“Give me a thing of chin chin...um…a small order of fufu, and...let me get some ogbono soup,” I say to the smiling man in the DF Nigeria food truck in midtown Manhattan.
“My sistah, no chin chin today.”
“No chin chin? Please, do me chin chin, abeg!” I plead in an attempt at an authentic Igbo accent. We laugh; I engage in the customary fruitless haggle; then I take my number.
I sit on a park bench and splay out my meal—a Saran-wrapped ball of fufu (made of cassava and green plantain), a bowl of warmed ogbonno (dark and thick from the seeds that name it), and the obligatory hand sanitizer. It’s not the first time that, in broad daylight, I eat soup with my hands from a plastic bowl I’d gotten from a truck. But it’s still pretty bold, even for New York standards.
The appreciation for my roots despite my complete submergence in American culture, the confidence and independence despite my legal blindness, and of course, the taste for good ogbono all stems from one common denominator: my mother.
In one of my earliest Mommy-and-me memories, she adds mushrooms to my bowl of gooey ogbono in our Philadelphia townhouse. While her other (then) five children, content with the soup as is, wait impatiently for the mushroom garnish, I, the baby, just had to have my mushrooms.
Dr. Marcellina Offoha, sociology professor, former college dean, and mother of seven, came to the U.S. from Nigeria with her husband and four children in the late 1970s. As a Ph.D. student putting her children through Catholic school, Mom quickly saw the need for assimilation, yet also saw the toll it took on her children’s appreciation for their heritage. So keeping with traditional foods from the homeland became a staple in our home.
Making sure all of her children could cook from an early age was a must for Mom, assigning each of her seven children a day of the week to impress their siblings with a meal. She wanted all of us to be independent, most especially me, her handicapped child.
She took extra care to ensure that I familiarized myself with all ingredients and their locations. She brought me on solo shopping trips to acquaint me with supermarket setups and get me in the habit of checking calories and sugars. “But Mom, I’ll look funny holding the can so close to my face to see the tiny numbers,” I often said. “Anyone who thinks it’s funny is laughing at themselves,” was often her response.
I recently asked my mom about her experience taking on extra efforts to teach me simple tasks despite her hectic schedule and full house.
“I wanted to make sure Lisa was independent,” she recounted, referring to me by my long-abandoned “American” name. “Yes, teaching Lisa took extra energy, but it was no burden. It was a mission. Your name ‘Ulachi' comes from Ula, meaning ring, and Chi meaning God. You had always been at my side, a ring God placed on my finger. But I said: I can’t have you depend on me forever. I’m going to show you how to be independent; so first we’re going to learn how to cook.”
Now a songwriter and producer for a major publishing firm, living in Manhattan with a few academic degrees, I’d always known my mom’s matriarchal fortitude to be a major factor in my current independence. But it’s clear now how direct and integral her role has been in prepping me to be a front-focused self-reliant woman...and it all started with a simple lesson in the kitchen.
Lachi is a singer-songwriter and record producer who has collaborated with hip hop artists such as Snoop Dogg and has performed with Patti LaBelle and Questlove. She can be found at www.lachimusic.com, on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook.
1 - 2 lb. boneless chicken or meat such as oxtail or stewing beef, cubed
1 c. smoked croaker fish, found in African and Asian groceries
2 lb. dried stockfish, found in African and Asian groceries
10 oz. dried onugbu (bitter leaf) or ukasi leaf, found in African and Asian groceries
1/2 c. crawfish
1 c. chopped onions
2 cloves garlic
1/2 large bell pepper, seeded and diced
1/2 c. olive oil
3 T. red palm oil
1/2 c. ground ogbono seeds (wild African bush mango seeds)
salt to taste
10 oz. fresh or frozen spinach, thawed if frozen
1 T. red pepper flakes
Maggi or chicken bouillon cube
Cook whatever meat or chicken you’re using until tender.
Soak smoked fish in hot water for 15 minutes and drain. Repeat several times.
Boil stockfish, and drain, reserving water.
Cook bitter leaf or ukasi leaf in boiling water for 15 minutes, and drain.
Combine crayfish, onions, garlic, and red bell pepper.
Heat olive oil and red oil over medium heat, and add ground ogbono, stirring until melted.
Add 4 c. water or reserved both from stockfish.
Add salt to taste.
Bring to a boil, and cook, stirring frequently, for 15 minutes.
Add stockfish, dry fish, and meat or chicken.
Cook, stirring frequently, for 15 minutes.
Add spinach and crayfish mixture. Cook for 2 - 3 minutes over low heat.