I am my mother. In every line I speak, no, every word. Every sway of the hips. Every pot of fried rice hurriedly spooned into red Freezinhot coolers with flower motifs, full of blackened pieces of beef — not burnt, just colored by hot oil — and chicken, fried in groundnut oil so the fragrance of freshly roasted peanuts lingers sweet. Every bottle of Limca and Goldspot packed into a yellow Thermocool cooler, and every packet of apple or orange Capri Sonne. Growing up, I thought her 'wahala' — her penchant for fussing and worrying — was too much. I didn't know what it meant then, to be responsible for children.
I do now.
My parents loved food. My mum was the collector-crafter who brought in recipes and made them heirlooms. Like the prawn cocktail learned from her friends at the Lions Club, which got me top grades in food and nutrition classes, and the fried rice recipe that Auntie E., her chef younger sister taught her. My dad was the explorer, who bought every gadget and device he could find — a popcorn maker, yam pounder, and a rotisserie oven and grill in which he made us sole and lemon on Saturday mornings.
Sunday dinner was my mum's great act of love. She always made such a huge effort that you'd assume Mondays were tough on her. I think back to me just a few years ago — when I worked full-time — and how Sundays scared me because 3 p.m. always came too soon, and before you knew it, Monday was upon you. Not my mother, who seemed totally unfazed by it all. There was no angst, no desire to curl up on the couch on Sunday evening bemoaning the last hours of her weekend. If anything, there was excitement for the week that lay ahead.
Some nights we had Jollof rice, but most times it was Nigerian fried rice. We rarely had plain white rice, which was considered regular fare. Sundays were far from regular — they were special, and made for love.
While my favorite part about Sunday was the food — after church there was brunch or lunch with pounded yam and egusi, or okro, and of course, the fried rice — there were other things to look forward to. Like Daddy opening the mirror-lined sideboard full of treasures. You could map the journeys they — my parents — had taken from the odds and ends that stood out: British red and green soda streams, the Dutch Bols ballerina twirling in gin and gold flakes. The best part? Getting our weekly treat of Treetop powder (think Kool-Aid minus the metallic taste) or Treetop cordial, which came in bottles that later inspired the design of the Astro Baby lava lamp.
Sundays were also for playing suwe, a game like hopscotch with chalk boxes and stones for markers. It always seemed like we hadn't played enough when the call came for siesta. We resisted, but the parents offered us no wiggle room. The truth is, once our heads hit the pillow, we were out. It's funny how our parents knew exactly what we needed, and how convinced we were that they didn't.
An hour later, we'd be up, refreshed and waiting for the television to come on. In those days, there was no 24-hour TV — no cable, certainly no streaming, and we weren't sad for it, either. If you turned on the television before 4 p.m., all you'd get was a long, shrill sound and SMPTE color bars. We knew, though, that once programming resumed there'd be Tales by Moonlight, with 'Aunty' retelling Nigerian folktales.
Rice is beloved in Nigeria: Jollof and fried rice are inarguably the favorites. In general, Jollof — less flaky, and not as involved — is more commonly prepared, but there are days when my craving for fried rice with liver and shrimp will not settle until I have cooked a pot.
Nigerian fried rice consists of long-grain, parboiled (converted) rice or (Golden Sella) basmati, cooked in a fragrant yellow stock — thank you, turmeric — redolent with the flavors of warming curry powder and dried thyme, with mixed chopped vegetables folded in. If you wanted to take it up a notch, tiny pink shrimp (or prawns) and cooked, diced liver were the way to go.
I'm not sure when Nigerian fried rice became a thing, but I'll bet it walked in the shoes of Chinese fried rice, which is a very popular second in Nigeria.
A 1930s census records exactly four Chinese residents in Nigeria. By the 1950s and 60s, that number had increased to 200, a sign of China's growing investments in Nigeria, one of which was the hospitality industry (many of the hotels built then remain to this day).
In 1971, the Federal Republic of Nigeria and The People's Republic of China established diplomatic relations, and this was possibly the impetus that triggered the rapid spread of Chinese restaurants around the country in the '70s and '80s, from the Golden Crown and Shangri-la in Lagos to Eastern Garden in Port Harcourt, and Jade Garden in Warri where we lived.
That's the short story of how dishes like sweetcorn soup, sweet and sour sauce, beef in green pepper, spring rolls, butterflied prawns, and fried rice became deeply embedded in Nigerian cuisine.
The similarities between Chinese and Nigerian fried rice, other than the name, are few. Woks are great but they didn't feature in my mum's cooking. Her pots did, and in them, she cooked the rice in stock. Stock is what principally defines the flavor of Nigerian fried rice, but also does limit the rice's shelf-life, so leaving it to cool overnight, refrigerated — often recommended for Chinese fried rice — isn't ideal.
The seasoning is another differentiator: curry powder and dried thyme feature prominently, instead of soy or oyster sauces, sesame oil, or other Chinese condiments. And then there's the vegetables — carrots, peas, green beans, red onions, sweetcorn, and bell peppers. I'm not sure where the combination of shrimp and iron-rich liver came from, but I know them as the gold standard of Nigerian fried rice.
My mother knows what she wants, and always has. I grew up hearing stories about how she always had her mind set on teaching, then owning her own schools. In the early '80s, she left her job teaching English at a federal government college and put a down payment on a building for Twin Fountain schools, private schools that were birthed in the back of our house with my siblings and I, and our friends, playing and learning together.
As she did all that — built the life she dreamed of — she kept crafting and refining her fried rice.
Each week, there was a new technique added, from par-cooking the rice then adding the meat stock and medley of fresh (never frozen) vegetables; to frying the vegetables first, then the rice, before cooking in a stock; to frying washed, raw rice in oil before adding the stock — a surefire way, she said, to keep the grains firm and separate. Whatever method she chose, two things were certain: she added the chopped bell peppers last so they kept their vibrant color and crunch, and the end result was always sunny yellow rice, a reflection of her joy for cooking.
When the fried rice was ready, we sat down to eat. I would always eat the rice first, picking out every single vegetable (except the carrots), just like one of my daughters does now. As the years passed, I did that less and less till I could eat a whole bowl, vegetables and all. Now, I make Nigerian fried rice for my children, often on Sundays. I use basmati, add a splash of coconut milk, and skip the green beans. They love it when I get it right. And when I don't, which isn't as rare as I'd hope, I miss my mum and her cooking — both continents away from us.
Each day, I'm learning. I'm learning that I don't have to resist being like my mother. It can be uplifting and inspiring. I hope my children will want to remember the things I do well, like I do now, and forgive the times I came up short, and love me nonetheless.
But yes, I am my mother, in every line and every word, every sway of my hips, every pot of fried rice. With every trip I plan with my sometimes unwilling children, every climb of a rockface, every scream and call to "be careful," "hold the handrail," "don't run/jump/chase him," "don't scream/shout/cry." In spite of all my teenage rebellion and vehement denial, I am her.
I see it now and it no longer surprises me — after all, she was one of my earliest teachers. I feel her force in many ways and I suspect that from the very minute I was born, I was of her blood through and through. No one tells you any of this, though...it's what you discover for yourself. What you live into being.
This story was originally published on Food52.com: The Nigerian Fried Rice That Turned Me Into My Mother