'This is good food': Reclaiming a classic Nigerian dish in Minnesota
Uche Irogbu decided to name his first daughter Unity.
He was “fresh off of the airplane,” he says, and within a year, at 21, he was a dad. He was starting an immigrant’s existence in Brooklyn Park after following a cousin to join a small community of Nigerians there.
“I was rough and naive and blind and young,” he recalls.
Irogbu says he chose his daughter’s name possibly because he was seeking some sort of solidarity at that momentous, often terrifying, time. He was homesick, but his loneliness ran deeper than that.
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“I was feeling very lost. Very uprooted. I left my best friends behind,” he recalls of his first years in America.
“The English spoken in Nigeria is different from the English spoken here,” he said. “I had to learn how to talk to people. To open up to people — which has been harder than I thought. I had to learn how to be human again. It has not been easy or pleasant.”
On top of that, landing in snow-covered Minnesota, he experienced a depth of cold he had never known before.
Returning to a familiar taste
A crucial survival move he says, was returning to Nigerian food. The cooking that his grandmother taught him in her courtyard, “where everything went down.”
The growing and harvesting of produce, the pounding of cassava and yams in a giant mortar and pestle all set against the music of which Iroegbu can still hear in his memories.
And the trees. So many trees.
“Palm trees, plantain trees, mango trees, orange trees, guava trees, cashew trees, coconut trees, papaya trees,” he lists them off dreamily, seeming to picture them somewhere in the middle distance.
And of course, communal cooking and eating, a cornerstone of village life in his native Isiala Oboro, about 250 miles south of Abuja, Nigeria’s capital.
It’s an experience he wishes his three daughters, Unity, Amara and Iruka could experience as born-and-raised Americans.
But as an immigrant, Iroegbu is pragmatic. He makes do.
He arrived in my kitchen sporting a colorful dashiki, and packing four bottles of Guinness and a package of fried plantains secreted away in his shopping bags.
These, he insists, along with Afrobeats on the sound system, are a crucial part of the process of cooking fufu.
It’s the food that keeps him grounded as a Nigerian, an Igbo tribe member and a Black person living in Coon Rapids.
Before he returned to this home cooking, the cooking of Africa, he remembers feeling unmoored and bereft, longing for what gets lost when someone leaves home, possibly forever.
“You know how snakes shed skin? I felt like I had to shed a lot of skin. And I felt like I got hurt from the shedding of that skin to become this new person,” he said. “Also, being Black isn’t very easy in this place called the United States.”
He now see the urge to shirk his grandmother’s cooking — the pounded yams, the aeromatic palm oil, the intense heat of chile and perfume of dried fish — might have been a move towards Americanizing.
His Nigerian friends experienced much the same thing.
“Our food was not necessarily a source of pride — our food has been demonized — so we have a complex about our own food,” he explains, while giving my already clean pots and pans a second wash before using them.
“Cooking is communal in Africa, so everything is washing, washing, washing,” he emphasizes.
He’s cooking with a powdered yam concentrate that can be reconstituted with water. True African yams can be enormous, growing up to 100 pounds, so importing can be prohibitively expensive.
And while he admits it’s not the real deal, these are the concessions, the adaptations, demanded by the immigrant experience. It’s part sacrifice, and part embrace, ultimately equaling the preservation of culture.
“It took a while for me to be like ‘Nah, nah, nah, this is ours’” he said. “This is good food. It’s maybe misunderstood, but this is who I am and what I am proud of. Everything else cannot be better than what we have.”
Palm oil, used for seasoning as much as it is for fat, goes into the stew that will accompany the fufu. It melts into an intriguing gold puddle that makes the stew that much more appealing — just as a pond of melted butter in a mashed potato divot instantly renders it irresistible.
But not everyone appreciates palm oil’s flavor, he tells me.
“We’ve had good friends and even spouses who say ‘Are you about to make that? Why don’t you let me go to my friend’s house because I can’t stand that smell.’ But if you were in Nigeria, nobody would care about that smell!”
The earthy commingled incense of the oil, of crayfish, of exuberant spices these are the fragrance of home.
Fleeing and next steps
Iroegbu’s mother died when he was only 12 days old. “That grave by the side of our house — that was her,” he said.
He was raised by his grandma, the matriarch of his family, but his mom was never forgotten. “I could walk down my village and an elder would say, ‘My child — you must be The Little One.’”
Uche was not to experience the pleasure of being the last spoiled baby child, as would have been the local custom. The other villagers recognized him because he had his mother’s nose, he says, and because she was a beloved member of the community. Her talent for working with fabrics was well-known.
But as an Igbo, he says, he was expected to remain a strong, stoic young man.
“So I had to say, ‘My mother died. So what?’”
That stoicism may have in part led him to his japa — a Yoruba term that translates “to run, flee or escape.”
“To japa means to get the hell out. It’s to leave for greener pastures, right? So I was 20 years old when I had the opportunity to leave Nigeria.”
He describes the Nigeria he escaped as one that anyone would want to flee. A corrupt government that, he says, repeatedly victimized his idol, famed Nigerian musician and political activist Fela Kuti, for speaking out against the government through his performances.
As a teenager, Irogegbu imagined he might become the Minister of Information and Culture in Nigeria, a government job often linked with propaganda and censorship. Iroegbu thought that if he could get the job, he could help change people’s perceptions for the better.
It wasn’t to be. Instead, he left.
Capturing the world on film
The urge to shape perception for the good of society never left him. He had an intense respect for journalists, and their drive to tell the truth. Except that he was always drawn to the accompanying photos, more than the words.
“I remember my older brother had a 110 camera. And I’d look through that cute little square, and push the button, you know, and that was so delicious to me,” he said.
When the time came for a young Iroegbu to decide how he was going to survive in the U.S., he knew he could only rely on himself. He didn’t want to be “punching numbers for some guy,” or battling bureaucracy.
It would have to be just himself and his camera, he says. He still always has it within reach, and lifts it into the air to give it a little demonstrative kiss.
His favorite work to date are shots he took during the civil unrest after George Floyd’s murder.
“I see and feel the pain that I’m in and that everyone else seems to be in. It’s like a division that unifies us all. It’s similar across all of us, and I want to tell those stories. Unity. Finding that thing that makes us all the same.”
Eating the Nigerian way
As a group of guests gather and sit to dine communally, Irogbu places the stew in the middle of the table as it's done in Nigeria. Everyone gets a ball of fufu. It’s a white, slightly sticky dumpling that reminds me of bread dough in its comforting suppleness.
Fufu is often described as a “swallow food.” In other words, it’s not meant to be chewed.
Writer Yewande Komolafe, in The New York Times article “A Practical Guide to Swallows,” describes fufu “a means of pulling the best of a dish into each bite.”
Komolafe goes on: “There is an art to eating swallows: the proper thumb-and-finger pinch to pull off a bite, the almost imperceptible roll of the dough from the palm to the tips of the fingers as it’s lowered into the soup to scoop a mouthful.”
Iroegbu does not judge our technique, but he does offer a bowl of water for us to wash our hands before and in between bites. Washing, washing, washing.
“Cities alter everything,” he says, as we take turns reaching into the stew pot for another bite. “Including sharing. You would have to be in a really dynamic nuclear family to experience this. This is a joy and a privilege.”