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PHYSICS IN THE NIGERIAN KITCHENThe Science, the Art, and the Recipes
By Deji Badiru Iswat Badiru
iUniverse, Inc.Copyright © 2013 Deji Badiru and Iswat Badiru
All right reserved.
"Good science only adds to the enjoyment of the culinary arts." -Roald Hoffman, 1981 Nobel Laureate in Chemistry
The kitchen is a special place in all cultures around the world. The best family traditions often start in the kitchen. It is the pathway to our well-being and the channel for a fulfilled soul. As such, it is full of physics and dynamics. In the Nigerian kitchen, cooking is often a manifestation of passion rather than a mere necessity. Food is a universal language of well-being. Food sustains life. No human exists who does not have a need to eat. No one can practice perpetual complete abstinence from food. Since complete abstinence from food is not possible, we might as well embrace it, celebrate it, and pay homage to all the stages of food transformation; growing it, cultivating it, harvesting it, cooking it, consuming it, digesting it, and using it to nourish our bodies. No matter which side of the above opening quote you profess to stand, the fact remains that you have a close relationship with food. Cooking is like a well-orchestrated symphony, where carefully appointed ingredients play together in perfect harmony. The symphony director (aka the chef) is the pride of the kitchen.
The modern kitchen has as much drama and sentiments as the communal kitchen common in rural parts of Nigeria. A mix of dynamics occurs in every kitchen environment. In a rural communal kitchen, housewives congregate and interact to discuss current affairs in the household and debate community politics. Each household in the communal compound has its own stove or cooking spot in the shared space. So, the interplay of people, personalities, physical environment, and cooking equipment create memorable kitchen dynamics.
Even in a single-family modern kitchen, where there is no sharing of cooking space, the family structure and residential personalities still create unique kitchen dynamics. Regardless of whatever kitchen structure prevails in the Nigerian household, the best foods are the end product. The photos below illustrate the typical scene in a rural Nigerian communal kitchen compared to a modern Nigerian family kitchen.
The Nigerian kitchen is a beehive of activities full of energy and cacophony of laughter, particularly during party preparations. In spite of its chaotic and jumbled appearance, the kitchen puts out the best of the best of food preparation. This typifies the following Yoruba saying:
"Inu ikoko dudu ni eko funfun ti unjade."
This translates roughly to say, "It is from a black pot that white corn meal emanates." No matter how rural a Nigerian kitchen might be, it still produces the best meals. This saying is also often used to commend the career successes of children who have risen out of poverty.
The term, Physics, in the title of this book, is not just about the science of physics. Rather, the word epitomizes the dynamics (processes, actions, and interfaces) that exist in a kitchen environment. As readers will soon find out, the Nigerian kitchen can be full of drama, excitement, and cacophony. In the Nigerian kitchen, commotion is what breeds gastronomic excellence, particularly for large party preparations.
The Nigerian kitchen is full of drama and excitement. One case example of a kitchen excitement is an incident that our older kids (Abi and Ade) witnessed when they were teenagers. According to Deji's recollection, a female family friend, Ms. D, known to our kids as "auntie" came to our home for a visit. Upon entering the kitchen, she started jumping up and down shouting to Iswat in a mixed English-and-Yoruba tone:
"Auntie, auntie, meatpie yen. Tie ba towo, oh my goodness. O da gan ni."
This means "the meatpie turned out great. If you taste it, it will feel like heaven. It is very good." Abi and Ade ran out of their rooms to come and check what the commotion was all about. They have never forgotten the excitement of that moment ... all for the sake of a good meatpie.
For the Love of Food
So pervasive is the love of food preparation that it has become a favorite topic to write about. The prevalence of recipe books on the market attests to this fact. Along with writing children's books, writing recipe books has become a favorite pastime of celebrities both old and young. Maya Angelou, in 2010, at the age of 82, wrote the book, "Great food, all day long: Cook splendidly, eat smart." Mr. Al Roker, popularly known as America's favorite weatherman, also has written a few cookbooks. This book follows the tradition of documenting and commending food in all its forms. This book celebrates Nigerian cooking at its best. Even nature endorses human's love of food. By far, the hardest part of the human body is the outer layer of teeth, thus enabling humans to tackle even the toughest food challenges.
Food as a Centerpiece of Fellowship
"All great change in America begins at the dinner table." -Ronald Reagan
Food is the centerpiece of fellowship in the African tradition. Nigerians take this rallying point to the next level in the way they host and entertain friends, family, neighbors, and extended acquaintances. Cooking and serving food is an essential part of how Nigerians promulgate fellowship.
From the Western, Eastern, Northern, and Southern nooks and corners of Nigeria, food is embraced and even worshiped in some local practices. Just as sports are often used as a basis to unify disparate parts of a developing nation, the interest in food can also be used as a joint foundation to overcome the nagging political differences that are rampant in developing nations. Trade and commerce related to food are important elements of how communities and nations interact. From sharing food, exchanging recipes, and "festivalizing" food to creating community unions, food facilitates participatory alliances among people of all creed and color throughout the world. Mass feeding of everyone within reach is a trademark of Nigerian chefs (actually, all African chefs), which is mere demonstration of the passion of cooking for many. This book is the culmination of years of passion and dedication to the science and art of cooking by the husband-and-wife team of authors.
Market Scenes in Nigeria
Market scenes in Nigeria are exciting with a lot of fresh foods to offer. Fresh fish is common in the Nigerian diet. This implies frequent (or even daily) visits to the market. The photos that follow illustrate typical the fresh fish market scene at Epe, a popular township in Lagos State, Nigeria. Epe is first author Deji's ancestral home, for which he still has a lot of fond memories and cultural admiration. Not only do visitors to Epe enjoy the drama around market price haggling for fresh fish, they also take delight in the spontaneous celebratory dancing and singing that occur in the fish market.
As farmers, even without the benefit of written theory, can tell us, a lot of physics happens in how water moves through a plant's roots, stems, and leaves to generate the unique characteristics that make them edible and delectable. The Nigerian diet consists of many plant products (i.e., roots, stems, and leaves). So, plant physics essentially goes on behind the scene of the Nigerian food. Authors, Karl J. Niklas and Hanns-Christof Spatz commemorated the importance of plant physics with their 2012 book, Plant Physics (University of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL). Of a similar orientation is the 2007 book by Ludger O. Figura and Arthur A. Teixeira entitled Food Physics: Physical PropertiesMeasurement and Applications (Springer-Verlag, Berlin, Germany). Thus, the topic of physics, whether from the classical theory of physics or the more generic interpretation of dynamics, does play and important role in the kitchen. Therein lies the need to write about physics in the kitchen. Good chefs, even without a formal knowledge of physics, do understand how to leverage the physics in each food source (e.g., water content, permeability, microbial properties, etc.) to achieve their culinary goals. Indigenous cooks in Nigeria and other developing countries, even without any formal education can cook up a marvel because they understand the inherent properties of their raw materials. That is physics!
Although this book does not dwell on the classical principles of physics, it aims to inform, enlighten, and inspire the readers about what goes on behind-the-scene of food preparation in the Nigerian kitchen, or any other kitchen for that matter.
The premise of "Physics in the Nigerian Kitchen" is the integration of the science, art, and passion of cooking. There is a lot of science behind the ingredients that go into cooking. While the book touches on physics as a science found in the kitchen, it is not about the subject of physics. The term physics, in this case, refers to the various activities that occur in the kitchen. Naturally, there is a lot of activities in the Nigerian kitchen.
The literal interpretation of the title conveys the direct functional role of physics as a scientific tool in the kitchen. The figurative interpretation coveys the fact that the "physics" of something is often used to refer to how something is done; as in "how" to practice and execute kitchen chores. For this purpose, this book's title addresses fundamental "how-to" processes of carrying out a recipe in the kitchen touching on selection of ingredients, cooking time, food quality, quantity, storage, and so on.
Most ingredients undergo radical scientific transformation before reaching the final flavor at which we use them. In many cases, the intermediate stages of the transformation have their own uses in the cooking process as they can impact different levels of texture, visual appeal, flavor, and taste. For example, it is reported that fresh garlic, when minced can become spicy, however, when slightly sautéed or roasted, it becomes sweet.
The art of cooking relates to the skills of using the various ingredients in tactical combinations to arrive at the intended end goal of a recipe. Finally, it is the passion of cooking that brings out the best in every cook. Without the passion, the cooking effort is a mere abstraction of desire without a manifestation.
Physics in the Nigerian Kitchen is a marvelous fun book that intertwines humor with the serious business of preparing and eating food. It is written as an intellectual cookbook, not the convention common cookbook or recipe book. It is targeted at those who are very serious about cooking and curious enough to find out the science behind it. The book brings together the basic principles of physics and the art of cooking to create foods that satisfy the body and soul of any food lover. The title of the book not only conveys an intellectual depth to food preparation, it also provides an excellent topic of discussion at social gatherings.
Food poisoning is rare in the Nigerian cuisine because rarely do we cook anything rare. Most foods are cooked well done. The Western practice of cooking meat rare or medium rare usually doesn't sit well with Nigerians. The custom of multiple hand washings is also common in the Nigerian kitchen because bare hands are used constantly throughout the cooking process. From hand-handling of meat to sprinkling of spices on the food, hands must be used again and again. In fact, in the final eating of the food, it is not uncommon to dispense of silverware in favor of digging in with bare fingers. That is actually the best way to enjoy many Nigerian delicacies. So, intuitively, hands are washed frequently.
To get ready for your cooking exposition, you need to review your kitchen and household scales and measurements presented below. What translates to what in kitchen measurements? We must admit that traditional Nigerians rarely cook by measurement. But in the global melting pots of recipe exchange, everyone needs a basic knowledge of ounce, pinch, and pint.
Tradition versus Modern Eating Practices
Demise of the Fattening Room: Once upon a time, there was a widespread tradition of sending a bride to fattening rooms, where they get fed and prevented from physical activity for the purpose of building up a plumper physique for the appreciation of the groom. That tradition has practically died out, overtaken by the modern health realities. Brides now desire a trim physique going into the courtship and wedding phases of their relationships. In a traditional fattening room, prospective brides are fed large amounts of food, massaged, and made to sleep for long periods of time in an effort to increase their weight and gain fuller proportions. Although this may still be practiced in some remote villages in certain parts of Nigeria, it is no longer looked upon favorably. In agreement with the modern reality of pursuing a healthy body, the authors provide the following piece of advice:
"Your weight is within your control if you take control early; before weight creep creeps in."
It is essential to note that the best way to savor food is not to eat too much of it, at least, not all at once. If one eats to the point of being full, the sensory system becomes lethargic, shuts down, or slows down, thus, preventing the full enjoyment of the food. Note that serving size is more important than calorie and fat contents of the food.
Eating in Moderation
"Always leave the table feeling like you could have eaten more." -Orient Philosophy
After exercising all the senses of food appreciation, now comes the task of burning off the calories. It is treadmill time! Treadmills are fantastic for indoor calorie burn-off. Accumulated fat that refuses to dissipate of its own accord can be helped along with a good treadmill workout. While it is good to get out and workout in the open air occasionally, indoor treadmill workout offers convenience, privacy, and protection from the weather elements; not to talk of avoidance of neighborhood dogs seeking to take a swipe at joggers.
Food is often the culprit in many of our ailments, either in a wrong form, irrational quantity, or incompatible combination. The fact is that we don't need much food to sustain life. As much as the authors encourage eating well with diverse experimentations, it is recognized that food must be consumed in moderation. Laboratory studies as well as direct human observations tend to suggest that consistently consuming large quantities of food can adversely affect life span. Not only does a large quantity of food blatantly task the body's digestive system, it also means that whatever unfavorable contents lurk in the food end up bombarding the body mechanisms more aggressively. Over a long stretch of time, these adverse impacts manifest themselves in all sorts of diseases whose root causes are difficult to trace. External impacts can be seen through visual assessment of size (e.g., obesity) while internal impacts are often unnoticeable until it is too late. So, the basic lesson offered by this book is to experiment with food (cooking, tasting, consuming, etc.), but also give the body a fighting chance against the unwanted side effects noted above. Eating less not only has positive effect on weight, but also helps to wade off potential sources of pathogens by reducing the type and volume of what is ingested.
The quotes below seem appropriate in this regard:
"Some live to eat, some eat to live." -Source unknown
"... he is a heavy eater of beef. Me thinks it doth harm to his wit." -Shakespeare
"A diet is when you watch what you eat and wish you could eat what you watch." -Hermione Gingold
"A fully gorged belly never produced a sprightly mind." -Jeremy Taylor
"A good meal ought to begin with hunger." -French Proverb
"A hungry stomach seldom scorns plain food." -Horace
The Psychology of Stuffing the Plate
It is known that some people eat more when they eat with other people while some eat less when they eat alone. Of course, we would always have those who eat against the grains in these standardized expectations. When you eat less alone, it is probably because you don't have to impress alone with your appetite. When you eat more alone, it is probably because you lack self-discipline and you would gorge yourself if no one is watching. In the case of those who eat more in a group, it is often because of what these authors call competitive cyclic psychology of filling up the plate. This is how it happens, particularly in smorgasbord restaurants that serve a large variety of buffet items. The first person spies on the second person's plate and thinks 'gee, he got more than I got,' and responds by pilling more food onto his own plate. This sends a subliminal message. Of course, the second person subconsciously notices that he is being beaten in the unspoken and unannounced eating competition and decides to retaliate by piling on more food. This strike-back mentality can go on back and forth until each person has overdone it, thereby fueling the wheels of obesity subconsciously. Sometimes it is someone desiring to eat more who gets the competition started. This instigator might say 'is that all you got? Get more, we have plenty of food you know' and urges others to fill their plates more. He or she then uses any gullible responders as an excuse to then pile up more food onto his or her own plate.
Excerpted from PHYSICS IN THE NIGERIAN KITCHEN by Deji Badiru Iswat Badiru Copyright © 2013 by Deji Badiru and Iswat Badiru. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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