The Story

Nigerian Yam Power

By Lindsay Sterling

I was thrilled recently when the director of The Museum of African Culture (13 Brown Street, Portland, ME 04101, africart@museumafricanculture.org 207-871-7188) offered to add another country to Immigrant Kitchen’s culinary world tour. Last week he taught me how to make his favorite foods from Nigeria and gave me a guided tour of the museum. His name is Oscar Mokeme. He is a 52-year-old father, grandfather, art collector, and traditional West African healer.
Oscar’s relatives mail him the specific ingredients he needs from Nigeria. As for how I would get them, he said, “The only way to get a good authentic yam is to go to Boston,” specifically, Tropical Foods Supermarket (2101 Washington St. Boston, MA 02119) in Roxbury. Nigerian yams, unrelated to what we call yams in America, range in size from a ping pong ball to a large sweet potato. They are not sweet. Oscar says yams are so important to Nigerian culture, people have yam banks like we have banks for money. I will also need to find at the market: crayfish powder, the seeds of the egusi melon, and palm oil, a red oil produced from the fruit of a type of palm tree.
Oscar peeled 3 pounds of yams with a knife and cooked large chunks covered in water in a deep pan. He added one diced yellow onion, tomato paste, rosemary, thyme, and a cup of crayfish powder. Then when the yams were soft but not falling apart, he opened up a can of corned beef and mixed that into the red broth. He couldn’t find the right smoked fish here, and he found that canned corned beef created the right texture. Once this was all hot, he called it, “yam porridge.” I’ll admit, the canned corned beef scared me. The crayfish powder, too. But yam porridge looked and actually tasted a lot like beef stew with potatoes, the crayfish powder adding a slight twist.
Oscar showed me some photos of his home in Nigeria. I was surprised. It looked like San Francisco with skyscrapers, cars, motorcycles and highways. But it also is a place of culture rooted over 7500 years ago. He demonstrated one traditional healing practice that he would use to cure a migraine. It involved him facing the migraine sufferer, finding the source of the migraine, and then channeling the migraine into an egg, which the migraine sufferer and the healer held between them. Then the egg, containing the source of the migraines, would be discarded.
He used the egusi melon seeds, ground up, to thicken a different meat and seafood broth into a cottage cheese like substance. To that he added chopped onions, chopped kale, and palm oil. He called this “egusi soup” and served it with his favorite kind of foufou, which looks like mashed potatoes but was made of brown rice flour cooked with water.
At the Museum, I came face to face with stylized boobs, bellies and phalluses, beaded wall hangings, ceremonial regalia, and statues. I found the exhibit shocking and exhilarating. I highly recommend asking Oscar to guide you through it. The Museum is open Tuesday-Saturday 11-4pm. Admission $5. Also, the museum is hosting a series of pop-up Haitian dinners, $50 (Dec. 13, 27; Jan 10,24; Feb 7, 28; March 7,28) as part of its Haitian Voodoo exhibit. Oscar performs healing by consultation Tuesdays and Thursdays at the museum. Call for an appointment. Lastly, drop by for drumming and music this January First Friday Art Walk.