Yesterday evening Clem and I entertained eight guests for a Nigerian dinner in our home. I had offered the dinner as an auction item in the Gala Auction held at our Unitarian Church. Cheryl and her husband David were the winning bidders.
Cheryl put together a delightful group to share the dinner. It included their son Brodie and his girlfriend Jenny; they had met as PC volunteers in Kazakhstan five years ago. Rachel, daughter of my friend and Chamber Choir colleague, and her husband who is from Venezuela, were here. (Debbie told me this morning she was the babysitter last night when Rachel and her husband were here.) Rachel and Brodie were in the church youth group together. Bob and Candace were well-loved Youth Group Advisers at the time, so Cheryl invited them too.
When everyone was here and had a drink in hand – beer or Malt for the younger set, wine for the rest of us – I asked everyone to gather in the living room. I brought out an oval wooden bowl of kola nuts, about the size of walnuts, and alligator pepper.
Clem explained that serving kola is a required custom for guests in an Igbo home. He said he hoped our guests would try it, even though it is quite bitter. He opened one of the pepper pods to reveal the small seeds which one can pick up and eat with the kola. The kola itself grows in a pod eight or nine inches long, though we didn’t have one to show.
I asked him to say a few phrases in Igbo. He welcomed our guests with, “Nno, ndi biara be anyi. Welcome, you who have come to our home.”
Then he offered two proverbs about kola. I love both. The first, “Onye wetere kola wetere ndu. He who brings kola brings life,” seems to mean that hospitality and sharing are critically important aspects of Igbo life. This is so true.
The other one appears on the dedication page of my memoir: “Oji luo uno okwuo ebe osi bia. When the kola nut reaches home, it will tell where it came from.” It is customary for the host to give a kola nut to his guest to take home. Thus when he arrives at home with the kola, he will explain where he went!
So Clem gave David one of the kola nuts. Then he cut two or three of the nuts into pieces, and again as custom dictates, asked the youngest person present – it turned out to be Rachel, I think – to pass the kola and pepper to all the guests. They did sample it and agreed that it wasn’t very tasty. One or two bravely tried the pepper. It was hot.
I told our friends about one of my earliest experiences with kola, when I was given it at the home of Clem’s parents before I knew we were getting married. Here’s a segment from my memoir telling the story.
I served appetizers and chin-chin, a favorite Nigerian snack made of fried dough while we talked.
Then I put the main food on the dining room table and invited our guests to seat themselves.
I explained that the pounded yam, on the large white platter, is not yam as we know it in the U.S., but a large white root, boiled and then pounded to a consistency similar to mashed potatoes. It was presented in serving sizes, though some couples split a single serving.
I showed our guests how I eat pounded yam and soup – with my hand! I take a piece of the yam and use it to scoop the soup.
“Egusi soup,” I said, “is made with palm oil as a base, onions, ground melon seed, a kind of spinach, and other flavorings. It can be made with meat or chicken, but in this soup we have goat meat.”
I also served jollof rice, similar to Spanish rice. You can see it in the large serving dish in front of Clem. Fried plantain was an accompaniment to the rice.
Everyone enjoyed the food. Conversation was lively as we talked about professions, travels, Peace Corps experiences, Clem’s book on economics and my memoir, and families.
The talk became even more spirited as it often does when Clem, ever the faithful Anglican, confronts Unitarians on their unorthodox beliefs, or lack thereof. You can see him looking puzzled as Cheryl explains that Unitarians don’t subscribe to a single creed but encourage individuals to explore their beliefs.
Cheryl had asked whether she could bring something. I told her that dessert is not a usual part of a Nigerian meal and I was only planning to serve cookies. So she brought a wonderfully delicious chocolate mousse cake.
Clem invited our guests to take food home. He said it is the usual practice for a host to give remaining food to the guests. I didn’t remember this; I only remember feeling a little embarrassed when his mother would pack food into her bag before leaving an event!
Still, I was pleased that two guests took home rice and plantain.
What food from a culture not your own do you like?
What customs do you have about serving guests?
Today’s New York Times Sunday Review had an opinion piece from Chimamanda Adichie. She gives a clear and compelling picture of the state of electricity in Nigeria and the frustrations brought about by the lack of power.