The other day, I encountered and enjoyed a very much missed experience. I went to Bromley-By-Bow in East London to confront my mechanic (Jimmy) whose garage is beside the Tesco shop on the A 12 motorway, on why he is taking forever to fix my car. I have used him in the past and he didn’t disappoint. He is very good and also affordable, more so he is a Nigerian brother but for some reasons something seem to have gone amiss this time.
As I listened to his various excuses, this beautiful Nigerian lady arrived in her Mercedes A class car. She looked very trendy and had style written all over her. Though I did salivate, I still managed to keep my impressions to myself. From the way she greeted Jimmy, I could see that they already knew each other. My conclusion was that she had brought her car to him to be fixed but I was wrong.
In an instant, she pried open the trunks to expose her wares, a food cache of sorts. Coolers of neatly packed food of assorted variety, she had on offer jollof rice, fried plantain (dodo) and chicken, white rice and beef stew as well as other orishirishi.There were also semolina, and pounded yam neatly wrapped in foil and cellophane which she served with either okro or egusi soup. ‘The road block’ option with lots of meat and fish costs extra, else the standard pack costs only a fiver.
Every hostility ceased immediately between yours truly and Jimmy, and we didn’t need a second invitation to raid the car trunk. I opted for Jollof rice, dodo and chicken and must confess that the lady (forgot to ask her name) did not disappoint, not that it takes much to impress me anyway considering that I’m one of those people that love and enjoy food. The food tasted very much like mama-put food and reminded me of my several trips to mama-put joints in Nigeria. The rice was cooked just the way I like it, very dry, a bit spicy and reddish in colour, an effect that may have been achieved with tatasi or thick red peppers. It tasted like those jollof rice that hired Togo women cook at weddings and other occasions in Nigeria.
Perhaps the reason why I particularly enjoyed the food and experience was because of the environment where it was being eaten. To the initiated, mechanic workshops and mama-put joints have an everlasting relationship. Food connoisseurs like me would tell you that the best foods in the world are eaten at mechanic workshops, and in such other places where good food does not necessarily have to cost your life. If you can stomach the not-so- pleasant surroundings and the wisecracks of the artisans, then you are in business.
On the down side, this lady’s food was warm but not hot, part of the fun and joy of eating mama-put is in watching the old lady dish-out steaming hot rice, dodo, beans, shaki, kanda, round-about, towel or tozo from her pot, which may still be cooking on the wooden fire.
A typical mama-put joint usually would have a tall reputation preceding it. They are famed to be the grounds for major business, social and political meetings. Though the mama-put market is pitched at the lower end of the socio-economic ladder, it has since been hijacked by middle class professionals in major Nigerian cities to the annoyance of local artisans who complain that it is these suit-wearing executives that have contributed to the sharp rise in prices in some of these joints.
Every town in Nigeria would have several mama-put joints including the mobile oyoyo rice sellers. However, there are some mama-put joints that have gone on to achieve iconic status, thus becoming parts of the socio-cultural landscape and ‘beloved’ brands in the cities where they are operated.
In Aba for instance, the name Area may readily come to mind, this family-run joint located close to Aba’s central police station (Ukwuegbu) was famed for their fried eggs, beans and pap servings (akamu). Insiders and loyalists back then would never think of starting the day without a stop over at Area‘s joint. The joint later became a social meeting point and was a veritable source of information for people seeking to know about happenings in and around the Enyimba city.
Enugu is another city that has steadily built up a reputation of being strong supporters of the mama-put culture. There is this famous mechanic workshop at the beginning of Asata (Onu Asata), by the Independence layout and Ogui road intersection. You wouldn’t have completed your visit to the sleepy coal city without visiting the joint to sample their different assortments. This other joint at the back of Mr Big Stuff boutique along Ogui road, and the once popular Moore House bukataria also come to mind.
It is indeed funny how a common plate of mama-put food eaten in far-away London would have me reminiscing on the great mama-put foods that I have eaten in the past. I must admit though that the smaller independent mobile retailers who hawk their wares along the road should also be commended. Having sampled their offerings as well in the past, I make bold to say that they are also trying very hard to hold their own.
I ate my best all-time mama-put food in Lagos, deep inside the Ajegunle zone, and just by the borders of Oshodi – Apapa. I can still remember how we used to wake up in the morning and drive all the way from Festac town to this joint, not because we wanted to avoid the Mile 2 traffic but because we wanted to avoid the long queue at this woman’s mama-put joint. I have never tasted food like hers before. Her food were normally served fresh and straight from the pot while still cooking on the fire, and customers had to pick up a plate, and stand in the line like little refugee children begging for food. And the woman? Oh, she had a big mouth; she serves her customers doses of abuse and good natured humour alongside the food. Her moin-moin should indeed make the Guinness book of world records for its taste, she cooks them wrapped in green leaves to preserve the flavour and also to bring out their natural taste. I remember how she laid into this girl that I once took to the joint, and boy, was I happy?
The omoge had started the usual women’s shakara, when she discovered that we had gone past the Mr Biggs and Tantalizers restaurants in Festac town. She refused to come out of the car when we got to the joint. As I queued up with my friends with our plates in our hands to be served, the woman noticed that she had refused to come down, and consequently refused to serve us an extra plate to take to the car for her. I laughed myself to a fit with the mama-put seller’s in-depth analysis of the Lagos woman and her sme-sme. Another example of life’s stories are written daily in this type of joints, a macrocosm of the larger society.
Apparently modern day fast-food restaurants in Nigeria are trying to copy the home-grown strategies of some of these mama-put joints using different strategies. Mama Cass for instance has tried to take the mama-put concept to another level but what they seem to forget is that they can never replicate the ‘peculiar’ surroundings of a typical mama-put joint, neither can they make up for the seller-buyer relationship which develops over time and leads to credit purchases.
Back then at the University of Uyo, we had so many mama-put joints which I have since forgotten their names, including this one joint along Ikot-Ekpene Road, adjace
nt to City Supermarket. Their strength was in their steaming hot fried eggs, dodo and beans combination, there was also Mama Barry who was located opposite the main campus gate, but the person that takes the crown for me is Udeme who ensured that I regularly arrived late for my 9 AM classes as she sometimes arrived late. I like to believe that I was the person that ‘discovered’ after running into her, and her food at a friend’s spare parts shop. Back then she used to carry her wares on her head as she went about the streets of Uyo in search of punters. At that first encounter, I charted a new but more lucrative course and route for her which she then plied until I left the town. This route which covered Udo Abasi and the sorrounding streets was populated by mainly University of Uyo students who were living off-campus. At the beginning, Udeme would first stop over at No 26 where we lived to serve the residents comprising Miller West, Tony Mgbokwere, Charles Amiye, Tender Nduagu, Chuks Udealor, yours truly and the other tenants living in the compound before moving on to the other students’ addresses, they would be lucky to have any left because as Udeme’s fame spread, other students started to swoop down on our address, and so it was customary to see Okada (Aka uke) motorcycles ferrying students at top speed to our address every morning. As time went on, Udeme’s business soared and she bought a wheel cart to trolley her now expanded range, our prayers for her back then was for her to eventually set up a proper restaurant, especially because of the many free plates of food she gave us on the many occasions that we were broke, and the credit facilities she also granted us which some of us couldn’t pay back before we graduated.
Owerri residents pride themselves in their Nda Letty (Aunti Letty’s) joint, if you know anything about Owerri women and their culinary skills, then you would understand the hype. I do because I’m married to one. There is much to Owerri delicacies than Nkwobi and Ofe Owerri.
Even Abuja too has its own, if you ever find yourself in Nigeria’s capital city, try and visit the famous Madam Nicon close to the Nicon Noga Hilton Hotel, not just for the hype but also for the food.
Surely, this mama-put adventure is not for weak hearts, neither is it for troubled stomachs but if you are ready for a taste of life at unusual places are keen on knowing what the word on the street is, then you are invited.
September 2006. firstname.lastname@example.org