The River Oyono is like a smoky-grey cloak animated by a strong wind. It is, in fact, only a small conceited river that embraces the Atlantic Ocean for a passionate 24km. Just before the open seas, there is an unusual meeting point of brackish and fresh seawater, creating an environment that provides stunning produce for the markets in Calabar. They say you will find fish there that you will not find anywhere else in the world.
At five o’clock in the evening, the local fish market comes alive; the crabs sit lethargically in stainless steel basins, giant whiskered catfish gasp for breath on fraying wood tables, the prices of baby tuna and sole are haggled and agreed with an audacity that would make a Michelin star chef in New York City catch his breath with envy. As the sun sets, I watch the women’s faces; we are mostly women, charmed by an amplifying breeze. A storm is coming. It will be the perfect night for a hot peppery fragrant fish stew. All the stereotypes feel at home here in this fish market: in full view are the witches (‘winches’) buying fish to take home, to cook for a man, to lure him away from his wife. Or, the fish could be for a husband, to highlight his maleness and satiate his sense of entitlement. For some reason, it is extraneous when women cook fish for themselves.
Quite how food becomes a love potion is not an easy subject matter. The facts are arcane, yet implicitly understood. There are unspoken rules that govern the matter: the married woman who cooks soup so deliciously that the tongue is in danger of being bitten in half is a great cook, no contest, but the single woman who does the same is a ‘winch’. It is universally understood and agreed that women do not perfect the art of ‘cooking soup’ until they are past middle age and safe. If they show any sign of prodigiousness before that time, they are suspect.
The Achatina fulica snail, dark brown or black, labial-like meat swathed in willful mucilage, is what might suggest seduction rather than oysters. A man does not eat snails in Okra soup cooked by just any woman. The mucilage is just a significant half of the bone of contention. Mucilaginous soups like Ogbono (bush mango) and Okra are the stuff of, the core of, the depth and height and myths and truths and enigmas of witchcraft. Or so we believe, and therefore the art and craft of cooking suggestively slimy soups for men featuring fish and snails and Nfi (periwinkles cooked in their shells, that need to be sucked out in the course of the meal) and fish soup are the mediums and aphrodisiacs, the juju and fetishes of our sexual bewitchment or arousal or whatever you want to call it, because we freely interchange the terms. These are facts that no Nigerian can pretend not to know.
The archetypal businessman in Calabar is the civil servant, married with three children, two house-helps, a complicated and dependent extended family, two cars and a racy mistress with a large bottom who owns a small boutique. He closes work at about 4pm; with so much free time on his hands, he would be ungrateful not to carouse in it. He is a devout Presbyterian, goes to church on Sundays, makes love to his wife once a month, visits his mistress once a week and fills the rest of his schedule with slender UniCalabar girls with stomachs like chopping boards and skin taut as processed shea butter.
“Better a knife is stuck in the gut and turned 360 degrees than a Nigerian man is given a raw oyster to suck on.”
The antiquarian custom of fattening rooms, where women are still sent to grow love handles and learn the intricacies of how to pamper men’s personalities into that of suckled babies, might be on its way out, but that spirit of male entitlement to as many available women and young girls as are willing remains. The women are indoctrinated from a young age into the mindset that men have all the advantages and to be truly successful women must somehow attach themselves to a successful man; be it brother, husband, uncle, lover or sugar daddy.
Enter that necessary artillery among artilleries: A woman must cook well, very very well. Sex is a given, but it doesn’t have to be especially outstanding sex. A man will not marry a woman who cannot cook (a true abomination); neither will he emotionally desert a wife who can cook to play with a mistress who can’t (a ridiculous proposition). A suitable wife must be a good cook, attractive, homely, God-fearing, and must come with a guarantee that she will bear children. A shrewd mistress must be a great cook, must flatter diabolically, must keep a scented relaxed undemanding second home where foot massages are spontaneously administered, must know how to or at least pretend some degree of sexual kinkiness, and must know how to engage a man for as long as possible by whatever means necessary.
There is no land area in Nigeria that possesses the variations and quality of soups of Cross River State. For the average Cross Riverian woman, cooking a pot of soup is a detailed, dedicated affair. The Ekpang ku kwo, an Efik delicacy, is a case in point, made from grated coco yams rolled in pumpkin leaf cooked like porridge with at least ten other ingredients. It takes hours of patient rolling up of yams in leaf, an early morning market visit and many cooking hands to get a good pot going. It takes up a whole day and is not considered especially appetizing the next day. Most women go to the market or send someone to the market every day because they believe that the refrigerator mars the taste of soup ingredients. There are those ingredients that must be uncompromisingly fresh, in essence harvested every day: the Ugwu, dark green open palms harvested in the morning; the Afang, daily unwound from its symbiotic partner and shredded and pounded before going in the soup pot; the small-leafed delicate Waterleaf, its value depreciating as the day progresses. Yesterday’s soup is only eaten out of necessity and with a resigned disdain. It makes sense that men here still prefer women filled out, in that way that requires the daily ingestion of healthy portions of Gari and first grade palm oil, with at least big breasts and trembling backsides. The androgynous, starving goddesses of the West would not draw a reluctant glance from a Calabar man, or so they say.
Raw oysters neither can be an aphrodisiac here, because what they suggest in their feel in the mouth, in their look and in the viscosity of the liquid in which they are suspended is something close to a cultural abomination. The kiss that requires the opening of mouths, of tongues rolling around each other and the exchange of a slippery musky fluid is bad enough. I know men in my father’s generation who would gag if the diagram of a French kiss were drawn for them. So better a knife is stuck in the gut and turned 360 degrees than a Nigerian man is given a raw oyster to suck on.
When I came to Calabar, I discovered the self-effacing yet powerfully evocative Fisherman’s stew, made fashionable by restaurants like Thelma Bello’s Le Chateau. The stew originated in the creeks of Cross River, where fishermen complement long nights of back-breaking work with breakfasts cooked and eaten on their boats.
Aunty Thelma’s version starts off with a little palm oil in a pot, and chopped onions – chopped not too fine or large because they need to melt down to a degree of frumpiness necessary to give the stew character. The onions are sautéed before blended fresh tomatoes and hot peppers are added. Smoked catfish and crayfish, fresh periwinkles and local oysters are steamed lightly in another pot to keep the textural integrity of the soup, and are eventually added to the stew. Then comes a little ground Ogbono (bush mango seeds) constituted with hot water. This immediately adds a visual shine and smoothness on the palate. Ogbono must always be allowed to boil sufficiently so that one does not get a stomach ache. Just before the pot is taken off the fire, chopped ntong (mint leaf) and iko (curry leaf) are sprinkled on the stew. The stew is served with pounded yam or hot Gari; cold water Gari if one is a fisherman in the creeks.
The backbone of Cross Riverian cuisine is fish, fresh, smoked in giant mud banks with great big burning
mangrove trunks, dried, exposed to foreign cool temperatures and wind and imported thousands of kilometres from Norway as Stockfish; ground, whole, pounded. Everything here is cooked with fish. Ogbono, Okra, Edikaikong, Afang, Abak, Ekpangkukwo, Ntutulikpo, name the soup, it must have some form of fish in it. Politics might be the main business in Cross River, yet fish is one of the essential undercurrents of life, food and sex.
“Politics might be the main business in Cross River, yet fish is one of the essential undercurrents and synergistic glues of life.”
The question is always posed, but only jocularly, about why the Cross Riverian’s love of food and sex is so concentrated, their attention to the appetites so urgent. The superficial answers are that it is natural and common for rain forest/coastal living people relaxed by sea air, cooling storms, and days of slow drizzling rain to be that way. There is a theory that 40 weeks from every rain-introducing month of April, hospitals are inundated with delivering mothers. Some people say that the appetites are worshipped because one of the reigning spiritual principalities is the Mammywater, to whose seductiveness, beauty and sexual prowess many matriarchs have pledged the allegiance of generations of their female descendants. Or they say it is cultural to keep a kinetic, symbiotic relationship between men and women going because it ensures that everyone is taken care of: men economically support women, women see to men’s sexual and other needs, and the pillars of the world remain intact.
The real undercurrents though, the things left unsaid, the undrawn parallels, are related to fish: mucilage, salt and saltiness, trimethylamine – that compound found in stale rotting fish, found in gastric juices, in the female anatomy as a female pheromone, in smoked fish, a delicacy that is kept fresh over days and nights of reintroduction to lazy fires.
My answer is that Fisherman’s stew, fish stew, fish soup are all a form of female pheromone soup. The smell of fish is constantly in the Cross Riverian’s nostrils. In a culture where the fire of the hob never goes out, and meals are languidly cooked for hours on end, reminders of sex and food and food and sex are constantly being generated.
This for me is the answer to the age-old riddle of half woman, half fish. The Mammywater is a symbol of unification of the appetites, and a sensual promise that they will be satisfied. It is the secret of the Mammywater’s power over men, and why she can often lure them to destruction. It is why women pledge allegiance to the Mammywater in a society where they are subservient to men.
A woman has power over a man if she knows how to satisfy his appetites for food and sex. At least temporarily, she does, until someone with a more potent fish soup shows up, whose bottom trembles clockwise rather than anti-clockwise. Boredom, the law of diminishing returns, or of greener pastures, or of unique twists to fish soups, or the restless sense of entitlement inevitably kicks in.
The mistress might end up on the back burner, consoled by her proprietorship of the small boutique, and small savings of cash gifts. The wife might see a small transient revival of the husband’s libido and go for thanksgiving in church. The mistress might make a comeback if she knows her way around the darker stuff – Gbelekokomiyo, Kop mo mi, Gbo temi, Ibok Ima: the love potions concocted by medicine men for the bending of the will, infused into mucilaginous soups cooked with snails, or fish or whatever. Those who believe and use juju-infused fish soups also understand that it is time barred. Everything pertaining to the appetites, after all, is.
By Yemisi Ogbe | Published in Chimurenga Chronic on March 1, 2013
Yemisi Ogbe lives in Calabar in Cross River State, where the scent of fish is all-pervasive and the aphrodisiac is as much in the cooking as in the eating.