African Salads: Not an oxymoron.
September 1, 2010 11 Comments
A popular Nigerian joke goes: President Nnamdi Azikiwe and Ozumba Mbadiwe attended a stately dinner in Europe whereupon they were served the first course (a salad, naturally) and all proceeded to eat – except Ozumba. After looking around bewildered, tossing the leaves, first this way and then that way, he finally tapped his friend in a panic: “Zik, dem cook ya own? My own no done oo!”.
Of all the things we Africans are accused of, being a people of salads is not one of them. We are a fiercely carnivorous lot it seems. Bring on the suya please, the kebab, the isi-ewu, the nyama-choma, the Nkwobi, the kilitshi, the dambunama, the asun, the tinko eran.. and the list goes on. When we are not delicately braiding cow intestines for peppersoup, we are chewing and sucking on chicken bone marrows. We romanticize our meat, christening animal body parts with the same vivid imagination, sense of humor and attention to detail that makes us oh so African. Names such as roundabout (for tail skin), abodi (translated to “the plate of the behind”) and Yar’Adua (for snail, but you didn’t see it here) are but a few examples. We can even boast of a “meat sushi” of sorts, courtesy of traditional Ethiopians and their storied plates of raw, bleeding beef helped down with crazy-hot berbere.
Perhaps there’s something about rearing your own cattle, goat and rabbit – as we’ve done for generations – and watching them munch half-heartedly on grass all day – the idea of raw greens is yet to grip the African culinary imagination to quite the same degree as elsewhere. Even when we bother to eat them, they absolutely must be drenched in fatty mayo/salad cream – nothing more or less than the Heinz variety of course (musn’t forget our colonial roots).
In truth, the traditional African diet is basically vegetarian since whatever animal survived the ravages of the tse-tse fly, more often than not, out-ran the traditional hunter and his tools. Modern Africa, armed with animal husbandry, bigger economies and improved technology, has like other transitioning societies, chosen to gorge on the meats. Granted, vegetables are more commonly cooked than eaten raw; but with the myriad vegetables on offer, all it takes to whip up a healthy, nutritious and interesting African salad is a little imagination. Really.
Consider the traditional salad from eastern Nigeria called Abacha. As with most African foods, recipes vary wildly but generally, a “dressing” is first made by dissolving potash (a multi-purpose seasoning, thickener, tenderizer etcetera made from wood ash) in a little palmoil, ground African nutmeg, ogiri (fermented melon seed paste) and water until it reaches a uniform consistency. The emulsion is then poured over soaked, drained, sliced dried cassava strips and you have yourself a base to which you can then add all or some of: ugba (sliced oil bean seed), ground pepper, crayfish, sliced garden eggs, garden egg leaves, uziza leaves, utazi leaves, boiled stockfish, smoked fish and even beans. No need to tally up the nutrient count there – its obvious.
On days Abacha isn’t up your alley, a northern Nigerian salad described to me by a friend from Sokoto state mixes sliced raw garden eggs, fresh sorrell leaves, onions, tomatoes, sprinklings of dambunama (optional) and crumbled kulikuli (essentially peanuts ground and fried in its own oil) topped with a drizzle of peanut oil & Yaji (traditional northern Nigerian spice blend). The result is simply delicious.
The Akans, in my opinion are at the forefront of the African traditional raw movement with their penchant for simply grinding up vegetables for use as sauces – example: the raw pepper, tomato and onion blend frequently eaten with Kenkey and fish or Nkatie Abom, a personal favorite – an asanka-load of peanuts, koobi (salted Tilapia), parboiled eggplants or cocoyam leaves, a little palm oil, pepper and onions – just delicious with boiled yam or ampesi.
There is so much vegetable “raw material”, the permutations are endless. As part deux to the compact tomato, bean, fonio (acha) and carrot salad that was my dinner a few days ago (pictured above), I’ve been mulling a mixed green salad tossed with chunks of peppered snail and garnished with grated coconut – completely random but that’s the point! Go nuts, chop it, shred it, mix it up. Experiment with the tastes, flavors and textures traditional African cuisine has to offer and you might get arrested trying to get all your money back from Cosi / Mix’t Greens / CPK / Chop’t / “INSERT FAVORITE SALAD JOINT HERE”. Either way, forget the naysayers…say hello to the raw food movement in Africa.