Groundnut Pyramids and Groundnut Soup
There is only one way to rationalize just how delayed this post is in getting out there. Had there not been a year-long delay, I might never have been reminded of Kano of the groundnut pyramids by Kitchen Butterfly’s nostalgic post, and my student-friend Oyinna Agana’s story on peanut soup below wouldn’t have had this wider historical context. Flimsy excuse, at best, but I’m going with it.
Two parts to this post. The first, on groundnut pyramids and pride–big signs. The second, on the deployment of these signs in an intimate, familial context: the story of a father-daughter relationship mediated by cookery and peanut soup, contributed by my student-friend Oyinna Agana, and in its way a tribute to her father on the one-year anniversary of his passing.
Was a time, in the Kano State of my childhood, when the only way to store the groundnuts which Nigeria’s thriving agricultural sector was producing in abundance was to stack them in rows upon rows of pyramids.
Groundnuts were among the fledgling country’s first and most lucrative cash crops, and Kano was an export site. More, I learned from South of the Sahara cookbook-author Elizabeth Johnson (via Kitchen Butterfly):
[P]eanut bags waiting to be shipped out were stacked in the sun in huge pyramids, each pyramid holding 1000 tons of peanuts. A railroad ran strategically through the center of the 60 or more pyramids. This was all located right in the heart of Kano, and the smell of fresh peanuts permeated the surrounding streets, mingling with the dust and oil and other city smells to make an unforgettable aroma.
The pyramids were ostensibly the brainchild of one-time caravan trader and Kano merchant-magnate Alhaji Alhassan Dantata, who was positioned to capitalize on European markets’ newly discovered interest in groundnuts at the turn of the 19th century. Dantata would become the chief buyer of groundnuts for the British Royal Niger Company (instrumental in the consolidation of colonial Nigeria; later the United African Company), claiming, at the time of his death in 1955, some sixty pyramids of stacked groundnut sacks to be his own.
At the time of Nigerian independence in 1960, the groundnut pyramids were already a powerful visual sign of possibility and pride. Imprinted on coins and currency, a commercial answer to the other Great Pyramids of the world, sacks of stacked groundnuts were veritable signs of global becoming.
But then came the discovery of Nigeria’s famous bonny light crude and the gross neglect of agricultural export production, of oil highs and oil lows, and today the great groundnut pyramids are sepia-toned signs memories borne down by narratives of lost possibility–the signs that inscribed the social body, as Foucault might have said. The nostalgia is telling, for Nigeria ranks still among the top four groundnut producing (though not exporting) countries, behind China, India, and the United States. But sans the visual signs, the social body feels stripped of its erstwhile power and prestige.
From technologies of sign-systems and power to technologies of self and individual becomings– here’s Oyinna’s story of peanut soup:
“Oyii, guess what?” he asked, with an animated look on his face.
I kept quiet and continued chopping the ugu leaves, knowing he was going to tell me anyway. My father and I rarely had casual conversations. Especially ones that began with “guess what?” Our conversations often revolved around what I should do and what I shouldn’t do.
“A colleague of mine told me his wife uses peanuts to make soup. Maybe we should try that sometime, don’t you think so?” he said, flashing his teeth and tugging at his tie, “I think it’s time we try something different for a change. We are going to make peanut soup as soon as the egusi runs out, okay?” We called groundnuts “peanuts”: a vestige of our American experience.
“Okay,” I said, putting on one of my best ‘this-is-the-news-I’ve-been-waiting-for’ smile, and turned to stir the pot of soup, rolling my eyes. By “we” he meant me of course. My father couldn’t boil a kettle of water if you handed him a kettle full of water. His contribution as far as cooking involved announcements like, “Oyii, don’t forget to add the sweetener!” ["Sweetener" was my father's fond name for bouillon cubes.] Or, “Oyii, wash the vegetables well!” And, “Is the stone you are cooking ready? I’m hungry!”
I became my father’s housekeeper and cook at the age of seven, when my mother left us with him, unable herself to adjust to life in Nigeria after his years of study in the United States. Most of what I learned to cook was through trial and error, with some meals turning out delicious, and others bland and nasty. I watched my grandma and aunts cook anytime we went to the village. By the time I turned nine, I learned to figure out recipes by seeing and smelling meals. And by the time I turned eleven, I pretty much knew how to cook every meal I knew of, including my father’s hometown traditional meals.
As you can probably sense by now, I didn’t share my father’s enthusiasm for peanut soup. Let me tell you why. The first reason is quite simple: my dad was prone to extreme stinginess. He never bought complete ingredients for meals, but expected me to perform miracles to make it taste as good as my aunts’ cooking. For instance, he believed that all I needed to make a pot of beans was beans, salt, and many cubes of bouillon–um, sweetener–as possible. Secondly, my father never got tired of eating the same dish day in and day out. We ate the same soup for lunch every day and beans at night, until whenever he came home with a new meal plan. And that wouldn’t be in another couple of months!
Funny enough, my father never thought to ask for the complete recipe. It was left for me to figure out how to make the key ingredient into soup for his fufu. He strongly believed bouillon was the key ingredient to making any meal delicious and nothing else. He was too cheap to buy crayfish, pepper, onions, dry fish and local herbs and spices like uziza, utazi and efuru [Calabash nutmeg]. Most soups require these staple ingredients, but all I got was Mackerel, Maggi bouillon cubes, salt, ugu leaves and palm oil. And I better make it taste great!
Two months before he got the peanut soup idea, it was soybean soup. One evening he walked into the kitchen and dropped a bag of white powdery substance on the kitchen counter. “This is soybeans,” he said, “A female coworker of mine said it can be made into soup. Just like egusi. Soybeans has a high content of protein, which we need because we don’t eat meat,” and walked away after giving me a curt nod and grunt.
The raw powdered soybeans probably needed an extra step of processing because it had a nutty and soapy smell made which made me feel lightheaded and dizzy for hours. Oh did it drive me insane! So what I did to avoid being in the kitchen while it cooked was to add all the ingredients at once, run outside the house, come back in twenty minutes and turn off the stove. My father never said a word against my soybean soup, but I could tell he hated it too because he never bought it again when it ran out.
So where were we? Peanut soup. I have to say this about peanut soup. Like the soybean soup, I never got a recipe for the peanut soup. But it turned out to be quite tasty. And it didn’t need a lot of choice ingredients to make it taste good because peanut is sweet in any form, boiled, roasted, buttered, etc. I know this because peanuts, coconuts, and Maggi cubes were staples in my house–material enough for a book on Peanuts, Coconuts, and Sweeteners.
I found out years ago when I visited Ghana that peanut soup is a Ghanaian specialty, and Ghanians rival Nigerians in their consumption of peanuts. I enjoyed their version of the peanut soup immensely, but it’s quite different from the way I prepare mine. I make two variations of peanut soup these days: (a) with roasted peanut butter paste or (b) with raw ground peanuts. This is my recipe.
Groundnut [Peanut] Soup with Fufu
1 cup of raw ground peanuts or 4 large scoops of peanut butter
4 cups of water or stock
Habanero peppers (As much as you can tolerate)
2-3 lbs of Chicken/Mackerel/Beef/Dry fish (any kind of meat, fish or poultry will do. You may choose to use only chicken, or a bit of chicken and fish. It’s really up to you).
1-2 Knorr cubes or any bouillon cubes (I still can’t stand Maggi till this day, but it works!)
Salt (to taste)
A bag of frozen collard greens or spinach (Fresh vegetables are even better)
Two table spoons of palm oil
*Optional—a teaspoon of ground uziza (also known as zanthoxylum tessmannii. This has a spicy kick to it)
Wash the meat or fish and place in a medium size cooking pot.
Sprinkle the bouillon, salt, on the meat.
Add stock or water to the meat and let it cook until it’s quite tender.
Add crayfish, uziza, and hot peppers to the pot.
Add the ground peanut or peanut butter paste to the pot and stir until the lumps disappear. Let it boil for 7-8 minutes.
Finally, add the vegetables, cover the pot and let it simmer for about 5-7 minutes.
Add salt to taste.
Serve with fufu or boiled rice.
About fufu. Fufu is a staple, starchy food in West Africa. I’m not sure if it’s eaten in other parts of Africa or not, though there are equivalents like mealie pap in the Southern countries. It can be made by boiling starchy foods like yam or unripe plantain, and pounding with a mortar and pestle until its smooth and doughy. Fufu should be rolled into a small ball and dipped into the soup before swallowing.
As you can imagine, I cannot make fufu from scratch like it is made in Nigeria. I don’t own a big mortar and pestle here. Besides, I wouldn’t want to aggravate my neighbors with all that pounding. That said, most people buy fufu flour from local grocery stores or African stores. With all the hoopla over fatty foods and high cholesterol, most people have turned to wheat and oat fufu.
Since oatmeal is available in most places, I have decided to share the recipe as well.
A cup and half of oatmeal
A cup and half of water
Blend the oatmeal and water until very smooth
Pour in a small pot
Cook and stir over medium heat for about 5 minutes until the fufu thickens and becomes quite stiff.
Remove from heat and scoop onto plate.
With thanks to Oyinna Agana for her narrative, her candor, her recipes, and most of all her patience. Pyramid images shown are from this discussion forum.