In the year 1996, my grandmother hired a new maid called Fatima. On her first morning with us, she checked the cooler for leftovers and found a big wrap of àmàlà from the day before. She took it out of the cooler and nearly threw it in the dustbin.
“Don’t do that,” grandmother said, “in this house, we do not throw away yesterday’s àmàlà.”
“What do you do with it?” she asked.
Grandmother took it from her, and went into the kitchen to start the family tradition of rejuvenating yesterday’s àmàlà into ‘akala gbona’, the sweetest food on earth.
She told Fatima to put a terracotta pot on fire while washing the àmàlà in a bowl of warm water. She added little water to the pot, cut the àmàlà into cubes and put it in the pot. A minute passed for the àmàlà to get steamy hot before she added few drops of palm oil.
At that moment, a special aroma filled the kitchen and escaped its way to the nearby windows. Some curious noses in the house dragged their owners to the kitchen hoping to have a taste but it was seldom enough for two, not to talk of our extended family of more than twenty people.
I stood by her side, ready to assist that I may qualify for a taste. I brought water for her to clean the ladle and did the honours of adding ewedu, the final ingredient, into the steamy oiled cubes of àmàlà. She turned it together carefully in the terracotta pot, blew out the hotness of the ladle and tapped it on Fatima’s hand. She loved it.
Grandmother and I ate from the pot until we hit the bottom. She used a strong stainless spoon to scrape epa, the burnt àmàlà that stuck to the bottom of the terracotta pot.
“You cannot claim to have finished eating akala,” she said, until you eat the epa. It is the sweetest part of the meal.”
While my grandmother allowed me to watch, she was not interested in teaching me how to make it. That was my mother’s department. Iya tisa fun ra e. She would call out my name or any ‘unlucky’ boy around and teach us how to cook.
“Won m’oko se,” she once said to me, alluding to the fact that women cook with their hands, and not the penis. In the history of the household, my generation of male children were the first to learn how to cook. It didn’t matter if the food had little salt or too much of it. Everyone ate it like that.
It was embarrassing in the beginning and there was an intention to rebel but no one dared stand against her. She was the measuring rule for training of children in the house and even on our street. When grandmother tried to raise a voice of support for us, it met a brick wall. She insisted that all the children in the house must learn how to cook, and this included the male children.
Many years later, during my service year in the serene town of Osogbo, that maternal lesson came handy. I was a single guy with hope that a girl I fell in love with in Ilorin will say yes to me. Thank God she never did or I might have never shown interest in the Ekiti girl who did.
She came to my place on CDS days to eat fried sweet potato and eggs and I returned the visit on weekends to eat àmàlà with ewedu and fish. On one of my visits, she wanted to throw away a wrap of àmàlà she made a day before.
“Don’t do that,” I said, “we do not throw away yesterday’s àmàlà.” Just like my grandma said some years back. She watched me turn the àmàlà into akala with disgust and worry. She questioned the edibility of what I was cooking, but unknown to her; I was an alchemist mixing a love potion that no magic could unravel. All she need do was taste it.
It worked and I know this because she is now my wife. I do not know if it played a role in her decision to marry one of the most unromantic guys on earth but I like to think it did. Nowadays, she makes extra àmàlà and keeps it for the ‘akala gbona’ runs the next day.
Akala gbona is popular among the Igbominas in Kwara and Osun states. It may never replace chocolate or yoghurt as food of love but I will teach my children to use it to dazzle their future spouses.
I hope it works.
Image: Otres Restaurant
I am a theatre artist and screenwriter.I have a BA in Performing Arts from the University of Ilorin. I live and work in Ibadan.