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The Flavor of Nigeria


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When we Midwesterners long for "home cooking," we're probably thinking meat loaf, burgers, mashed potatoes, apple pie.

Aderonke Kehinde (pronounced ah-der-RAHN-kee kuh-HIN-dee), who's lived thousands of miles from home the last few years, has a list like that -- with a few adjustments. Instead of meat loaf and burgers, she prefers fried chicken; for the potatoes, mashed yams; for the apple pie, fried plantains.

Nigerian jollof rice and fried plaintain
Caption: Aderonke Kehinde, shown here with her Roast Chicken, Jollof Rice and Fried Plantains, learned to cook by watching her mother.

Kehinde, along with her husband Modupe (moh-DOO-peh) and their 4-year-old daughter Ife (EE-feh), are from Ibadan, Nigeria, and are part of a sizable Nigerian community in Metro Detroit. The Kehindes have been living in Harper Woods for more than a year while Modupe completes a residency in internal medicine at nearby St. John Hospital. Before that, they lived in Britain for several years.

Aderonke Kehinde, who has a law degree, is trying to decide whether to take some required classes and sit for the Michigan bar exam. Meanwhile, she concentrates on raising Ife, and keeping the family heritage nourished with Nigerian comfort food.

If there are pangs of homesickness, though, they don't come often. The family is well adapted to Western customs "because we've been away so long," Kehinde says. Nigerians wouldn't be likely to go on about their feelings to casual acquaintances, anyway. Indeed, Kehinde says she's surprised how, "in the United States, people talk about their problems."

This day she couldn't look more American, however, as she pads around her small but efficient apartment kitchen in a loose shirt and denim skirt, feet clad in fuzzy blue socks. (She saves her beautiful Nigerian dresses and head wraps for parties or other special occasions.) She's preparing what might be a Sunday lunch in Nigeria.

The menu: Roast Chicken (a concession to American worries about high-fat foods; at home, she'd fry the bird); Jollof Rice, involving tomatoes, onions and spices; Fried Plantains, those "big bananas" you see in some markets (they're dry and not very sweet when raw, but delectable fried); and for dessert, Puff Puffs, spheres of lightly sugared fried dough that resemble doughnut holes.

In the way of experienced cooks, Kehinde measures by eye, having to pause and think when she's asked how much of something she's using. She learned to cook watching her mother, who insisted that her children -- five girls and a boy, with Kehinde the second -- be thoroughly trained in cooking and manners. "We had a very proper upbringing," Aderonke recalls.

Her lunch menu may not sound all that exotic, especially if you've eaten in the American South or the Caribbean. Nigeria is in West Africa, where most of the slave trade occurred, and West African cooking became the basis for New World cuisine wherever Africans settled.

It's a cuisine that relies heavily on meats (in Nigeria, that's often goat), chicken and fish along with legumes such as groundnuts (peanuts) and beans and starchy vegetables such as cassava, rice and yams. Green vegetables, especially okra and spinach (or other cooked greens), are also popular, as they are in our Southern cooking.

(African yams, incidentally, are distinct from American sweet potatoes, which are sometimes called yams. African yams are very large, pale-fleshed and barely sweet, and are not often seen in American markets.)

When Nigerians crave "home cooking," though, the specific dishes won't necessarily be the same, says Kehinde, because favorites differ among tribes and even within tribes.

For instance, the Hausa people of northern Nigeria favor meat kebabs; the Ibos of the south are partial to luxurious stews of fish, shrimp, crab, lobster, rice and vegetables -- precursors of Louisiana gumbo or jambalaya. In the central part of the country, the Yoruba people, to which the Kehindes belong, enjoy stewed meats but divide on whether to serve mashed yams or mashed cassava alongside. Aderonke grew up with yams; Modupe's family must have cassava.

Satisfying these food biases in the West isn't easy -- although Kehinde buys such exotica as cassava powder, frozen fried snails and dried shrimp at the Phil-Asian Tropical Food Mart on East Grand Boulevard near Detroit's New Center.

She usually can't find unsweetened coconut milk, though, and the sweetened version "ruins" African rice dishes, she warns. And it's impossible to find a favorite dried fish here, so she brings some back from Nigeria after her yearly visits.

Her persistent quest for the flavors of home has had an unexpected and happy payoff, however. Other transplanted West Africans now ask her to cook for their special dinners, so she's officially started her own catering service.

As a result, she may keep lawyering on the back burner. "Maybe I'll open a restaurant instead," she muses.

 PHILIP EMEAGWALI'S READING LIST
  The Spirit-Man: Nnamdi Azikiwe

  Nigeria Needs Me; Odumegwu Ojukwu

  In Honour of New Yam; Igbo Day/New Yam Festival

  Africa Has Driven Into Exile Its Best Thinkers

  Works From a Country in Progress; Nigerian Literature

  'Just' an Igbo woman; Buchi Emecheta

  Kehinde, by Buchi Emecheta

  Talking With Ben Okri

  A writer on trial for his life Anthony Daniels recalls his last meeting with Ken Saro-Wiwa

  Slow Start, Sweet Climax; Nigerian Music

  Blacks Are Key to World Progress, Historian Asserts

  Superbrain of Africa

  Please visit http://emeagwali.com for the most recent list.

Jollof Rice

4 cups uncooked rice

1 medium onion, chopped

1 small onion, sliced

5 ripe tomatoes, chopped

3 ripe tomatoes, sliced

3 large red bell peppers, chopped

1 small chile pepper or 1 teaspoon ground chile

2 to 3 cups chicken stock

Salt, thyme and curry powder to taste

2 tablespoons butter or vegetable oil

1 cup dried shrimp (optional; see note)

If using dried shrimp, pulverize in blender; set aside.

Combine the 5 chopped tomatoes, the bell peppers, chile pepper and medium onion and, working in batches, puree together in blender. Set aside.

Bring 5 cups of water to a boil, add rice and enough chicken stock (about 2 cups) to cook rice. Add salt to taste. Cook on medium flame till rice is slightly softened, about 10 minutes.

While rice is cooking, pour tomato-pepper mixture into saucepan and add butter or vegetable oil, salt, curry powder and thyme to taste. Then add 3 sliced tomatoes, small sliced onion and dried shrimp, if using, to sauce and cook about 6 to 10 minutes. Pour sauce into rice, mix together and simmer until rice is fully cooked, about 10 minutes. Rice should be dry and fluffy when done. Makes 6 servings.

(For a different flavor, boil rice in 2 cups of unsweetened coconut milk instead of water. If you can't find the canned version, you can make coconut milk by blending chopped raw coconut meat with an equal amount of hot water, or grating the coconut by hand and then adding a cup of hot water to each cup of grated coconut. With a wooden spoon, press the mixture through a sieve lined with 2 layers of cheescloth, catching the "milk" in a bowl. Then wrap the cloth around the pulp and wring out the last of the liquid into the bowl.)

Note: Dried shrimp are available at the Phil-Asian Tropical Food Mart on East Grand Boulevard near Detroit's New Center.

Per serving: 617 calories; 7 g fat (2.8 g saturated fat; 10 percent calories from fat); 65 mg cholesterol; 244 mg sodium; 125 g carbohydrates.

Dodo (Fried Plantains)

4 ripe plantains (see note)

Vegetable oil for frying

Salt to taste (optional)

Heat oil in pan. Peel plantains and slice crosswise at an angle. If desired, sprinkle with salt to taste. Fry plantains, working in batches and turning as needed, until golden brown. Drain on paper towels. Serve hot or warm. Makes 6 servings.

Note: Plantains are available in many produce markets or at either of the two specialty markets listed in box. Yellow skins indicate they're ripe. If you buy green-skinned ones, ripen them by putting them in a bag for a few days at room temperature until skins turn yellow.

Per serving: 201 calories; 9.5 g fat (1.1 g saturated fat; 43 percent calories from fat); 0 mg cholesterol; 95 mg sodium; 31.5 g carbohydrates.

Puff Puffs

3 cups flour

2 tablespoons dry yeast

1/2-1 cup sugar

1/2 cup hot tap water

Vegetable oil for frying

Sugar for garnish

Mix hot tap water with yeast. Mix flour and sugar (1/2 to 1 cup depending on sweetness desired) together. Add yeast mixture to flour and blend to make a stiff dough. Cover and leave in a warm place for 1 to 3 hours.

In a deep frying pan, heat oil (about 1/2 inch deep) until fairly hot. Drop tablespoonfuls of dough into oil and fry until golden brown, working in batches. Drain puff puffs on paper towels. Sprinkle with sugar and serve warm.

Note: Analysis is based on 12 servings.

Per serving: 251 calories; 9.4 g fat (1.2 g saturated fat; 34 percent calories from fat); 0 mg cholesterol; 48 mg sodium; 37.9 g carbohydrates.

Some metro Detroit sources of African foods

* Phil-Asian Tropical Food Mart

3020 E. Grand Blvd. (just east of Woodward), Detroit

(313) 972-5656

Variety of African ingredients

* Caribbean & African Food Store

16926 W. McNichols, Detroit

(313) 838-6637

Variety of African ingredients

* Vic's World Class Market

Grand River, east of Novi Rd., Novi

(810) 305-7333

Carries plantains

* Produce Palace

Dequindre and 12 Mile, Warren

(810) 574-3000

Carries plantains



Reported in The Detroit News on April 30, 1996.

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