by Ian McCall


It was a ritual in Lagos and in the parts I was to live in later and held a fascination for me in these first days. People took it in turns to have others in for lunch on Saturdays. Sometimes it was people from the department or company but most often it was a gathering of friends who finished work about half past twelve and arrived dressed in their working clothes which was a sleeveless dress for women and for men shorts or longs and ties which our hosts might invite us to take off, and of course the knee hose in white or khaki if you wore shorts. When it was your turn to host a lunch it was at first a source of amazement where all the chairs and indeed glasses came from until you realised in due course that they had been borrowed by the stewards from the stewards of the houses of the guests or neighbours. If as a guest you returned home quickly you might find only one chair if you were a bachelor. If you had half an hour on the bed you would return to a room which had recovered its quota.

Hints were given in official publications to people coming out to the coast whether as a government official or a commercial executive (a word with pejorative associations in these days - slick/pretentious, probably fed off the prejudices of some senior officers against those involved in commercial activity), on what you should do to maintain a healthy life style. You were advised to drink eight to eleven pints of liquid a day - and the water wasn’t drinkable. Even if it had been boiled and filtered it tasted awful unless laced with something strong. It was as well that it was possible to buy a crate of Heineken or Amstel or St Pauli Girl at the local store. Later Heineken would set up a brewery in Lagos and introduce Star beer on the market. Star beer quickly became identified with Nigeria and was sometimes referred to by locals as OHMS (‘our home made stuff’, an acronym originally given to palm wine) and was a good seller in the stores. The up-country store, called a canteen in earlier times and still so-called in smaller stations, was a corrugated iron shed where cold storage did not exist. In the bigger towns like Lagos the stores resembled a West European department store with Kingsway Stores on the Marina based on Selfridges in London. Star was a pretty good drink if you were thirsty or even if you weren’t. Coca Cola was supplied by vendors in the city from small two-wheeled hand carts or from fixed ice-boxes and it could also be bought unchilled in the canteens. The vendors of it sold more Coke than all the other brands because it had been chilled rather than for any distinctive taste it had or indeed any addictive properties, certainly to begin with.

Lunch was preceded by a choice of drinks. Best groundnuts or roasted egúsi (melon seeds) were an accompaniment to the drinks. Some old coasters and their wives stuck to gin which suggested it was a ‘safe’ drink. Women who took it regularly developed a deep, husky ‘gin’ voice which suggested it might be doing something to their vocal chords or perhaps even their sex hormones. Never were so many women like the actress Glynis Johns with her dry, throaty yet attractive voice. It was occasionally taken as a long drink with water which in the town of my upbringing was the hallmark of established ‘drouths’ (persons always ready for the drink). Water, boiled and filtered, was added to a number of drinks and was poured for some obscure reason from an empty Gordon’s gin bottle. The bottle was a clear one (there was, and still is, a bottle green one) and presumably so because it revealed that the water itself was clear with no apparent impurities. Beer was also popular not least because it provided the necessary medically recommended liquid intake and was no great hardship to force down. I quickly learned that drinks and food were not ‘served’, they were ‘passed’. My inside smile nearly burst when I first heard a host ask a servant to ‘pass water’.

All this was but a prelude to what was to come. Once the throats had been lubricated, and the conversations cut off and new ones initiated by the call to table, we would sit down to await the palm oil chop. Chop was the word given to food in general and was also used as a verb in the sense of ‘to eat’. Sometimes the ‘chop’ was dropped altogether and the traditional Saturday lunch was referred to as a ‘palm oil’. Being a staple of the region, it was of the highest quality.

A steaming dish of rice would be brought in and placed on the table. It was not the basmati rice beloved of present day afficionados but the standard round (‘pudden’) rice, preferably unpolished, which is so difficult to drain without the grains clogging together. One old coaster advised on the best way to prevent this happening. That was for the cook to put the boiled and washed rice in a linen pillowslip and swing it round his head vigorously until the centrifugal effect had the desired result leaving nice fluffy servings with every grain separate. Health buffs, even then, got to hear about unhulled rice and it was possible to get this in some postings. Before serving yourself with rice it was customary to apply a liberal serving-spoonful of mango chutney to the middle of the plate. The rice was then piled on top and made into a bed by tapping it with the back of a spoon. It was then in a proper state to receive the palm oil chop.

The meat could be beef or poultry or goat cooked in palm oil with seasonable vegetables like okra, garden eggs (aubergines) and gbúre and was taken round the table by the steward himself. If the number seated was large he was assisted by his ‘small boy’ who would also bear a dish of the chop. Guests helped themselves to as much as they felt they wanted and then set to on the twenty or so side dishes or sambals without which the palm oil chop would have lost much of its distinctiveness. These consisted of items sprinkled on the meat and vegetables in palm oil like ground peppers, grated copra (sun-dried coconut), ground capsicums, fried plantain, tomato, ‘fufu’ made from the root of the cassava plant, chopped groundnuts and stockfish. This last was a prized Norwegian import of dried cod which we took in powdered form and was invariably referred to as ‘stinkfish’. It was prized as a distinctive delicacy by Africans and Europeans alike. ‘Fine pass stinkfish’ was an expression I was to hear from time to time, spoken with a smile, meaning excellent. One consignment was held up in the roads for a number of weeks while the ship carrying it was waiting for a berth at Apapa, the port of Lagos, and the shipment went bad. The ship’s master was required by the health authorities to dump the cargo in the water. For days afterwards dead eels were washed up on the shore but no one could prove a direct connection.

Each person mixed the sambals according to his/her taste and finished off what was always a substantial meal. It was said that you didn’t really begin to enjoy a palm oil until the sweat was nipping your eyes. A Scots neighbour referred to it as a ‘pilaff’ meaning it would be more comfortable to strip off the outer garments. After all the spicy additives the palm oil had to be followed by something that cleaned the mouth. This was almost invariably a fresh fruit salad. It brought people back from the culinary high to which they had been exposed and prepared them for returning home. It is interesting to note in passing that similar spices, but with a greater concentration, were taken internally by Nigerians and some Europeans for chest and throat complaints.

It is interesting, too, to note that sambals is a Malayan word and reflects the transferability of members of the old Colonial Service who brought with them the practices and expressions they had become accustomed to in their earlier postings and this at a time when such crossing of taste barriers was not a commonplace. Today with globalisation of business and particularly the food business, this is usual except that much of the unique taste gets lost in the transfer - there is nowhere less appetising than the international hotel restaurant boasting a so-called international menu. The people transferability is reflected in a story told of the two old colonial servants, one from the Audit Department and another from the Forestry Department who met at the Saturday lunch in the house of a third.
‘Haven’t we met before ?’ asked the first.
‘Yes, I am sure we have.’ said the second. ‘Could it have been in Tanganyika in ’48?’
‘No’ was the answer, ‘I left there in ’47’.
‘In Sierra Leone in ’50?’
‘No I haven’t been to Sierra Leone’ the other responded.
‘Aden in 49 perhaps?’ the first suggested. The second shook his head.
‘No. I think I remember now. It was in your office at eight o’clock this morning’.

Ian Mcall Auchencrow
Berwickshire, Scotland July 2003