Not long ago I found myself in Lagos, Nigeria. It is a city where hulking skyscrapers in the heart of downtown sit completely dark at night, because there’s no electricity to keep them lit, where moat-ringed mansions belong not to businessmen but politicians who bring real-life meaning to the term kleptocrat. Just as Nigeria has made a successful grab for its status as the economic heavyweight of West Africa, its sprawling centerpiece has scrambled to transform itself into the modern city it aspires to be. With this has come a cache of modern chain hotels to accommodate the stream of oil executives and money movers that flow in and out of the town every day.
I didn’t end up at one. My hotel was dirty, its lounge dim. I was perched on the corner of my seat, anxiously awaiting the return of my laptop. The abductor was my hotel’s “Technological Officer,” Muhammad, who assured me that taking my laptop away to his office was my only hope for getting it online. He was a tiny guy, swimming in an enormous navy blue tent of a polo shirt that screamed Chevron in golden block lettering across the front, a lightning bolt seared down the back.
Muhammad hovered over my keyboard, his skinny brows knit together in concentration while he muttered to himself. The outlook was grim. When it comes to technological matters, Nigeria’s reputation, generally speaking, is unfavorable. You don’t want people you don’t know meddling with your computer there, Technological Officer or otherwise. But I had an assignment that was facing the formidable deadline of dawn, and even brief access to email was my only hope of meeting it. I took my chances.
I was with a friendly Lagosian doctor named Vicki who was working on the same project as me. She remained by my side the entire trip, ostensibly to keep me company, but also, I assumed, to prevent me from succumbing to any manner of schemes that might befall a conspicuous American amid the chaos of this city. While we waited for Muhammad to determine the fate of my laptop, we decided to try dinner chez hotel.
Prior to this trip, much of my knowledge of Nigerian food — really, food from most of West Africa — came from a high school reading assignment. In Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart (before the series of events referred to in the title), the Nigerian villagers are constantly prodding and pounding yams into a dish enticingly known as fufu.
It turns out that fufu is first and foremost an invention of the Ghanaians untold years ago. It then became a mainstay throughout West and Central Africa, where its preparation was adjusted to accommodate any number of other starches, like cassava or plantains. You can now find ready-to-whip fufu flour in discerning groceries worldwide, from the suburbs of Atlanta Georgia to the Eastern tip of Brazil. Just add water, and a mound of reconstituted yams will be ready to eat in minutes.
I’m serious about root vegetables; I’ve yet to encounter a tuber I haven’t liked. Few weeks go by in fall when I don’t find myself cloistered in my tiny hallway of a kitchen braising, roasting, or pounding my own hoard of yams into a silken mash. It was time to try Nigeria’s rendition.
The restaurant’s menu featured its fufu prominently, in its own section, along with a modest collection of protein pairings and soups. The relatively tame tomato stew caught my eye. I elected to go with the fish, as well.
A waitress materialized from the kitchen, her every appendage decorated with enormous rhinestones. We were early to be eating dinner, an issue she raised immediately, but she let us place our orders anyway. When I did, her eyes widened in skepticism as they moved over my blond hair.
“Where are you from?” she demanded, not bothering to hide her misgivings.
“Have you eaten fufu before?”
“No. But I’d like to try.” I didn’t say how I knew about fufu, sensing my appreciation for the literary context would not help my case. Still, even though it was clearly available on the menu, something told me I needed to justify my choice. I regaled her with my knowledge of its preparation and ingredients.
“It is hard to eat,” she responded. “An American would not like it, or eat it properly. And it’s too expensive to waste. But I will bring you the fufu.”
I thanked her for the warning. Fufu is a fun word to say for an American in Nigeria, and I was enjoying the conversation more than she probably understood. Satisfied, she disappeared to the kitchen. When she returned with my water, she proudly demonstrated its intact seal and smiled brightly.
Her apprehensions were warranted, if misplaced. The fish I’d ordered appeared to be something like a river perch (ichthyologist I am not). Aside from the charred strip blazed across one flank, it looked like it had been plucked minutes ago from some oil-choked river on the city outskirts and tossed on the back of a lorry for transport straight to my plate. Calcified spikes protruded along its massive dorsal. Fearsome eyes glared up at me in reproach, as if to accuse me of hastening its death. I looked away, contemplating my next step: attempting to take the creature apart with knife and fork. The prospect was not appealing.
Americans, after all, prefer to think of their meat as separate from the animals from which it originated. The association between the hamburger on our plate and the cow grazing in a pasture — if we even see real cows with the same frequency that we eat them nowadays — makes us uncomfortable. The line blurs a bit more with fish; we’ll tolerate some scales, even a vertebra left intact. We like it when the fish counter at the grocery store puts some whole fish out along with the fillets to build the ambiance; it’s like a string of ornamental chilies or garlic cloves knotted together and hanging beautifully but uselessly beside a produce stand. We tend to draw the line at the entire animal placed intact on a plate before us.
In Nigeria, this was clearly not the case. I would have the entire river perch, and I would keep an open mind. Growing up, there were many times when I cheated a little at dinnertime by having one of my parents cut up my food for me. This time, I couldn’t cheat. I went eye to bulging eye with this fish, working my way along the spears of rib bone striating down its side and extracting the slivers of stream-toughened flesh. This Lagosian perch didn’t have the luxury of the farm experienced by its fish counterparts in the Mediterranean and Atlantic. Its flesh was sturdy, the legacy of a life spent fighting its life upstream, rather than floating in a pen like those who usually made their way to my plate. I asked my companion how she liked it.
“It’s good,” she announced. She contemplated more. “A little sandy.”
Soon it arrived. In a pallid lump, the fufu rested at the bottom of my bowl, surrounded by a startlingly thick tomato sauce flecked with indiscernible spices. I could tell the yams did not go down without a fight — someone with strong arms had spent a good part of his or her day plying and beating them into oblivion. The problem was that the concoction before me appeared to resemble cement.
I asked my companion if I could use my spoon and still fall within the range of acceptable fufu consumption. I could not. So tentatively, I followed her lead. I dipped in my fingers, scooped out a ball, made an impression in it with my thumb, munchkin-style, and waded it through the soup.
It was deliriously rich. The fufu was a glorious, glutinous wad of starch. It played delightfully off the piquant acidity of the soup. Together, they were a symphony.
We scraped away at the sides of our bowls, careful to keep the fufu to soup ratio at a gentle equilibrium to the end. My fish flopped forlornly beside us, abandoned for the interim. And not too many minutes later, Muhammad reappeared with my computer.
The fufu was delicious, my vanished laptop returned. Things stayed together. It was just an hour, but it was Lagos: chaos, well-done.