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National  pride. Patriotism. What you might call it. There was a certain feeling of absolute ownership and total knowledge I had about my country, Nigeria – its people, its culture, its habitat…and especially its food.

Surprise, surprise..for it turns out ladies and gentlemen, that my knowledge of Naija, while authentic is not as all-encompassing as I thought.

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Tree squirrels were a pleasant surprise to me, spotted one morning while (angrily) waiting for my driver to turn up for work. Tiny feet prancing down trees and there they were – African pygmy squirrels – a real delight to the eyes, I tell you.

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Squirrels communicate with a series of chirps, expressing alarm or locating family members.  They twitch their tails for emphasis!

The smallest squirrel is the African Pygmy. They are 5 inches long from their heads to the tip of their tails. They are found in Nigeria, Cameroon and Gabon.

Plantain Salad Imoyo? An even bigger shock. I’ve written about the food bridge between Brazil and Nigeria, with the ‘export’  of Akara  but what I hadn’t discovered was the ‘return’, the importing of Brazilian ingredients and flavours to Nigeria.

Imoyo dishes are a fusion of West African and Brazilian cuisine. They arose as a result of the Portuguese slave trade which, during the 15th Century took many West Africans to Brazil. Then, in the 19th Century some freed slaves returned and settled on the coast of Nigeria, bringing with them green bell peppers, olive oil and garlic, which were added as a component of Nigerian cuisine.

I first came across a recipe in Elizabeth Jackson’s fantastic  1999 cookbook ‘South of the Sahara’, which shares delightful recipes from the lands of West Africa.  She says, rather poetically ‘Imoyo dishes combine the sultry and spicy West African foods with Brazilian ingredients and cooking methods….Imoyo dishes often feature vegetables marinated in vinegar, lime or lemon juice’

Plantains belong to the Musa genus, which is the same family as the banana, but they are a different species from the banana. Plantains are longer, with a thicker skin, less sweet and are never eaten raw. They are a staple food of many tropical countries and can be boiled or mashed and served with a sauce, fried up into delicious snacks, mashed and fried in golden cakes, or roasted. Plantains are a great source of potassium and Vitamin A, and also have substantial amounts of Vitamin C, magnesium and phosphorus. They have smaller amounts of a long list of other minerals and B vitamins. Because of their low sugar content they are a good choice of a complex carbohydrate.

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There are various versions of Imoyo meals,  made with seafood in the manner of escabeche, combined with chicken and even incorporated into a recipe called Imoyo eba, cassava (or grit) dumplings cooked in a  broth. Very often onions, peppers, and tomatoes are not cooked but added raw at the last moment.

Deciding to shock myself and others, I made this for a New Year’s barbeque that featured family and friends – to great reception. Why the need to surprise? Well, growing up, plantains  were and still are a staple but I am used to having them a certain way.

Boiled with pepper soup, fried and roasted but to pit them against ‘salad’  ingredients seemed taking it one step too far, especially as it was supposed to be a recipe from Nigeria. My country. Which I know. So well.

Boy, was I sold……..I loved the look, the ‘newness’ of the combination and the fact that i had learnt something about my very own homeland. And so the minute I was done, I started plotting a re-make. What I would do the next time to up the flavours and textures.

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First of all, I would definitely add some herbs to garnish, cut up the ingredients into smaller bits, than recommended in the recipe and finish off with some smoky, toasted cumin seeds.

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Plantain Salad Imoyo, adapted from South of the Sahara by Elizabeth Jackson

Ingredients
2 plantains , very ripe
¼ cup (extra virgin) olive oil
2 tablespoons lime juice , fresh
½ teaspoon salt, to taste
¼ teaspoon black pepper , freshly ground
Caster sugar, to taste
1 small green bell pepper, seeded and diced
1 small hot red pepper, seeded and diced
1 small cucumber, peeled, seeded and diced
1 teaspoon of cumin seeds, toasted and roughly crushed
Coriander (Cilantro) leaves, chopped
 
Options: you could add sweetcorn, chopped tomatoes, and lettuce

Tips

Ripe plantains will cook faster than green ones and will be much sweeter too. Use them if you can find them – they ‘make’ the dish.

Boiling the plantains in their skin intensifies the taste of the the plantain, and may preserve some nutrients.

Directions

Wash the plantains then top and tail them. Using a knife, make a slit along the length of the plantain but do not peel/remove the skin – this slits will make it easier to remove once cooked. Cut into 3 or 4 pieces.

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Place the  plantains in a medium saucepan with enough water to cover; bring to a boil and simmer for about ten to fifteen minutes or until plantains are soft enough to allow a fork or tip of a sharp knife pass through with ease.

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Once cooked, drain the plantains and set aside to cool.

Whisk the oil, lime juice, salt and pepper together until creamy or shake together in a jar. Taste and adjust seasoning with a pinch of sugar if it needs it.

Once the plantains are cool, remove the skins.

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Dice by cutting lengthways then across till you have small semi circles. Combine with the vegetables and add the dressing.

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Allow to rest for half and hour to an hour, at room temperature to allow the flavours ‘marry’.

Just before serving, sprinkle a pinch of toasted cumin and garnish with coriander leaves.

I served mine with some diced smoked chicken and yogurt, spiced with ginger garlic, cumin, salt and sugar.

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This is a vibrant salad – I love the wonderful contrasting colours and textures – the softness and smoothness of the plantains, warm heat from the de-seeded chilies, the crunch of the green bell peppers and the coolness of the cucumbers. And the finish of cumin and coriander leaves brings smokiness and herbiness that I enjoy in Middle Eastern meals.

The vinagrette/dressing is full of fresh, clean flavours  that work well to provide overall a well balanced, rounded dish.

Not to mention, destroy the ‘Plantain’ mindset and remind me that though I may be Nigerian, the totality of what Nigerian cuisine is about does not reside with me. Rather humbling but refreshing nonetheless.

Lesson well learnt.

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What are your favourite ways to have plantains if you’ve tried them?

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