It’s a mystery to me why Nigerian food is not better known. It can only be the prejudice of poor exposure. I once took Antonio Carluccio to my favourite Nigerian restaurant in London and he raved at the revelation. But it was too late in his career to champion what might become the next great discovery in international cuisine. The moment now feels right.
I was born in Minna [in Nigeria] where my earliest memory is panicking my mother for a whole day, when I was only about a year and a half old, because I headed off across the market and got lost in town. Minna is a groundnut town and I remember seeing these piles – pyramids – of groundnuts.
We came to London when I was two for my dad to study law. In the 60s there were three ways of looking at English food: what we got in school, which was quite indifferent and I didn’t like; what was eaten at friends’ houses, like shepherd’s pie and peas; and then another kind, such as the immortal English fish and chips, my favourite. In Peckham they did the best in the world. I almost hate to say this, but fish and chips was one of my fondest memories when I returned to Nigeria in 1966
There was a time when there was a kind of disagreement between Mum and Dad. Mum left, for a bit. That day Dad said, and I remember it very clearly: “Your mother thinks that without her we can’t eat in this house, so let’s do some cooking.” Then he’d make rice and a stew. When he cooks it’s like theatre. Mum was by far the better cook – there’s no comparison. She’s an extraordinary cook, making every type of food in Nigeria. And later she studied baking. I talk about my parents in the present tense, because that’s what your parents remain.
I was stuck in a boarding school in Nigeria when civil war was declared [in 1967]. It was one of the most horrendous wars in history and the first sign of the collapse of the African dream. Parents came and collected their children and the principals and teachers had left, so I was there alone. My mother, from the enemy tribe, came to get me, through Urhobo roadblocks, because Dad was tied down in all sorts of stuff. She was risking her neck; it was pretty much certain death. But we roasted and ate root vegetables we found outside.
It was a period of shortages and real starvation in places where the war was taking place. You learned how to make a little go a long way. We used to take food down to Mum in the cellar – there was no other place for her to go where she wouldn’t be denounced. She was still cooking down there. She’d make cassava root into garri and watery stews out of tomatoes. She’d say: “Ben, I can make a feast out of anything.”
I lived on the streets after I’d returned to London. I’d been at Essex University. There had been great canteens and people inviting you into their flats for dinners. Politicians back home stopped paying for my scholarship, so I was told: “You have to leave, old boy.”
When you are hungry it seems all the books you’re reading are full of feasts. Food shines when you’re deprived of it.
One night I was wandering around in London, starving, with manuscripts under my arm. You have to understand – I was in my early 20s, so in my mind, the writing, living on the streets, the starvation were all bound up together. It wasn’t hell to me – it was half-romantic. I stopped outside a restaurant with a glass front in Notting Hill and watched for a long time all these folks eating gorgeous steaks, chicken and pasta. That image has really stayed with me. So when I’m the one having a nice dinner and I catch a glimpse of the window and someone’s looking in, it flips me out a bit.
There’s an acute relationship between the taste of food and the state of mind of the person cooking it. I asked Mum once why her omelettes taste so good and she said: “I alwaysmake them when I’m in a special state of mind.”
Salman Rushdie took me out to an Indian place in Islington. He’d won the Booker prize when I was working on The Famished Road, which I then won my Booker with. He was very kind, talking about liking the lean dry writing in my Stars of the New Curfew. He’s a big foodie. At the time he was fascinated by bread cultures.He kept eating rice with his hands. That was very sweet. It touched me.
There are some foods that make you carnal, some aggressive, some that calm you down, some conducive to thought or to argument. It’s not for nothing that when people start on a spiritual journey their diet changes. Food and personal spiritual development is very interesting – not least in fasting. It’s not much talked about, but fasting can cleanse the appetite and return one’s senses to zero. Astonishing The Gods was written while fasting.
All meals in Nigerian restaurants should be prefixed with pepper soup. Otherwise it’s like setting off on a journey without a suitcase, or on seduction without foreplay. It awakens all the taste buds, pores and senses. You inhale differently and feel differently. So, you are ready for your main meal. Then finish off with slices of pineapple or mango. Hell is a place where your favourite foods drift past, uneaten. The fragrance of your favourite food is flooded to you for hours but you’re not allowed any food. That is a very special kind of torture. Hell can also be eating too much. There is a hell in which you are gorging yourself all the time. You can eat yourself to death. Also, a food hell would be a place, a culture, where, for nationalist reasons or whatever, there was only one kind of food – morning, afternoon, evening, day in, day out.
The Freedom Artist is published on 7 Feb (Head of Zeus, £7.99)
I am going through a phase of simple eating. Maybe also I’m returning to the kinds of food I liked as a kid in Nigeria – fried plantain, stewed black-eyed beans, yam potage and omelettes.
The best palm wine can only be hot in Nigeria, and it’s best fresh. But I love a good wine. White in the early evening, red for dinner.
805 [on the Old Kent Road] is the best west African in London.