You must have seen it on social media: someone listing out Nigerian swallows like amala or eba and sticking to a preference. Or putting them in a preferential order. The conversation on swallows has always been internet fodder, breaking into the wider feminist discourse where Nigerian men weaponise their love for pounded yam to subjugate women into domesticity. That said, we have never really been critical about what informs our choice of swallows. Taste and smell fall into the usual parameters but color is subconsciously – and insidiously – playing a role.
This would be Amala. The one life has dealt with. pic.twitter.com/Cwpf6wY5K5
— Chykah. (@ChykahBro) October 31, 2018
“I can’t eat it. It’s sooo black.” My friend Segun said to me inside Olaiya Food Canteen in Surulere, referring to my choice of ordering amala and ewedu. This was last month, on a languid Saturday and a casual stroll had brought us to the restaurant. The way he rolled out “amala” from his mouth, caking it in millennial disgust as he sat down contentedly with ofada rice, pointed to an interesting food politics largely influenced by colour.
Colourism, by definition, is the prejudice and discrimination against individuals with a dark skin tone, typically among people of the same ethnic or racial group. But this definition also lends itself to the inherent colour-based bias Nigerians have towards certain swallows. Amala has, for the most part, been slandered relentlessly for its colour – darkish brown and glutinous – and someone once called it “slime” on social media. Its privileged counterpart pounded yam has fared incredibly better though, ranked into the untouchable echelon of swallows supremacy by virtue of its white colour.
Amala skybank aka Skylolo bodija ibadan. Always on point.. The soup is same taste for years.. Wow pic.twitter.com/ctSA5rjopp
— Babatundey Tijani (@daddydaddieee) November 1, 2018
Most interestingly, amala and pounded yam are from the same source: yam. But the former is made from a barrel-scraping attempt at utilising yam to its fullest, even if the result is aesthetically unfortunate. “Is Amala The Equivalent To Avocado For Nigerian Millennials?” reads a 2017 Konbini headline, in which the writer Damilola Animashaun highlighted how amala is polarising social media. You either love it or hate it. No sitting on the fence. For the Pulse column Joey’s Chronicles of a Lagos Ajebutter, music critic Joey Akan admitted his dislike for Yoruba cooking and then wrote a follow-up piece titled I Hate Amala and Ewedu.
He had previously felt guilty describing amala as “well-processed poop” then decided to give the meal another attempt. “The soup was slimy, like okra, looked like a colourful baby’s poop and had a fairly great taste (I must admit). Each bolus of amala I swallowed made me move closer to death. I had sinned against my body. The temple of the Lord.” Akan wrote. His account on his dislike for Yoruba cooking made me cringe, which was undergirded by a strain of tribalism as he concludes: “I am a proud Akwa Ibom man and Afang soup is my birthright. I will never change.”
Tribalism makes it easy for this kind of food-based colourism to be perpetrated. “Why Igbos Dey Fear Amala?”Nairaland user AloyEmeka asked in 2008. “That food na helele. I know it’s the colour that is scaring my people but just forget that colour and enjoy a new world of yum yum dum dum.” As a popular Yoruba staple, amala isn’t only hated by non-Yorubas – some Yorubas, too, hate it. My aforementioned friend Segun is one and it’s also unsurprising that he hates ikokore, a Yoruba delicacy made from water yam.
And this brings me to internalised colourism in relationship with food, where one feels shame or disgust or harbours a latent hate towards certain foods from their own culture, owing to their colour or appearance. Pounded yam-adjacent swallows like fufu has an unpleasant smell, but it’s widely consumed and yet amala is pervasively derided. Eba, starch, semolina, and wheat fufu have respective enthusiasts but the underlying factor is that they aren’t plagued by the colour disadvantage that amala has.
Rotimi Alabi, a Lagos-based chef, recently told me via interview that colourism, to an extent, plays a role in the slandering of amala but also indicated that it’s also a matter of individual taste. “I don’t like it. I’m a Yoruba man, grew up where amala was had at least once or twice a week and I have never liked it. And when I was old enough to reject it and face the consequences, I did, and I have never had it since. Well over a decade ago was the last time I had amala.”
Rotimi supplied that he calls semo “grief and pestilence” amongst other derisive adjectives, and admitted to having participated in the abuse of amala. He is, clearly, not an enthusiast of amala and semo, but would go after anyone that slanders eba. “I’m Yoruba too and I have always kept an open mind when it comes to food,” I told him, remembering eating black soup in Benin and okpa in Enugu. I don’t have a preferential order for swallows, but I have a preferred pairing of what soup goes well with a swallow. For example, I won’t match up amala and ogbono because both have a gummy consistency. World Food Day was October 16, and it wasn’t surprising as Nigerians on social media mentioned amala as the food they would never eat, even from the ones that have never eaten amala before.
Bernard Dayo is a freelance writer and creative director of androgynous womenswear label Open Tradition. He has been published on YNaija, Guardian Life, More Branches, The Afro Vibe, A Nasty Boy and you can find him on Twitter and Instagram: @BernardDayo