Man, I love it when a group of your friends are hanging out together and eating a dish or snack that is very spicy to them while it doesn’t even wake up your taste buds at all and they are complaining about the pain like they are all giving birth while you just sit there holding back the giggles. This probably hasn’t happened to you, unless you are my long-lost cousin or just fromNigeria, my home country; they basically mean the same, but these kinds of events have been happening to me since I was old enough to feed myself my mother’s food. The way I grew up, there was never such a thing as too much spice in food. My tongue, in a way, has adapted to the amount of spicy, home-cooked dishes that I eat on a regular basis. My mother cooks food now as spicy as it was 11 years ago. She is constantly in the kitchen trying to add her own signature touch to common recipes from her village while, at the same time, trying to increase the spice levels. Her culture calls for a certain level of passion for cooking the many different kinds of meals and part of this “food philosophy” is to pack on the spices. Another part, though, is patience. I can’t think of a single dish native to my mother’s homeland that takes less than an hour to prepare and cook. Nigerian cuisine calls for a level of patience that isn’t in much Americans these days. I actually enjoy a plethora of cuisines; I’ll eat just about everything (although I do prefer a juicy, mouthwatering, delectable grilled cheeseburger from the charcoal grill out back). My sister, on the other hand, doesn’t enjoy eating spicy food that much and that reflects in her cooking. She enjoys cooking typical American meals like mac & cheese and chicken fingers, but she doesn’t add any spice to them, making them boring. I love my sister in all, but she has to open her eyes and see what different cuisines have to offer.
One of my favorite meals my mom makes is jollof rice with spicy teriyaki chicken. She usually makes it when we go to Nigerian parties because it is always a hit there. My sister fails to appreciate the sophisticated nature of the dish as she rarely grabs a plate to devour it. My mom usually adds peas, chopped carrots, and diced chicken gizzards or shrimp to the rice after she bakes the rice on the oven. The meal is not is close to being complete without the finger-lickin’, savory, enticing teriyaki chicken, but you have to be careful not to get any in your eyes or it will burn like a fireplace. She consistently bakes them to the perfect crisp, when the skin of the drumsticks is just starting to crisp up, but she drowns them in this amazing saucy that drives my sister crazy whenever she sees my mom make this. My mom adds a ton, I’m serious an actual ton, of spice to the teriyaki rub; it sometimes scares me how much she adds but I still eat it. When I asked my mom about this dish the other day, she got all jubilated because it is a dish that she enjoys cooking. She told me that the secret to her hit dish is repetition. She said that she has been cooking this meal ever since her mother allowed her near the burning stove. She knows exactly how much to add of every little thing. That is something that holds true to must Nigerian chefs. They are the generation of adults that lived inNigeria for their childhoods and moved here in their 20’s. They knew a little bit about Nigerian cooking and brought it do this country. My mom told me she started to cook Jollof rice when she about 13 years old (she was baking chicken way before then) and she estimates that she has made this dish close to 2000 times in her life. That is more than 20 times a year and this is a dish that takes the whole afternoon to cook.
Jollof rice great and all, but one of my favorite dishes, my favorite Nigerian dish, or any dish for that manner, is called fo-fo. It is one of the easier dishes to make because it doesn’t require many ingredients, so my mom makes it more often than most other dishes. It is a yam-based dish that is eaten by taking a small ball of it on one’s fingers and then dipping into an accompanying stew. There are many different kinds of accompany stews, but my ultimate favorite is okra stew. Okra is a vegetable that is not usually found in America, but I have heard of fried okra down in the south. My mom uses African okra when she prepares fo-fo. My sister likes to pick the chicken out of it and eat it separately; it’s quite an insult to my mother. My mom sends the whole day preparing and cooking this stew and my sister wants to simply pick out the accompanying white-meat chicken. It’s so funny when my sister gets caught trying to “steal” the chicken from the pot and my mom just complete explodes on her. Another mannerism that my sister does that annoys my mom sometimes is eating fo-fo with a fork. It is strict Nigerian tradition to eat fo-fo with your hands, specifically with your thumb, index, and middle fingers. One reason my sister refuses to use her hands because the soup is insanely spicy, so if the smallest amount gets anywhere on your face, you will find yourself under the sink, running ice cold water on face. I don’t realize until you eat fo-fo how many times you usually touch your face.
I’m not trying to say that my sister couldn’t toast waffles if her life and mine depended on it; she actually is a solid cook and I usually enjoy her food. One thing my sis does that my mother never does is try new recipes. My mom sticks to the same recipes and same dishes 100 percent of the time. That is satisfying most of the time but sometimes my stomachs aches for some variety. My sister provides that for me and my brothers. I will not say my parents too because they don’t ever eat my sister’s meals. Their jaws will only clamp down on authentic Nigerian cuisine cooked by the only person in the house who know how and possibly a select few other things. My sister makes the best baked ziti with chicken parmigiana I’ve ever had in my life (which isn’t that mush). I rather eat her Italian cooking than that reheatable crap they sell in the frozen food aisle of grocery stores. She adds some of the spices to her pasta sauce that my mom adds to a couple of her dishes, so the meal has a little bit of heat to eat, which is never a bad thing. Spicy food has been proven to have health benefits to most people. That is not a surprise to me because both my mother’s and father’s sides of the family don’t have any chronic, hereditary illness. Also, my sister makes this yummy honey BBQ chicken that would easily rival anything my mother can put together. I’m almost at a loss of adjectives to describe it. It’s balanced, appetizing, moist, mouth-watering, crispy-skinned chicken coated in this rich, sweet, tangy honey barbeque sauce that leaves a taste in your mouth that you don’t ever want to go away. Another great thing about this dish is that she adds crushed red peppers to the coating, so there is a little zing as the taste sets into your taste buds, sending them on a roller-coaster ride of flavors. Just talking about it now is making me drool like a newborn baby. This is the one dish that both my parents will consistently enjoy with my siblings for dinner. My sister usually has a side dish or two to go with the chicken, but they don’t matter; the chicken is the star of the show.
After talking about all these dishes, I feel like I’m struck in the middle. I, in a sense, live in a divided household. My mom cooks authentic Nigerian food with her eyes closed while my sister prepares traditional American cuisine with the aid of a new recipe every once in a while. This can be a good things in some situations, like when they both cook for consecutive days, but this can also be curse, like when I, along with my brothers, are forced to pick between the two. Those decisions usually go in my mother’s favor just out of plain fear of a punishment if the other option is even considered. All in all, I love spicy food and I wish that people would learn to embrace it more. You’ll live longer if you do.