The Gannet Q&A

Yemisi Aribisala

16th March 2017

Interview: Adam Park
Photograph: Helena Krige / Yeahyeah Photography

Yemisi Aribisala is an essayist, writer and memoirist who has written on Nigerian politics, culture and food for 10 years. Her André Simon Book Award-winning Longthroat Memoirs: Soups, Sex and Nigerian Taste Buds tells the story of culture through the belly and digs into the core of the Nigerian psyche. In addition, she writes on feminism, pentecostal Christianity and identity for the Cape Town-based, pan-African gazette The Chimurenga Chronic. Born and raised in Nigeria, Yemisi now lives in Somerset West, Western Cape, South Africa.

If you could revisit one meal in your life, which would it be?

My first slice of New York pizza. It was 1983, I was 10 years old. I was with my uncle Femi and aunty Karen. My uncle insisted that I must not have vanilla or chocolate ice cream. I was a Nigerian girl in New York, I could have any flavour of ice cream that I could imagine in the world. That offer made me instantly overwhelmed and I just wanted a scoop of vanilla or chocolate ice cream. Just that. But the smell of that pizza and its size comparative to my hand. It hung down over my fingers like a thick bunting flag and the elasticity of the mozzarella was gorgeous and embarrassing and the aroma of tomatoes was intoxicating. The crust was hot and thick with your teeth sinking inside in degrees. To be the centre of attention of this good-looking couple who then had no children of their own, to be offered any flavour of ice cream that my imagination could conjure, to be overfed till I wobbled on my feet. I was so nervous it would all be taken away, throughout the two weeks I spent with them in New York, my nails were bitten to the skin. I flew back home on my own because I had to go to boarding school that month. I had to go back on the plane with a laminated tag around my neck with my name written on it. For the full term, I cried every day. I was heartbroken. My uncle and aunt and New York and pizza and ice cream and all the redolence of a beautiful short-lived dream had deserted me.

But the smell of that pizza… It hung down over my fingers like a thick bunting flag and the elasticity of the mozzarella was gorgeous and embarrassing and the aroma of tomatoes was intoxicating

What’s your most food-splattered cookbook?

My 1976 The St Michael All Colour Cookery Book by Jeni Wright.

What’s the worst supposedly-good thing you ever ate?


Describe your perfect breakfast.

Coffee made from scratch: green Guatamala Antigua beans bought from Snob’s Coffee roasted in my popcorn maker until glossy, cooled for 30 minutes, then ground and brewed in a cafetière. I have to have the whole cafetière to myself. Freshly roasted coffee, ground and brewed with two inches of frothy head, is really the highlight of my mornings. Many days, I don’t want anything else but the shot in the head of beautifully scented beans and the nasal sweetness of cinnamon. Sometimes I crave some coconut sugar and cassava milk. They are not essentials as long as the coffee is served with lots of ground cinnamon. If I’m hungry, I’ll eat two (or more) slices of gluten-free brown bread with soft goat’s cheese (THICKLY spread), quartered boiled eggs (cooked just until they are steady on their feet, not hardboiled) and too many black olives stuffed with fresh ginger. Oh, and a furtive piece of dark chocolate.

No restaurant is perfect but which one, for you, comes closest, and why?

I don’t eat in restaurants because I have a very delicate stomach. And I haven’t put my finger on that condiment or additive common to most restaurants, that makes every single visit to a restaurant in recent years the precursor to days of tummy-aches. I last had a restaurant meal in 2015 sitting outside at the Stables restaurant in the Vergelegen wine estate in Somerset West. I don’t even go out for coffee and you can guess why from reading my morning ritual.

What’s your favourite food scene in the movies?

From Julie & Julia: Julia Child, her husband Paul and friends having Valentine’s Day dinner. Paul Child is in the middle of telling the story of how they met. He says: “Anyway, so there we were in China, just friends having dinner, and it turned out to be Julia. It turned out to be Julia all along. Julia, you are the butter to my bread and the breath to my life. I love you darling girl. Happy Valentine’s Day.” Julia puts her hand under the cardboard heart pinned to her dress and lifts it up and down to imitate a beating heart.

What do you listen to when you’re cooking?

Adjoa Andoh reading Alexander McCall Smith: The sedate rhythm of The Number 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, of Mma Ramotswe, her dependable husband J.L.B. Matekoni, and the highly strung Mma Makutsi, among many other wonderful characters.

What was your favourite food when you were 10?

White bread and salted butter up until the day I buttered both sides of two slices of bread and stuffed them in my mouth. Butter was very expensive when I was a child and we only had a free hand with the margarine. The stolen butter sandwich made me sick as anything and I couldn’t tell anyone about it and that was that.

Who is your food hero?

Pierre Thiam, the Senegalese Chef who has written two books: Yolele! Recipes from the Heart of Senegal and Senegal: Modern Senegalese Recipes from the Source to the Bowl.

I had to find quick ways of getting depth of savouriness, so I bought the best salts I could find and mixed them… A teaspoon of honey will make the mix hit almost all the points on the palate

What’s your greatest talent in the kitchen?

Not turning up grumpy and tense every single day on behalf of three “connoisseurs” under the age of 14. I don’t know why I do it. Freezer food would be fine on a few days. And it would save me from wanting to harm someone when they turn up their nose at my shepherd’s pie. Most people would say it’s my roasting of chicken, and my natural instinct for seasoning meat. We do very heavy seasoning where I come from. You want to cover up the smell of rawness.

What ingredient or food product are you currently obsessed with?

Black olives stuffed with roasted garlic.

If you had to limit yourself to the cuisine of just one country, which would it be and why?

Nigeria of course.

What’s your biggest food extravagance?

My Le Creuset dutch ovens.

Share a useful cooking tip.

Mixing salts: when stock cubes turned up on our food intolerance list, I had to find quick ways of getting depth of savouriness, so I bought the best salts I could find and mixed them. Favourite mix is Himalayan crystals and Maldon sea salt flakes. A teaspoon of honey will make the mix hit almost all the points on the palate.

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Posted 16th March 2017

In The Gannet Q&A


Interview: Adam Park
Photograph: Helena Krige / Yeahyeah Photography

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