Last week, an innocent gesture to explore bread ended up with a search to understand Yoruba cooking words. That then ignited a further curiosity that was my focus of this week. I was trained in traditional French cooking techniques and as such some things are just expected at all times. I assume that most kitchens will have a large cutting board, sharpened knives, prep bowls and some kind of weighing scale. Back in 2016 after I left Chicago, I had the idea of opening a Yoruba fine dining restaurant in Lagos, Nigeria. The mistake I made was that I was expecting to find a Le guide cuilinaire of Nigerian cuisine. It later dawned on me through multiple conversations with the kitchen butterfly that documentation is not something the Nigerian people have been good at. As a matter of fact, most of the documents that exist on Nigeria were done by the British. You would have a higher probability of coming across a book on Nigerian cooking in a New York public library compared with CSS bookshop in Lagos.
On my journey to understand an incompletely documented cuisine, the first dish I took on was Akara in 2016. It was a fun experiment but it left me with more questions than answers. I started to wonder how it was that unwritten recipe could be found in street stalls across the south west of the country. Who was teaching them? It made me start to believe that there had to be a kind of code that existed within the language. Unlike highly documented languages like English or German where language rules are updated and words are added and removed constantly, Yoruba has been formally stagnant. Most of the changes happen verbally and are just remembered. There are also always new vernacular adjustments that are seasonally added from popular music or culture. It is now common to hear phrases like “je ka teshumole“, “fi ginger si” and “olori skelewu“.
In the same way the language itself has not formally evolved, the cooking terms as well did not formally grow. I was able to distill the preparation terms this week into 10. I later realized that there are some words I missed like: jina that denote when something is cooked or ready to eat. Pon which kind of means to scoop and put but not really. There is also bleaching oil which can not be explained with combinations of these words. That being said, this is the list of words that I was able to make for now.
My next goal now that I have been able to formally find the building blocks of the cuisine is to deconstruct recipes into processes. I think this is fitting because this completely meshes with my cooking style. Thought I love measurements, I believe that knowing the process lands you in a position to be able to cook any related dish with little difficulty. If you missed the last grouping of Yoruba cooking words, I have added the image below.
I had another plan for next week’s post but I want to take this idea to it’s natural end. I will now focus on a single recipe and see how it can be deconstructed into these simple words and then explore if this is an effective way of constructing a recipe. I am now fully sinking into the idea that a French inspired way of recipe writing may not be effective in the Yoruba culture where there is not a heavy emphasis on reading.
What does this make you think of? Let me know by leaving a comment