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Nigerian Small Chops: Puff-Puff & Fish

by on January 6, 2011

Welcome to 2011: “Sometimes it’s easier to act your self into a new way of thinking, than it is to think your self into a new way of acting.” {Jo Berry, author}.

Small chops in Nigeria are all the rage – tiny, tasty bites of jazzed-up traditional recipes, served at parties of every sort. Think of them as the ‘tropical’ version of Hors D’Oeuvres: Dundunfried yam, cooked in a mixture of hot oil and sprinklings of water, Mosa – mashed plantain fritters, Chinese style spring rolls, king prawns, puff-puff and fish, peppered snails and many more dishes.


The first time I tasted the combination of puff-puff, round fried balls of nutmeg-scented dough and crisp fried whitebait at a friend’s wedding in Lagos when I was fresh out of university, headstrong and single, I was pleasantly surprised – they went together like a sweet-savoury house on fire. Strange pairing but one I think which can be likened to a fishy sandwich on some European coast, or perhaps a Bajan fish cake, even if deconstructed, lessy fishy and much more tasty.


In the Netherlands, where we currently live, the journey from old year to new year is welcomed on oudjaarsavond by eating loads of oliebollen. Translation Oil balls. And you know that anything with that kind of name must be bad for you…….and oh so delicious. The first time I tasted them; I’d been away from home for a year and had not tasted puff-puff. I exclaimed in rapturous delight that these were exactly like what Auntie T had made for my dad’s funeral in 2001. That these had the same structure and taste as the practice ones I made for my  boyfriend (then, now  husband) on his birthday, except that my version was plain and simple – no currants, no raisins, no chopped up glace cherries and definitely no icing sugar sprinkled over the top.

We ate them every winter after. In the winter of 2008 when my sister from Boston visited with Kettle popcorn and called it her ‘crack’, and with it proved that she could get a 1 year old nephew to love her, a boy who didn’t know her and who wouldn’t come to her till she stretched out the copper red bag towards him and thus snagged him for life. In that year 2008, when every canal was frozen and people made sleighs of dining chairs and baby buggies, we bought oliebollen by the dozen and had them with tea.


In 2009, in December when we got more snow than anyone had seen in recent years gone past and the  children could sleigh on the 2nd hand sled that I, good mother had bought in the spring past at a street market for 15 euros, knowing the day would come when it would be of good use. In that winter, we had the Berliners, oliebollen fried and filled with creamy vanilla custard; we munched our way through soft appelflappen – rings of skinned and cored apples, coated in thick batter and deep fried. We also ate the plain ones, no garnish, no studs, no nothing.


And so for 2010, I decided I would wait no more to compare oliebollen and puff-puff and see if truly, they were the same. With friends from Nigeria here as well and 42g of fresh yeast, I decided to give it a go.


The whitebait had also been purchased long before the day.  And so on New Year’s eve, while fireworks exploded all around me, and children toasted 2011 in by burning ‘toasting’ marshmallows,  watching them explode in fiery flames while parents looked on with eyes of caution and hands full of wine – red, white and rosé, I planned my schedule, in a rather Zen way: I would wake up early on New Year’s day, at least half an hour before I headed to the beach for my polar dive. I would make up my puff-puff mix, cover it and slide it into the oven to rise and then I would bring out the frozen whitebait from the deep freezer to defrost. I would pack my bags, pick up my friend and drive to Scheveningen, with a touch of panic in my heart at the cold and frost wondering if it was a sensible thing I planned to do – the cold plunge.


Haven refreshed my memory, I can emphatically say that oliebollen and puff-puff resemble each other only in shape and horrific calorific value – the mixes are however very different. The oliebollen batter includes basic ingredients such as milk, eggs and baking powder in addition to yeast, in some cases beer unlike the simple puff-puff mix of water, yeast, flour and sugar!

At the beach I would drum up courage when confronted with a sea of silly orange hats, music and the rising of the sun.

IMG_9529I would stand in my bathing suit and be comforted by 6 degrees of heat on my back, struck at how much this was like summer weather.

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I would tell my friend that I knew God was looking out for me and had delivered such fine weather for his daughter. I would also lose my telephone – the same one said friend had advised me to leave in the car. The same phone that fell on the sand and a passerby had said ‘is that your phone?’ In my excitement I would lose it again but that was much later.

IMG_9495First of all I would dance like it was 1999, sing….in fits and bursts for my Dutch song repertoire is lean and then ready myself in the big tent to the left, eagerly awaiting the noon gong.

IMG_9514When it would go off, I would join 7,500 people running to hit the icy waters, but then I would caution myself, not wanting to send my body into shock. I would slow down as I neared the waters, my grey crocs on my feet and my blue-white-grey- surf pants firmly covering my butt. I would slide into the water and bend down to scoop some up, to wash my face. Thoughts of cold refreshment, cleansing, renewal and rejuvenation would course through my mind like rapids, and I would stand and stare, shaking drops of water off my face….in disbelief.


I could see my friend, dive like a mermaid in and out of waves in her black and white bikini and I would turn around to walk ashore, losing the right foot of my grey crocs in the process. I would feel the icy coolness of the sand, not welcoming or comforting and again I would reach into the water to rescue my shoe and foot. And then I would make the final exit, exchange hugs with my friend and her dad and then say, ‘No, I didn’t do this properly’, I need to go back. And back I would go, for another small dip…..and out again, satisfied that #52 had been struck off my bucket list.

We would get changed and make our way to the stalls housing warm erwtensoep servers, who would ladle spoonful after spoonful for the trembling masses.


We would receive bowls of a steamy olive-green mixture, which tasted nice in 2009 and 2010.

IMG_9563In 2011, I found it gross – it was as though my body would not settle for less, orange hats and mitts aside – there was no room for desecration of this water-washed temple that was my bod.

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I would take small sips off my white plastic spoon for my photo shoot and then the rest would go in the bin. And then I would come home, incredibly proud of myself, for conquering my fear of death by cold water and I would search for my phone again and truly find it lost.

And in the evening, when we were all together at home again, I served up puff-puff and fish and we ate and celebrated the year of hopes and dreams, while I worried about getting my phone back. And in between it all, I called my own phone, in the hopes that someone kind and merciful would have found it and would want to return it. And so we went to bed.

And the next morning, our landline would ring and when I looked at the caller ID, I could see that it was my own number and the man at the other end and I bubbled with many words. He lived in Delft, and I lived close to the Hague. I’d lost my phone at the beach, and he had found it and then he said, ‘I’ll drop it through your mail box’, when I wandered how we would make the exchange – me with thanks, and he with my phone. And then the children and I played in our bed for a while….and when we came downstairs, there it was – my phone. Back home again. Have a blessed 2011 and may we meet kind strangers, be kind strangers and do good deeds……for nothing in return.

Puff-puff, Makes at least 4 dozen regular sized balls


40g fresh baker’s yeast or 2 teaspoons active dry yeast
750ml – 1 litre water, lukewarm (about 3 – 4 cups)
1 kg all purpose flour
100 – 200g granulated white sugar
1 – 2 teaspoons freshly grated nutmeg
Vegetable/Tasteless oil,  for frying


  • The mixture can be scaled down to a suitable ‘trial’ quantity – just adjust the ingredients proportionally.
  • Make sure the oil is hot otherwise, the balls will absorb a lot of oil and the result will be greasy, heavy balls.
  • In between batch frying the puff-puff, lower the oil temperature.
  • Ensure you turn the balls frequently, with a fork or slotted spoon while they fry to ensure even browning all over.
To make the batter:

Stir 2 tablespoons of sugar in 250ml (1 cup) of warm water and then add the yeast. Using a spoon or your fingers, add the yeast and mix till it has dissolved. Set the mixture aside. If using fresh yeast, you don’t have to wait for it to bloom. If using active dry yeast, you should wait till it blooms and is foamy, about 10 minutes.

Once the yeast mixture has bloomed, tip it into a large bowl and add about half of the flour, half of the sugar and the grated nutmeg. Add a cup or two of warm water and using a wooden spoon or your hands, stir to combine. Then add the other half of the flour, sugar and the water. Combine again.

Begin to mix the mixture with your hand, squeezing the batter till all the bumps and lumps are out and the resulting batter is smooth. The mixture at this stage should not be too thick or thin – the consistency should be somewhat similar to cake batter: it will be much softer than bread dough and much thicker than pancake mix. Mix for about 3 – 4 minutes.

You will notice once you begin to mix the dough, it will be extremely sticky. However, once it is ready, it will be a smooth, elastic mixture which doesn’t have the same ‘gluey’ qualities as the initial batter.

Set batter aside to rise:

The batter/dough is now ready to go into storage. Cover the bowl with a large tea cloth and keep in a warm corner to rise – like an oven (not switched on).

The rise time will vary depending on the climate/temperature conditions but a minimum of an hour should be observed. I left mine to rise for about 5 hours but the weather was COLD so the proving was much slower.

When the batter is ready you will smell it. I know that’s hard to explain to people who haven’t made it before but you should get soft, yeasty flavours which come through in the finished product. If I had the smells of light ales and beers in my head, perhaps I would be able to make a good comparison. Alas, that’s not to be done.


Thankfully, you’ll also see it. My tea cover had slipped into the batter and when I took it off, there was a roof of batter on it, attached to the mixture in the bowl by long, elastic strands of dough. The top was punctured with air holes and the mixture had doubled in quantity.

To fry:

Heat up some oil in a large, deep pan or wok – the oil should be a couple of inches deep or you will end up with pancakes, rather than balls. Another alternative is to use your deep-fat fryer (sorry!), set to 180 degrees centigrade. Don’t let the oil overheat if using the stovetop – a cube of bread should brown in 30 seconds!

I normally make a test batch to check the sweetness levels – I fry 2 or 3 balls, and then taste them. If they aren’t sweet enough, I remove a portion of the dough into a small bowl, add some sugar, mix to combine and continue with the frying steps below. The addition of sugar at this late stage will not affect the mixture.

If you are comfortable with using your hands, lightly oil them and grab a small amount of dough, think walnut size – squeeze this into the hot oil by pushing it down to your fingertips and pinching off. Repeat till the pan is full but not overcrowded. If you aren’t comfortable with your hands, use an oiled tablespoon/ice cream scoop to perform the same magic.


The frying dough balls should begin to rise to the top of the oil almost immediately. Let the puff-puff brown on the underside and then flip them over. This is the tough part because the browned sides tend to want to stay under, and the uncooked sides….give in. You’ll have to keep the light side down to cook properly so the balls are brown all over. They should cook in 3-4 minutes.

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Once ready, remove from the oil with a slotted spoon and drain on paper towels. Allow at least 5 – 10 minutes to allow the balls cool down. Serve on its own with extra sugar, or take a leap…….and enjoy with some crisp whitebait, which can be rustled up while the balls are cooling!

The resulting puff-puff should be nicely golden all around with crisp bits and pendants on the otherwise smooth outer cover. You can see some sugar crystals in the photo below right? This was an amended batch, to which I added sugar to the batter/dough after proving and before frying.


The inside should be soft, holey, stretchy and delicately perfumed with nutmeg – full but not heavy and definitely not wet.


If the batter is too much, fry it all up and then freeze in Ziploc bags. When required, the balls can be microwaved for 30 seconds – 1 minute, from frozen. I’ve never attempted to store the batter, but rather have stored the fried balls on many occassions.

Fried whitebait


200g Whitebait, washed and drained
Salt and pepper, to season
Plain or wholemeal flour, to coat

How to


Salt the white bait and toss in enough flour to coat the small fish.

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Heat up some oil and deep-fry the fish for a few minutes, till they are crisp and lightly browned.

IMG_9654Serve with some puff-puff or wedges of lemon, on their own.


From Sunday, the 9th of January, I’ll be joining Joan of Foodalogue on her Culinary Tour 2011.  We’ll be visiting 7 countries, starting with Panama and ending with Nigeria!!!!!!! I am so looking forward to it. Last year’s Culinary Tour 2010 taught me a lot about geography, world cuisines and helped me establish connections between Nigerian recipes and other cuisines. Read the recipes and posts here.

See Joan’s notes below:

All food bloggers are welcome to participate (in the 2011 Culinary Tour) . It’s a fun way to stretch your cooking skills, enrich your knowledge of other cultures and eat something new. Just slap on your apron. Details follow.

The Itinerary/Arrival Dates
January 9 • Panama
January 16 • Alaska
January 23 • Turkey
January 30 • Japan
Feb 6 • traveling (Joan will be away)
Feb 13 • Thailand
Feb 20 • Egypt
Feb 27 • Nigeria

Take care and best wishes…again for 2011!

What do you think about New Year’s resolutions? Do you have any? If yes, what? If no, why not :-)?[wpurp-searchable-recipe]Nigerian Small Chops: Puff-Puff & Fish – – – [/wpurp-searchable-recipe]