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!

Lawal of Alpha Bless Cafe with the special Nigerian goat stew, "Obe Ogufi"

In Otunba’s and also in Lawal’s cafés, their bass voices rise to their natural heights. Their conversations take on a full-bodied lyrical quality, as if the vocal tones have been suppressed, rising up to a final melodic release.

“When we talk, Malaysians tend to think we are having an argument. Sometimes they get worried and the police are called. But that is how we talk,” says Otunba. (Ed: It may have a similar effect as with certain Chinese dialects, such as the harsh staccato accents of Hokkien)

Nonetheless, to accommodate this local response, when walking among Malaysians, Otunba and many of his friends consciously lower their voices.

The local media goes into a frenzy when a stretch of street becomes an African hangout. There’s an air of disapproval when Africans are seen to be lepaking on our streets.

Thus, Alpha Bless Cafe and Home in Abroad are welcome refuge for them to be themselves. Television screens are constantly filled with Nigerian movies and music videos  and news from across the African continent is regularly shared.

But the fear of a clampdown is always at the back of their minds says a long-time African resident who wanted to be known only as Michael.

“Every African business remembers a restaurant in Cheras that was shut down a few years ago. It was popular with the community. Then a television crew secretly filmed the restaurant and the people there. It looked negative and they were soon raided. The case is still in court,” says Michael.

But these all seem to be of minor inconvenience to Lawal and Otunba. They don’t so much as complain or gripe but express a sense of sadness about Malaysian attitudes. Having invested in a business in Malaysia, both have a stake in seeing their adopted land do well.

“Malaysians can really benefit from understanding Africans,” says Otunba, while Lawal feels that the racism has closed minds to opportunities to prosper from and with Africans.

These opportunities are enormous and mutually beneficial. The growth of such eateries will not only add more flavours to the already vibrant repertoire of local flavours, but would also encourage other industries in trade and agriculture such as local goat rearing in Malaysia and the import of spices from across the African continent.

The potential for cross-pollination between Malaysian and African food is enormous since the *tastes and meal structures are recognisable. Similar to Peranakan and Mamak cuisines, which were born and evolved as migrant communities planted roots and flourished in Malaysia – the fusion of Malaysian and African cuisine should be something to look forward to in the future.


*In Awesome Sauce next month, Jerome Kugan puts his taste buds to the test, experimenting with sauces of Nigerian, Iranian and Congolese origin.

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