
On the day I made jollof, I didn’t bargain for it. Two of my friends, Ifeanyi and Ibeto, had visited me and began whining about hunger the moment they stepped into my one room apartment. They had come for the return leg of the match we played over six wraps of fufu and a plate of nsala soup in their shared apartment yesterday. I beat two of them by finishing my two portions of the fufu in three minutes and my trophy was the largest chunk of meat in the soup. They had come for their pound of flesh. It was an unwritten code of survival among the three of us, to host one another on rotational basis, ever since we became allies towards the last lap of our undergraduate programme.
I too was hungry but was planning to eat out until they came. Taking them along would amount to thrice the budget I had. I remembered again that food made at home would always be cheaper and bigger than the one gotten from a restaurant. Armed with this knowledge, I encouraged myself to try cooking again. After the incident with the egusi soup, I never attempted to try out my hands on cooking again, save for boiling water to make eba for the soup someone else must have cooked for me or when I ran out of options and had to make a quick noodle or pap, which unlike many people, I could make very well.
I excused myself, went out on the streets, purchased few condiments, and returned to assemble them for the cooking. There were shrubs of nchu anwu leaves at the back of my flat. When shredded, it served as vegetable and produced a minty aroma that added flavour to the food’s taste. I plucked them for use. I scooped out some handful of rice from the almost-full bag in my kitchen which I rarely cooked and set the pot on fire to parboil it. With a rare deal of patience, I began the mathematics of assembling what should go in at a given time– vegetable oil, onion, tomato paste, salt, pepper, chicken spice, grinded crayfish, fish and the nchu anwu leaves, more water, etc.
My friends came into the kitchen and gave me a dried, brown leaves contained in a sealed but transparent cellophane. They asked that I added it to the cooking. That it would make the jollof sweeter. I examined it.
“This is weed, Igbo” I blurted.
“No, it is just a medicinal herb,” Ibeto tried to convince me.
“No be me una go deceive, I no de smoke am but na Igbo be this.” I always had to resort to pidgin English to buttress a point. They began to laugh, a knowing laugh; I had caught them.
“A day begins a story, moreover, it is just this once.” Ifeanyi said.
“I didn’t know you guys smoked, abeg I no wan join una.” I replied.
“Guy no de jonse. We no de smoke, we jus wan see as e go be for food.” Ibeto retorted.
“Why e come be say na for my house una wan test am? Why e be say na today of all days? This particular cooking, abeg na who send una? I queried.
“Guy comot for road make I put am by myself.” Ifeanyi said and thundered his way to the pot, tore the pack and emptied it into the bubbling pot. I looked on with mouth agape.
“I no wan high o. na rice I say make we chop o!” I cried
“If we perish, we perish.” Ibeto remarked amid a mouthful of restrained laughter.
“Na una go perish. God know say my hand no follow.” I fired back.
“Guy relax. Nothing will happen.” Ifeanyi assured.
“Ok oo.” I noted and made to check the food. Ibeto advised that I allow it to burn a little, to give it that distinct Nigerian party jollof taste. I did as he suggested.
A few moments later, a pot of colourful jollof was staring us in the face, puffing hot smoke, accompanied by a sweet aroma, a strong aroma. I scooped a spoonful, blew air into it, had a taste, I liked it. I passed the spoon to my two friends who nodded in approval – it tasted good. I was ecstatic. I couldn’t believe I just won my first official battle in the kitchen.
“Choi! Igbo Rice!” Ifeanyi exclaimed, sniffing aloud like a cocaine addict.
“Weed Jollof!” Ibeto added and gave out a subdued laughter.
To celebrate my victory, to usher me into the hall of fame of chefs, my friends pieced cash together and I ran out to get a bottle of wine; Escudo Rojo – my favourite, because of its smooth blend in the tongue and the subtle, respectful manner with which it made one drunk.
“Chei! Dorime! I exclaimed with delight as I walked into the room, carrying the bottle of wine on my head in the characteristic way Nigerian fraudsters celebrated their victories in night clubs. Ibeto had already dished the entire pot in a porcelain plate. The room was filled with the sweet, strong aroma. I set down the wine and went to the kitchen to fetch three plastic toast cups and a wine opener. Ifeanyi and Ibeto positioned themselves on the floor, leaving a space for me so the plate of food was in the centre, I sat down, and we resembled wizards about to make an ablution.
As we shovelled the jollof into our mouths, we drank the wine alongside. The clink-clanks of our spoons against the plate and the gritting of teeth as we chewed noisly, animated the hot afternoon feasting. Amid burps and belches, we took turns throwing jokes at intervals, mostly about the food, about the pepper and the hotness, about the sweats that broke on our fore-heads and necks, about our nostrils that are now runny like lazy taps and about what the weed and wine would do to us shortly.

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