African Salads: Not an oxymoron.

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.

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11 Responses to African Salads: Not an oxymoron.

  1. Oyinade says:

    As always very insightful. I almost tumbled over reading the Zik comment. It is so true despite the many years in this culture, my taste buds have not acclamatized to the delicacy of salads. Even with the myraid options as listed (cosi and co), they have not been successful in creating that satisfaction that comes from eating some hot egusi soup filled with all kinds of herbal greens and mind-blowing proteins. In any case, I will embrace the new concept to mix it all in. Who says chicken/ fish stew can’t be a salad dressing. Any tips on doing this on a student’s budget :)

    • ThatchRoom says:

      Thanks Oyinade! Glad you appreciated the joke, I had the same reaction when I heard it for the first time – especially since I heard it told with all the trappings of a heavy Igbo accent (whcih of course I can’t convey in writing and might not want to actually). But I’m sure you can imagine. Thanks for reading and yeah, a salad really is whatever you want it to be.

  2. I have always considered the staple meals from my part of Africa to be heavily dosed with vegetables, howbeit, mostly thoroughly cooked to kill of all the vitamins. But these days we have gotten wiser into scarcely cooking the leaves or we simply reverse the order of inserting the ingredients into the pot; making the vegetables last so as to retain some level of freshness.

    However, as you have mentioned countless varieties of food offerings that expands our range of “salads”, I heavily subscribe to the movement that is becoming more creative in how we prepare our meals. I remember spending sometime in the kitchen of a Kenyan woman as she taught me some meal of beans eaten with raw paste made from onions and some other spices (totally forgotten the name now). As unpalatable as it tasted to me then, I knew that it was a matter of time before my taste buds will mature to enjoy the heavy nutritional content. Nevertheless, I still do appreciate such African meals that seek to retain the freshness and nutritional content of the condiments without cooking the life outta them ;)

    Great article Mama!

    • ThatchRoom says:

      Thanks Reggie. Just like you, i am pleased to see Africans developing enough pride in our food to present it beautifully to outside audiences… at the same time I think we need to tread very carefully the fine line between beautification and authencitity. I’ve seen way too many “fusion” restaurants that have absolutely nothing to do with African food. We can be creative without losing authenticity. But anyway, if you do remember the name of that kenyan meal – if its not Njahi – please send me a note.

  3. David Blum says:

    “Eww Snails”
    But as I write that and thinking about comfort food, a lot of different cultures have different cuisines that become an Ick factor for those outside.

    Examples of what I can think of are :
    -Thais and Laotians love this fruit called the Durian. It apparently smells like a combination of rotting flesh, feces, and burnt hair, but has a texture akin to a thick custard.
    – French people love different kinds of cheeses, some say the moldier the better.
    -And for my own culture, we love our cured meats.

    We just have to get out of our comfort zone sometimes.

    • ThatchRoom says:

      I absolutely agree David.. but its just sooooo hard. Especially when that comfort zone involves really sumptious stuff like… let’s see.. yeah snails.. yum yum yum. I mean the Durian will just have to take a permanent backseat LOL. See how hard it is?

  4. Abdul Akande says:

    Very well said. There are many reasons why Africans don’t eat raw vegetables – one of them being simple hygiene. Most wouldn’t touch food that comes from a questionable source: did they wash it properly? where did they get their water from? there hasn’t been light for the past week – where did they store it? etc….

    That said, we Africans need to get past our fear of a good, tasty and creative salad. I used to be one of those who scoffed at salads until I saw a French friend make a miraculous salad years ago. Now I’m a happy salad eater, and I even make my own special salad dressing.
    But make I no front, I pity the person who serves me a salad only. If there’s no shaki or brokoto to complement the food, the universe will not be at ease, at all….

    By the way, I don’t advise my fellow Muslims to read this article until after sunset…I’m now paying the price for reading about all those scrumptious dishes. Kai!

    • ThatchRoom says:

      Thanks Abdul! Would be great to get a recipe for one of those salad dressings you talked about!! I must admit, that’s one area I’m still very shaky on.. one of these days I’ll stop studying the finer points of Gbegiri and start experimenting with salad dressings. :)

  5. Geeta says:

    This is a wonderful read, though I’d love to know the translation of the joke in the beginning. I agree with another commenter that many people from the tropics are suspicious of salads because of hygiene. Even as a vegetarian from India, it’s rare to eat raw vegetables.

    A request – could you please post a recipe for your delicious groundnut sauce? Thanks!

    • ThatchRoom says:

      Hello Geeta. Yep sure. Recipe on the way. As for the joke, it basically means Ozumba expected the salad to be cooked i.e. is unfamiliar with the concept of eating raw greens – hence his complaint to Zik his friend that his food was not “done” i.e. cooked through. Sorry, pidgin English can be tough on the un-initiated ear. Thanks for reading :)

  6. 9jaFOODie says:

    Very insightful right up, definitely an interesting read.
    the new generation might be more inclined to experiment with raw food, and as people get more health conscious there might be better acceptance of the raw greens. Traditional African food might be high in protein, carbohydrate and fat, but if you think of the energy expended trying to gather/cook the food, the end justifies the means. That is why traditional local Africans don’t have a high rate of obesity, with modern agriculture and mega industrialization however, the story is changing.

    On a lighter note, you will never get my grandma to touch green salad with a stick, talk less of eat it. lol.

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