She forgot her childhood in Nigeria. Then she ate moi moi at Charlotte’s Cooking Pot

I must introduce you to an old family friend of mine: moi moi. It’s a simple dish of humble ingredients: steamed black-eyed peas, mostly, with a few garnishes tucked in for flash. But food, like other aspects of culture, is more than the sum of its parts. Moi moi is one of the ways I found home, and the first dish that I thought of when I was asked to produce this series on African diasporic foods.

The most popular West African dish by far is jollof rice, a tomato-based medley of the grain cooked with tomatoes, onions, vegetables and meat. A friendly culture war is waged several times a day on social media, as Nigerians and Ghanaians spar over who makes the best version. Other countries, including Sierra Leone, Senegal and Liberia, fire a few shots here and there but the jollof battle is really between these two, who in the process have made jollof rice the official dish West Africa is known for.


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But moi moi is the sleeping giant. Exceedingly healthy comfort food, it is almost 100% protein and steamed, not fried or cooked in much oil. It can be vegetarian, pescatarian or chock full of meat, depending on the cook’s taste. And it is incredible. More than just peas, onions, bell pepper and habanero, the combination becomes elevated to a sum greater than its parts. The garnishes, or add-ins, can be as plain or fancy as one likes. Like many Nigerian dishes, it can combine many meats or remain only its base and it’s all delicious. The only reason the delicacy has not swamped jollof rice in popularity is because of its difficult preparation.

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As a very young girl in Northern Nigeria, my aunt would make moi moi for me. This was my youngest aunt, whom I favored most and she in turn spoiled me. Auntie Ahoungo would pick mangoes from the yard in the morning and feed me slices by hand. On weekends, she would make moi moi.


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Moi moi is a dish made with love. It has to be, because although the recipe is simple enough, the preparation is terribly tedious. Before you do a single other thing, you must wash the skins from the dried peas. Washing them by hand can take six hours or more. Pouring the water over the many pounds of peas — because it’s so time consuming, it’s always made in large batches. Scrubbing the peas over and over. Pouring the skins off over a sieve to catch the water. And repeat, ad infinitum, until the peas are white as stones.

The reason is because they must be pureed, and moi moi with spots is considered unclean. So every single skin must be removed from every single pea before it’s added to a blender with onion, bell pepper, habanero and crawfish, seasoned with bouillon and salt, garnished and steamed in large pots of boiling water.


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Ahoungo cooked for many people. She was sweet and soft spoken, a very gentle soul. But she switched a mean fanny around her kitchen. Her moi moi was perfectly done, tender, smooth as pate and spicy like fire. Even once we left Nigeria and I forgot my language and lost practically every other memory, a taste of proper moi moi decades later brought me to tears.

MY MOTHER’S STORY: FROM ALABAMA TO GHANA

My mother is from Montgomery, Alabama. A college graduate who was active in the civil rights movement, she escaped the U.S. in the 1960s as state-sponsored assassinations of freedom activists began piling up. She landed in Accra, Ghana, with her diploma and less than $10 in her pocket.

“I was home,” she once told me. “I shook the dust of America from my shoes.”

She was not alone and soon found her way to the small but vocal community of African-Americans who had made similar journeys. It was Kwame Nkrumah’s Ghana, the first African nation to fling off British colonialism and take control of their country, and an almost utopian idealism to restore the country consumed younger people. Mom took a new name, learned several languages and worked her way up to becoming vice principal of a large all-girls school. She met and married my father, a U.K.-educated Nigerian, and had us kids while running a successful business. There seemed nothing she couldn’t do — except learn to make moi moi.

But my aunt was there for that, until we returned to the States. As my parents’ marriage crumbled, so did my memory of that dish and the memories of my culture in general.

BEING AFRICAN IN THE UNITED STATES

In the States, I was African by default. First, because of my accent, then my name, then my peculiar resolve not to be shamed by either fact. Schoolmates would ask, barely concealing their laughter, “‘Hey girl, are you African?’” With full knowledge that my heritage was the punchline to some joke I didn’t understand, I always answered a firm “‘Yes.’” I was determined that they would not undo me.

But I was immersed in American culture: hip-hop and African-American literary greats. The Africanness that I had was informed by my mother’s familiarity with Ghana and Asante culture. I could eat fufu and peppery goat soup like a champ; I knew the pantheon of gods by name. Ghana’s history was often discussed and praised in my house. Of my birthplace, I knew next to nothing. I attended schools in Alabama and Michigan, worked in Detroit and Miami, and relocated to Charlotte, navigating my entire adult life with almost an amnesia of Nigeria.

Charlotte is peculiar in that despite being only a mid-sized city, it has a solid concentration of West African restaurants. Ethiopian food has been mainstream in the States for some years, but West African cuisine has been harder to catch on. In Miami, for example, a popular Ethiopian restaurant was owned by Nigerians. But upon moving here, I was surprised to see Ghana, Liberia and more represented on the culinary scene.

RECONNECTING WITH MY NIGERIAN ROOTS

In 2015, Tom Hanchett, Charlotte historian emeritus and writer of The Charlotte Observer’s Food from Home column, invited me to join a dinner party at The Cooking Pot, a new Nigerian restaurant. I made a beeline for the car.

Esther Ikuru, the chef and owner, is from Southern Nigeria – Benin City, in Edo state. She laid out some dishes I’d never seen before, such as starch, a clear gelatinous dish eaten with stews or sauces; and others, like pepper soup, that I knew and loved. The conversation around the table of about 10 people was lively and bright. But a particular scent kept distracting me from the chatter.

“I know that smell,” I mused.

I didn’t even recognize it when it was laid out in front of me. Ikuru is a traditionalist as far as her recipes go, but the presentation is modern, both in the kitchen and the artful dining room of her restaurant. The moi moi was laid on a small bed of lettuce, its boiled egg and mackerel fish garnish barely hidden within the confines of the rectangular shaped dish. But when I tasted it, I froze to my seat.

I felt the heat first. Not of the habanero peppers, but the sun. More specifically, the sun-warmed flesh of my aunt’s shoulder. I was 3 again, being carried about and fed from her hand. I had to excuse myself from the table, hurry to the bathroom with eyes rapidly filling, vision blurred. How could I have forgotten? These rituals, our special times?

Ahoungo was long dead, prematurely and undeservedly so, and I had packed the memories of her soft hands as far away as I could. I sat in the bathroom stall of the restaurant and bawled like a baby. When I returned to the table, I calmly finished my plate and ordered some moi moi to go.


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Learning to make moi moi with Ikuru was a revelation. The diminutive young chef, herself a mom, took me back with her pronouncements about the dish.

“Moms only make moi moi on weekends,” she said. “No one has time to be bothered with it during the week.”

At her restaurant, it’s prepared daily, first thing in the morning, and sells out before day’s end every time. With her long, blonde braids and stylish glasses, she cuts a modern look, but beyond using a blender to cut down on the time to wash the peas, she takes not a single shortcut in making moi moi. The old ways are more dignified, she said, emphasizing her preference for the most authentic recipes.

“This food is representing my culture, and I’m introducing it to American audiences,” Ikuru said. “So I like to stay in the norm. We’re not a fusion restaurant, so the food we do here is a characterization of Africa.”

It’s more than that. For people like me, it’s a link and a reconnection to finding something we didn’t know we’d lost.

Read from source Charlotte Observer