The challenge is not only to create an honest Nigerian condiment, but to give it a name as memorable and as resonant as the South African “Chakalaka” or Ghanaian “Shitor.” A condiment, like a kiss, is not a necessity, but no one can dispute its ability to make things that much more interesting. A condiment helps to cover up a meal’s flaws and if there are none, reiterate the meal’s perfection. Some of my favourites are the Italian green pesto, cucumber and mint raita and whole grain mustard.
There is an underground conjecture among Nigerians that kissing, that pressing of lips that is ubiquitous in Hollywood movies and in neurotic French films, is not culturally comfortable for Nigerians, one main reason being because our great grandparents and grandparents did not find it proper or necessary or savoury to engage in it. That it was in fact such an aberration, even the suggestion of it could warrant the regurgitation of one’s food.
I am of course a food columnist and not a cultural anthropologist, neither is it my place to press on Nollywood as our indigenous purveyor of popular culture to give us a respectable glossy representation of the manipulation of lips that is easy on the eyes, alluring to the contemporary Nigerian and a possible compromise for our bewildered ancestors.
I can do my bit by creating a condiment like a kiss. Like how I imagine a well engineered Nollywood kiss would be.
Naturally, it should be fiery, fresh, aromatic, spicy with just a hint of pungency. Provoking the puckering of lips, the sucking in of air and blowing out again to cool the heat. Causing some degree of perspiration and unforgettable for at least a couple of hours afterwards!
It must never overwhelm the meal.
These are my ingredients of choice: A bland oil for frying; some slithers of onion, two whole anise, three erimado (njangsang), three green cardamoms, one bay leaf and three to four whole dried yellow Cameroonian peppers.
Also handfuls of three kinds of local herbs: The delicate sweet smelling curry leaf (very much like a cross between basil and mint) with its stalks, seeds and miniature pale orange flowers; Ntong, the more common mint with its big bawdy earthy smell of newly cut grass; and the large leathery “hot leaf” belonging to the bush pepper also known as the black pepper vine. The three herbs are blended with one clove of garlic and some fresh ginger root. I use all the parts of the curry leaf otherwise, it will never stand up to the Ntong.
Someone might protest that my peppers are not even Nigerian. I make no apologies. I have not yet met the pepper that can be compared, that is as beautifully aromatic as the Cameroonian scotch bonnet. It is head and shoulders above every hot pepper under the sun. Even when it is dried, the vibrant yellow turns into a mouth watering burnt orange, so appealing to the eye that if one won’t eat it, one might as well frame it and hang it on the wall. The smell is indescribable. My last word on this is that it suffices that Nigeria and Cameroon share many “informal border” towns that are melting pots of food and culture.
My slithers of onion are fried in two to three table spoons of oil until translucent. My anise, erimado, shelled cardamoms; bay leaf and Cameroonian peppers are put in a dry mill and finely ground. The mixture is added to my frying onions with a bold pinch of salt, stirring all the time. My blended herbs are added last and the heat turned off immediately. The cooking is ceremonial really. If one overcooks the mixture, then the careful balance of all those wonderful aromatics in the herbs are lost. The mixture is left to cool (which it never really does because it is so very hot). My favourite way of eating this condiment is with white rice, the more local the better; and smoked fish.
The fish can only come from “Mumsie” in Marian market in Calabar, who smokes her fish with firewood from the mango tree. This fish smells like dusk, like edible dark soil and sea air, and smoky fires on unusually cold evenings. It is so perfectly smoked that its texture is almost fibrous. It crumbles under pressure from fingers, and in soup it becomes delicious salty dumplings.
The Nollywood kiss is really best eaten over the next couple of hours but can probably do a day or two in the fridge. The oil and peppers should keep it decent but the freshness of the herbs is what I like most about it.