Yam is much loved in Nigeria for its versatility, lending itself to a variety of dishes and cooking methods. This can be best observed at the regional New Yam Festivals that celebrate the annual yam harvest. For the Yoruba people, the festival is known as Odun Isu – a joyful coming together of drumming, dancing, and tasty food such as Asaro yam porridge.
The year was 2013 – I remember because my elder sister had just left home – and my mother had started including me in minor kitchen tasks. The task this particular time was to peel tubers of yam and dice them for yam porridge. Yam (or Isu in Yoruba, the language spoken by the Yoruba people, one of Nigeria’s largest ethnic groups) contributes a substantial deal to the average Yoruba palate and is the focus of the annual yam harvest festival, Odun Isu. It was my second (or third) time peeling yam; I remember how my mother scolded me the previous time about my inconsistent dicing. This day, however, I made sure to measure the thickness with the tip of my thumb before slicing through with a sharp knife. Overlooking the window in the kitchen, a fresh breeze came through, alongside the bleating of the goats in our yard. They were to eat the peels of the yam when I was done. As a Yoruba and Muslim – two groups with doctrines that emphasize frugality – there is little in the house that goes to waste.
My carefulness was rewarded when my mother came into the kitchen, dipped her hands in the bowl of water containing the yam chunks and complimented my “expertise”. In the typical fashion of the reward for hard work being more work, my mother told me to make the porridge myself. Carefully setting the yam in salty water and bringing it to the boil was the least of my troubles – the real test of my skill would be the next steps in the recipe. When the yams were a little soft, I proceeded to mash them into a lumpy pulp with a wooden stick. But when it was time to add the rest of the ingredients, I went to call my mother, as I could not bear the thought of ruining dinner for the family. Together, with me looking over her shoulder, we made thick, oily red yam porridge – just like the dishes served at Odun Isu.
The staple of Nigerian cuisine
Yam porridge is an easy-to-make spicy dish called Asaro in the Yoruba language. It is only one of the many dishes to be made from yam – a hard, long, white tuber with a brown, barky exterior. Yam is a staple crop in Nigeria, and many dishes are made from it. Ikọkọrẹ is an Ijebu recipe made of grated yam cooked in pepper sauce, and is the pride and joy of the Ijebu-Ode people. However, yam dishes are not always so elaborate. It is common practice to have it boiled, roasted or fried in deep hot oil and eaten with egg sauce, or with palm or vegetable oil sprinkled with salt. Both pounded yam (which is really a thick paste of mashed-up yam) and Àmàlà (a doughy swallow food made by stirring yam flour in boiling water and common in the diet of those living in Ibadan) are eaten with different kinds of soups. These two foods are the mainstays of any ówàmbẹ̀ – a lavish party with lots of music, food, dancing, and often a live band. Ówàmbẹ̀s are thrown mainly for weddings and birthdays, but can extend to virtually any form of celebration, especially among the Yoruba, who are known to throw a party for almost anything.
Regardless of how it is eaten, yam can easily lay claim to being the main character in many dishes across Nigeria’s tribes. It grows easily on the land and, in contrast to other staple crops, can be cooked and eaten in a variety of ways. It is for this reason that large hectares of land are dedicated to its cultivation – in fact, Nigeria is the world’s largest producer of yam. Many things hinge upon the successful growing and harvesting of yam, topmost of which is its economic ramifications in the community and its religious significance. It is believed across many tribes that the gods and ancestral spirits are in charge of the fate of an individual as well as the community. A successful yam harvest means that the earth god and god of fertility are pleased with the land – this is one of the reasons that harvest season is celebrated so widely.
Thus the yam season is a festive period across Nigeria – for the Yoruba, it takes the form of the New Yam Festival: Odun Isu. The festival has been an abiding tradition since the pre-colonial Yoruba history. As yam is an indigenous crop in Nigeria – and not one brought in during the transatlantic trade – this tradition has been in place since Yorubaland became a powerful kingdom in the 8th century. Although it was celebrated with less fervour during British colonial rule, it has managed to survive till this day. It is celebrated for at least two days around the time of the yam harvest (often in September) as a marker of the end of the farming season and the start of a new one. It is also an elaborate ceremony of giving thanks to the deities and ancestors for bountiful harvests, a showcase of cultural dances, drums and divination rites. This ceremony – regardless of where it is held – sees people go back to their villages to celebrate and attracts tourists from all over the country.
It is taboo to eat or sell the new harvest until after the ceremony. In celebrating, the Yoruba people fast before the festival, and special rites are carried out by the chief priest to give thanks to the gods and ask for increased blessings in the next planting season and harvest. The first day of the ceremony sees the traditional ruler (or Baale) of the town open the ceremony by giving thanks for the good nature of the harvest. Dignitaries from other surrounding towns are often present at this point and they pay their respects to the Baale, too. It is a serious celebration, as people from all over the country come home for the festivities.
The pounding of drums and yam
As we drive into the village early on the first day, the first sight is often a singing procession of women. These young women, decked out in white blouses and wearing colourful beads on their hair, necks and wrists, dance from house to house, accompanied by men beating different types of drums. Dancing is a huge part of the Yoruba tradition, and these women make it into an art form, dexterously carrying baskets of fruits in their hands – or even on their heads. This is the first activity of the day once the festival has been declared open by the ringing boom of a huge drum at the Baale’s house at dawn.
The drums used at the festival each produce their own distinct sound. Some are said to summon the masquerades – deities and spirits of the underworld – who make an appearance at the festival. Major clans in the village often have their own masquerades; however, my predominantly Muslim family have now retired ours. Nonetheless, we enjoy the sights: the masquerades appear covered from head to toe in multi-layered, colourful regalia to which small gourds, amulets and trinkets are attached, as well as a net-like mask, allowing the wearer to see. They are joined by groups of people who perform the traditional songs and drums of the festival. As the masquerades dance and whirl, their elaborate outfits flare out as their jewellery jiggles with the movements of their bodies.
Following the masquerade show, I often join my sister at the palace grounds to watch – and sometimes partake in – the acrobatic Yoruba dances. As the constant drumming rhythm reverberates through our heads and chests, a chorus of women of all ages sing praises and oríkì – a form of ‘praise poetry’ practised uniquely by the Yoruba – to the Baale and other dignitaries, as well as to the people of the town. Sweating in their așǫ oke – a handwoven, thick cotton fabric with a variety of single-colour and multicoloured patterns – and intoxicated by the joyous mood, it is a wonder that these women manage to move in time to the beating of the drums. At this point, the festival often becomes an ecstatic free for all. Hitherto observers, we join the other young adults and children, disappearing into the dancing crowd. While the first day of the festival is dedicated to musical merriment, the second is dedicated to feasting on the new yam harvest – often in the form of pounded yam and Àmàlà. If the major sounds of yesterday were the upbeat cacophony of drums and songs, the second day is dominated by the thud of yam being pounded in the village backyards.
More than just a vegetable
The practice of celebrating the New Yam Festival is not limited to Yoruba culture – it is celebrated with just as much pomp in the Igbo culture. In his widely-celebrated 1958 book Things Fall Apart, Chinua Achebe dedicates multiple chapters to the celebration of the Igbo New Yam Festival. The significance of yam cultivation on the class structure is emphasized in the novel. Okonkwo, the main protagonist, prides himself on the size of his farm and thinks “yam stood for manliness and he who could feed his family on yams from one harvest to another was a very great man indeed.”
To me, the absence of yam in our pantry indicates our family finances might be taking a hit; it is one of the ways I determine how buoyant we are at any particular time. However, as exemplified by the celebration of Odun Isu, it has a slightly different significance on a cultural level. Yams are included in bride prices in Yorubaland, and the bridegroom family fall upon themselves to present the biggest tubers of yam they can get, in order to show how much they value the new bride and the family they are marrying into. Igbo-ora – a Yoruba community in Oyo state – has the highest number of twins in the world, and this has been attributed to the yams and cassava in the diet of the women in the town.
Fried yam, Àmàlà and pounded yam have all become classics in their own right, yet there is a new invention to the way yam is eaten these days. From Yam frittatas to yam waffles and tortillas, yam is really whatever it thinks it is – there is no limit to its re-invention. Which is, however, not quite my attitude. I am a bit reluctant to try out these new dishes, as every time I peel yam, I am reminded of the first yam porridge I made for the family. Even though it ended up not being by my sole effort, making that meal was one of my favourite firsts in the kitchen – a good memory that I continue to carry with me.
Yam Porridge (Asaro)
Serves three people
1 medium-sized yam
1 chopped onion
½ cup of palm oil
*Pepper sauce (see ingredients below)
Seasoning cubes, preferably chicken-flavoured
½ cup of dried crayfish
Meat (beef, goat, or chicken), stockfish or dried fish
A handful of chopped leafy vegetable (e.g spinach or pumpkin leaf)
Salt to taste
(to be ground together)
1 red pepper
1 Habanero pepper
1 small onion
Peel the yam and cut it into medium-sized chunks; rinse the cut chunks to wash off any dirt. Put the chunks in a pot, add your preferred amount of salt, and then add enough water to just cover the yam. Allow it to cook for about 15 minutes on medium heat, or until the yam softens.
Mash the yam into a lumpy paste with a wooden spoon. Allow several lumps to remain, as it gives the porridge its texture. Add the pepper sauce, chopped onions, crayfish, seasoning cubes and palm oil. Leave on low heat for about another 10 minutes.
Add in the meat or fish and stir in your chopped leafy vegetable. Allow to simmer for a few minutes, before serving.
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