“Ifayin, you chop onions now…” the lady of the house peeps into the kitchen to say. Ifayin responds with an unhappy nod, as she returns to her group, sure that her guests will appreciate the kachumbar she will serve along with Chicken Tikka at her first party in Nigeria. Twenty minutes later, Ifayin has disappeared. She pulls off the event, but intends to wring the steward’s neck when he shows up. He didn’t. When a maid bumps into him, later, Ifayin explains, “Madam was very cruel.” She told me to “Chop onions,” he complains. Believing he was being punished, Ifayin had quit.
Madam will eventually learn that the word “Chop,” in Pidgin, means, “Eat,” and she’ll be grateful she hadn’t asked Ifayin to chop the meat before the party. She’ll also learn that it’s possible to, “Chop Life,” which translates as, “living life to the fullest”. Indians in Nigeria pick up this English dialect, and flaunt it too. It’s a different ball game for chef Raphael Amechi in Mumbai, who has lived here for fifteen years. He has not only refined his English, but can also speak Hindi, Gujarati and Marathi.
Just like us
At the Vashi eatery, Wazobia’s Kitchen, whose name combines titles of Nigerian tribes, 40-year-old Amechi from Lagos (Nigeria’s capital city) introduces us to his native dishes as he tells us what it’s like to be a Nigerian in a city that he describes as, “a peaceful place, but not accommodating.”
35-year-old Chef Omo Okhuoya from Edo State (South-central Nigeria) who runs the eatery’s Juhu outlet isn’t around but, over the phone, she too expresses her surprise at the general attitude here, especially since she observes, “We have a similar culture. In Nigeria too, there are Muslims, Christians and Hindus living together.”
Okhuoya moved to Mumbai from Afuze village a decade ago, and is now a congregant at St Joseph’s Church, Juhu. She grew up watching Amitabh Bachchan films. “Indian films are popular back home.” Serpent’s-hex films such as the 1980s movie Nagina are particularly favoured, because, as she says, “Though it’s disappearing gradually, we also have a Ju-Ju culture there — faith in superstitions and magic.”
Nigeria on a platter
Back at his Vashi eatery, Amechi offers us a taste of a potent tomato stew prepared with meat stock, an okra and chicken dish and a spinach recipe with a couple of strips of fried plantain. He points at an image of what looks like Biryani, and explains that in the Nigerian variant, the emphasis is on the flavour of the meat rather than overpowering masalas. He also shares that many Nigerian ingredients are unavailable here. From a counter on one side of the small room, Amechi pulls out hundred-rupee-sachets as he lists the items he must bring down to cater to the local community’s demands: Igusi and Ogbono seeds used to make soup, dark, dried Bitterleaf, typically washed with salt and squeezed to dilute the bitterness before stirring into recipes, and the essential, red, palm oil (`500 per 500ml).
We bite into the mildly sweet plantain to attenuate the intense flavours and bitter undertone of the stews, as Amechi tells us about being forced to vacate the space he rented at Crawford Market after he had spent a large sum to renovate it and about a neighbour at the new Vashi address going all out to bully him into shutting down. “One Nigerian does something wrong, and we all get painted with the
same brush,” he says. But he isn’t going anywhere, sharing the story of how his initial trips to Mumbai were to source fabrics to sell in Nigeria — “Prints and chikan-work are in big demand there,” — until he realised there’s a huge Nigerian sub-culture here, and therefore, a demand for Nigerian food. Switching streams came naturally since his mother runs a small restaurant in Oshodi, a 50 sq km patch in Lagos which, according to figures published on the government website, accommodates 1 million people.
Amechi’s five-month-old son stays there, and so he visits home every six months. Okhuoya too has a son in Nigeria, but “He’s not a baby,” she says; so annual trips suffice. This is her home now, she says, breaking into a Hindi song that’s been playing in her head all day. “Jee Le Zara…” she croons amid giggles. We hope the city lets them.