Eilidh Akilade shares her struggle in finding food that feels like home in our third installment of our Home Comforts series.
Sunday mornings all too often began with the air dripping with that heavy stench of black pudding. Plates were dished up, sticky and sweaty. Thoughts of blood seeping into freshly buttered bread had me fleeing the room. Burns night saw my budding vegetarianism refuse haggis; shortbread felt dry on my tongue; mashed potato sat too heavy in my stomach. Safe to say I was a disappointment to my mum, who was born and bred on the Isle of Lewis. However, I know little about the cuisine of my Nigerian side. Quite frankly, my unruly curls and lack of west-coast-Scotland-paleness means I can’t get away with that for much longer. Besides, trying to undo the effects of British colonialism and the consequential African diaspora through cooking never hurt anyone.
I was always taught to cook without a recipe. My mum has dyscalculia and so my childhood featured countless nights of me, sitting in my crumpled uniform, front teeth missing, going over her bills. Recipes with any form of measurements whatsoever were off the table. My dad viewed recipes as an affront to creativity, urging us to cook intuitively, be open, experimental, wild! He was just too lazy to buy a set of scales. So, it’s fair to say recipes are not my strong point.
But either way, I end up on Buzzfeed’s “23 Nigerian Foods the Whole World Should Know and Love”. Apparently, BBC Good Food doesn’t specialise in vegetarian Nigerian cuisine. And so, I sit, scrolling. The cold white glare of the laptop, that dull, flat light pasted across the warm curves of my face, becoming a true portrayal of my hybrid identity. There’s no love in a laptop screen – and this absence is palpable. No torn pages out of notebooks, the margins smeared with past dishes, water stains blurring each word. No family recipes passed down through a bloodline, hushed whispers hinting at the secret ingredient. And so, without the help of the culinary skills of my ancestors – thanks a lot guys – I embark on some fried plantain. Buzzfeed tells me, “It’s impossible to cook it badly”, and, “You don’t really need a recipe for this”. Buzzfeed lies.
I remember learning how to peel a banana: twisting and straining the stock, hands smelling of that waxy bitterness. It took me years. But an absent dad – I’m nothing if not a cliché – has left me with no one to teach me to peel a plantain. Instead, I hack away at the peel, fingers red and raw. And so maybe this whole thing would be easier with someone else with me. But my kitchen is empty. I don’t have to weave in and out of jostling bodies, lurching for the last clean knife, the sound of laughter mixing with that of sizzling oil. It’s just me and Belle, my cat – named after Dido Elizabeth Belle, a woman who I’m sure would understand this isolation. Clearly, I’m desperate for a bit of connection to my racial heritage – and, apparently for me that manifests in some poorly cooked plantain and calling my cat after a long-dead mixed-race black African and white British heiress. Incidentally, Belle is a very hygienic cat.
Anyway, you can process your racial isolation and childhood trauma another time – back to plantain. After cutting the plantain into diagonal slices, I heat a whole lot of vegetable oil. Both the heat of the oil and the amount of it should be scary – at least I think so anyway. And then it’s just a matter of putting the slices in and waiting for them to go golden brown. Fresh out the pan, I pat some of the oil off before coating the plantain in brown sugar. Soggy yet too hard. Oily. Not that pleasant. At which point my 18-year-old cousin shuffles in, bringing with him his cooking expertise and two-day Glaswegian hangover (the big city is a lot for a visiting Lewis boy). “Add salt,” he tells me in his islander lilt, “it helps take up the moisture.” Apparently, if you’re trained in cooking, you know a thing or two. A little salt before cooking and the plantain is much more edible. Do we want to unpack the irony of my Lewis cousin advising me on my Nigerian cooking? Not really, no. Either way, this batch is much better. It’s crispy with this buttery warmth to it. A little sweet, a little salty. It’s soft and chewy and melty and I’m not sure if something can be all these things at once but my fried plantain is and I think that’s okay.
Currently, my fridge is stocked up with some ad-lib jollof rice and some yams I’m too scared to cut into (they’re not the same as sweet potatoes). You’re not going to catch me on Come Dine With Me – if that show is still on – cooking up an all-Nigerian feast for four. But it’s a start. Comfort isn’t always a given. Sometimes we have to seek it out, and sometimes that involves discomfort. But it doesn’t mean that comfort, and a hefty serving of plantain, is off the table.