I recently finished reading Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s “Half of a Yellow Sun”. Never in my life have I sobbed quite so hard on completion of a book. Recently made into a movie, the fictional novel follows the story of two well-off twins in the years running up to the 1970s Biafran War. “Half of a Yellow Sun”, is an amazing read and anyone who wishes to delve deeper into recent Nigerian history, should immediately hit their local book retailer. Set in a time of affluence and plenty, the first half of the tale weaves the stories of two very different sisters and their respectively gilded lives. Chimamanda, who we can only surmise to be quite the foodie, spares no details in her accounts of Ogwu, the househelp hero, as he cooks up heaps of tripe stew, pepper soup and other Nigerian delicacies for his master, the revolutionary professor Odenigbo.
There are at least ten different mentions of pepper stew scattered throughout “Half of a Yellow Sun”. Enough said that for over a month now, I have been yearning after a soup that I have never actually tasted before. In order to put an end to my unnatural craving, So I decided to enlist the help of a friend of mine and together we headed off to the Nigerian Consulate on Lenana road, to enquire about where the diplomatic corps habitually head to break their bread, or fufu as the case may be. Turns out we didn’t have far to go. Hidden away behind an unassuming gate in a back street of Kilimani, is what can be best described as a Nigerian Supper Club.
A Supper Club is a private home that opens its doors to the general public, who come and dine in an informal setting of dubious legality. Supper Clubs are all the rage in Europe’s fine dining capitals at the moment. Brimming with excitement, my friend and I walked into the small, homely and dimly-lit dining hall containing five tables covered in mismatching cheap plastic tablecloths. Deciding that the smell indoors was a little bit overwhelming, we headed off to the garden from where we ordered a selection of assorted jollof rice, fufu and fish stew and of course…pepper soup.
The pepper soup came first. Fortunately I knew enough not to judge Nigerian food by its appearance – not a culture that prides itself on fancy, pretty looking food but that focuses instead on rich and multi-layered flavours. We steeled our resolve and spooned up some of the beef and tendon bits floating in the clear broth. What immediately struck us was the powerful black pepper flavour that burned the top of our mouths and warmed our insides. Having nothing to compare the soup to, we did not know if this was the real mccoy; but judging by the absence of blandness, it felt close enough.
For the rest, the soft and fluffy fufu was a huge hit with my friend, who tires of regular Kenyan ugali. Instead of squelching the pap in your hand and then using it as a spoon, fufu works more like bread, you rip off a piece and dip it into the thick, spicy tomato sauce which half absorbs half coats it.
The jollof rice was blander than the version I had travelling to Ghana, but when mixed with the “assorted” meat and stew, it was undoubtedly a lip smacking fare. The “assorted” element of the meat was, as far as we could make out, cow’s shin. We initially balked at the thought of biting into it, but in the name of adventure and temerity decided to give it a try. I’ve had pig’s knuckle before and the thickskinned consistency is largely similar, it takes some getting used to but if you can get over the thought that it’s gross, well it turns out it actually isn’t.
It might be some time before Supper Clubs go from being small places where Nairobi’s minorities go and dine, to the trendy affairs they have become in the affluent North. Let’s keep it that way I say, as trendy is generally not synonymous with utterly delicious.
This article was originally published in June 2014 on UP Magazine