Tasting Notes From Nigeria's Spice Train

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Nigeria and Malaysia share the same tropical climate; we also do share similar food customs: rice and millet is the basic daily staple, food is traditionally eaten by hand (but it is considered rude and impolite to eat with the left), its cuisine is based around a few staple foods accompanied by a stew, home made remedies and medicine from traditional herbs are still commonly consumed. There are certain food taboos, as outlined in the Macmillan encyclopedia Country and Their Cultures: pork is generally avoided nationwide, as most of its population are Muslim.

Certain grains, like rice and tubers are used as a base in its cuisine, seasoned, grounded and pounded into powder or kneaded into dough. As with the rest of West Africa, Nigerians also consume dairy products from sheep, goat and camels. Sheridan Mahavera shares these photos from his brief culinary tour. His verdict: it's spicy!

For someone who believes that anyone in the world would fall in love with Malaysian food, Sheridan Mahavera found it a bit galling when someone claimed that our fare is in some way deficient.

Gulai Kawah ala Nigeria, versi kambing: Obe Ogufi

…And yet, that’s what the chefs of the more well known African restaurants in the Klang Valley say. Malaysians, apparently, put way more sugar in our food than we think.

“African food does not have sugar”, says Lawal Abdul Raheem, the owner of Alpha Bless Cafe in Bandar Puteri Puchong. A few days later, in “Home in Abroad”, a different restaurant in Subang Jaya, Oladayo O Adegeye (or Otunba as he is known to family and friends) says exactly the same thing.

In retrospect, this isn’t all that strange. Malays who’ve been brought up in the Northern states of Kedah and Penang find that Kelantanese food is too sweet. And for some Northerners who venture just a little bit further past the border, Southern Thai food is completely unpalatable.

It partly explains the popularity of Lawal’s and Otunba’s eateries amongst the local African community. In Bandar Puteri Puchong alone, there are about five of them serving a community close to two thousand.

Behind their no-frills, unassuming façade, business is brisk even as prices for main courses start from RM30 a plate.

The relatively high prices are mainly due to the cost involved importing basic ingredients such as rice, yams and assorted spices. For instance, Malaysian curry powder does not contain the thyme, lemongrass and other herbs found in African curry powder, while local yams and tapioca do not have the same texture.

The only consistently local ingredients featured in dishes served are the meats. Mutton is the most common, followed by beef and chicken. Fish is usually a type of mackerel that is dried and brought in from Thailand.

Yet for all the imported stuff, an African kitchen looks just like a Malaysian one.

At Alpha Bless Cafe, a wok the size of a baby’s bathtub sits precariously over a hob on full blast. Mutton and oil bubble and pop in a fiery stew, making both the mouth and eyes water. Stirring such a dish could cause the hair on your forearms to burn.

Towers of pots are stacked on counters, revealing their contents of sauces, rice and beans as waiters ladle them out on to plates when an order comes through.

A typical meal is made up of a meat dish and a “grain dish” which is either basmati rice (specifically, cap ‘Elephant’), pounded yam or cassava and semolina. The last three come in powder form and when mixed with water, are hand rolled into ball-like, bite-sized portions.

The spiciness of the meat dishes attests to the sugar-free method of African cooking. It bites the tongue while the heat grows in the mouth. There’s an underlying saltiness that demands the infusion of rice.

At Otunba’s bar and restaurant in USJ One, the meats are marinated in Nigerian curry powder and seasoning cubes before being grilled over charcoal. It gives them a wood-infused flavour and the fatty bits get burnt away. They are then cut into small pieces and stir-fried with chillies and onions.

Sampling the morsels of asun (grilled mutton) and suya (grilled beef) with toothpicks over beers as the sun goes down with the beat of African drums reverberating in the background is not just about eating a meal. It is a Nigerian daily routine, explains, Otunba. “It’s something we do while the sun and the heat goes down.”

Suya (grilled beef) at Otunba's. Check out the photo gallery for more.

A distinct difference in the Nigerian “ending the work day” experience is that beer is not consumed on its own. In Nigeria, beer is called a ‘refreshment’, and usually enjoyed as part of a meal at a roadside stall after work while waiting for beastly rush-hour traffic to calm down.

It is this experience that Otunba has strived to recreate for his fellow Nigerians in Malaysia by opening “Home in Abroad”. But there is an extra dimension to Otunba’s café: It also provides safe space for Africans in Malaysia to meet and share, a place to call their own, amidst the sometimes stifling and unwelcoming Malaysian public sphere.

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