…reminiscences of my early culinary experiences
My love for food started from the womb.
I am sure of this because in all of my baby pictures, I am rotund and cherubic. In some of these pictures, I am holding either a pacifier, feeding bottle, or some food item. I wonder, did I resist the photographer’s attempts to remove these incriminating objects or were they deliberately left in the shot to embarrass me in adulthood? I really should ask my mother.
I learnt how to cook while I was in primary school. I mean, it gets to a point where you have to take charge of your gastronomic destiny.
Interestingly, I don’t remember being taught how to cook. I learnt mainly by observing and handling quality assurance: tasting the soup for saltiness, nibbling the meat for tenderness, you know, conducting important quality tests.
My mother was a huge influence as she was always cooking up a storm. Even to date, she is always cooking something for someone. She got a chance to exhibit her passion as one of the earliest TV Cooks on the “Cooking Time” show (later rebranded as “The Maggi Cooking Show”).
Yam was the easiest thing to cook. Slice it, cut off the peel, boil it, maybe add sugar or salt or both, and voila, it’s ready. Dip in some lightly salted and peppered palm oil, and you are good to go. The extended version featured boiled plantain and pepper soup, my father’s favourite meal, also mine.
Rice was the second easiest thing to cook: understanding timing was crucial, especially when parboiling. Knowing when to add salt and what quantity to add was especially important as “measuring by eye” was and still is, the unofficial recommended practice.
Boiling and frying eggs and plantain were as easy as ABC. I didn’t learn to cook stews and soups till secondary school. And after this, and I gradually developed expertise with many other dishes. I would make something and it would turn out excellently. You can ask anyone who has ever eaten anything I have made; they will attest to my “olowo sibi”.
I didn’t just learn to cook, I also learnt to bake. My mum had a friend who would come over to our house infrequently to bake cakes and that sparked my interest. She would mix the cake batter in our house and then we would go to my aunt’s house to bake in her oven because we didn’t have one. Truthfully, the taste of the cake batter was probably the actual motivation for my interest in baking!
As we didn’t have an oven and it wasn’t proper to always take advantage of my aunt’s generosity, I had to improvise. I created a sand oven using one of my mum’s pots filled with sand. I positioned it on a lit kerosene stove and then placed stones on the sand. The baking pan would rest on the stones with some space between the pan and the sand, and then I would cover the pot. The cakes came out beautifully. However, the first time I tried this process, they smelt of sand. We ate them like that anyway. I should have first washed the sand then heated it properly before using it so there wouldn’t be any smell.
My mum encouraged my love for baking by constantly buying ingredients, clipping recipes from magazines, and suggesting things I could make. I had control over my creations but she was available when I needed backup. From cakes to tarts, puddings and pies, I made them all. I, however, never learnt how to make icing for the cakes. Many of my experiments failed, but a true baker never throws away his samples when willing tasters are around. And that reminds me of the doughnuts that did not rise because I forgot to add yeast. The result was a thick and tough creation that I smothered in sugar and consumed with my brother and younger cousins.
I was conscripted into the Food Committee in boarding at secondary school. Our work involved ensuring that the kitchen activities went on smoothly and students were served their meals on time. Sundays were the highlight of the week as we would resume at the kitchen to wash, clean, and fry fish for the Sunday afternoon jollof rice. It was gruelling work but we definitely fried more fish than we ate.
I took Food & Nutrition classes because one must always play to his strength. It was either that or Agriculture, and I had no plans of sweating under the sun on any farm (how ironic because I ended up studying Forest Resources Management in university). During SSCE practical exams, we had to make a rice dish and a beans dish. I made fried rice for the first time, and it was so good that the external invigilator and subject teachers took half of the pot! I wasn’t sure whether to get upset or be excited.
It was not easy cooking under timed conditions for the exam. In my haste, I remember pouring the beans straight into boiling water without first washing it. The invigilator asked if I had washed the beans first. I didn’t know when I blurted out “my mummy washed it at home”. She looked at me with encouraging eyes that said: “I know you’re lying, but you’re only one of seven boys in Food & Nutrition class. I need to encourage you so I will overlook it”. Thank God for boy privilege, but I am sure I earned that A in the exam all by myself!
Looking back now, I wonder why I did not become a child cooking prodigy with my cooking show, but there was no YouTube back then. Or maybe I would have eventually become a professional Chef, and then Lagos would have two chefs named Gbubemi. Naaaa, Lagos cannot contain both us!
I still find time to cook nowadays but not as much as I would have loved. The most complex thing I have made recently is a basic pasta stir-fry. It featured shrimps, black seeds, numerous spices, and my secret “always add to every dish” ingredient, onions! I haven’t baked in almost two decades, and I really should try it out again. That way I can make carrot cake which I am obsessed with.
I can only assume that developing these skills earlier in life played a significant role in my development. I wonder how many kids get similar opportunities and support to discover and develop their skills and interests. Maybe if more parents focused on this early on, we could build more well-rounded people, after all, non-traditional skills now get rewarded in the marketplace. What do you think?
This is the way I see things today!