I love wandering round markets, particularly food markets – it does not matter which country I find myself in, I almost always find time to visit a street market. I love the informality of the experience and looking at the ways in which they display their goods – each country seems to have its own style. Take for instance, Nigerians: we discovered recycling long before it became fashionable and part of the Green Agenda. Food for sale is measured out in ‘painters’ (old paint buckets); ‘derica’ (old tin cans) or ‘mudu’ (a bowl). All very pretty in a shabby chic sort of way, yet practical. A quick survey on Social media revealed a further array of names across the various regions; my favourite being ‘wo melo?’ (how many hands?).
This ‘re-purposing’ of items does not end with food measures: old tin containers are refashioned into cooking stoves; milk tins are reborn as kerosene-fuelled lamps; plastic and glass bottles are used to package groundnuts (peanuts), popcorn, yoghurt drinks and cooking oils.
When I first saw displays of vegetable and palm oils for sale in a market in the South of the country, I remarked how pretty they looked: glass bottles filled with liquids of various hues from the palest of golds to deep crimson. The rays of sunlight which had found chinks in the zinc roofs of the market stalls lit the bottles up like jewels.
They glistened with the promise of delicious meals to come; for many of our dishes start with a ladleful or two of oil – traditionally palm oil, groundnut or other seed and nut oils: coconut, egusi (pumpkin seed) or bene (sesame seed). These days, health concerns, rightly or wrongly are steering many people away from some of these locally-produced oils and towards more exotic and imported oils such as olive oil and hydrogenated vegetable oils. I believe that our traditional oils are to be celebrated, but more on that later.
Pretty as these oils in the recycled bottles are, I can’t help wondering where the bottles have come from – if they were properly sterilised before being refilled and what their previous contents were. Sometimes, the old labels ARE still legible enough – enough to make out what the bottles once contained – an old bottle of Johnnie Walker or a wine bottle.
As with most ingredients, it is best to buy the best that you can afford and to buy from vendors whom you trust – know where your food comes from is a mantra I cannot repeat often enough. When I do buy locally-produced oil (mostly palm oil), I depend on local knowledge to steer me towards trusted vendors. Horror stories abound of adulterated oils, all in the search for a quick buck. For the best palm oil, I am willing to put aside my ‘Western’ unease about the bottles they are sold in.
Speaking about palm oil, I find that many people think of it as an unhealthy oil when in fact it is up there as a healthy oil along with olive oil and coconut oil. As well as being a great source of antioxidants such as carotene and Vitamins E and K, it gives Nigerian food its distinctive taste and colour.
I have to say that I agree with him. It was not until I ate Edikang Ikong and Afang in Calabar that I realised what the fuss about these soups was. What I had eaten in the past was glorified vegetable soups. The secret Efik ingredient? Copious amounts of palm oil. As the lady that was teaching me how to make them said, “the palm oil is the water of the soup. You must use very little stock and plenty of oil”.
One of my favourite dishes is boiled or roasted yam with good quality palm oil, some dried pepper and local salt. Up the ante by gently sautéing finely chopped onions in some palm oil, add crayfish, salt and Cameroon pepper to taste, a handful or two of ugba and finish off with a sprinkle of scent leaf and uziza. Serve with boiled or roasted yam or plantain and maybe some grilled fish, if you like.