Coin in the Mortar’s Mouth

by Yemisi Aribisala

A defiant woman, black shoulder bag on her arm, implacably refusing to put a coin in a very large wooden mortar; a bus driver in a blue uniform is imploring her, but he might as well save his breath. A fleet of buses is visible in the background, and a group of travelers awaits the resolution of the scene
Painting by Yemisi Aribisala

Sit down to pound or stand up to pound yams, I have mastered neither.

But I have a precious sit-to-pound mortar and matching pestle: husband and wife. They are gifts from a friend who promised me, alongside the treasured kitchen implements, a tutorial on the virtuoso pounding of yams. Hold up, he is very happily married so there were no innuendos in the promise. Pounded-Yam is a classic Nigerian dish, loved across all languages, states, tribes in the extensive West African country we call home. The yams in question are the brown, hairy, tubular, nodular, often anthropomorphic root vegetables and not the diminutive sweet fellows that North Americans call yams, for goodness sake. I have a strong feeling our neighbours—Cameroon, Togo, Ghana, etc.—have also got the pounded-yam Nwantinti-love. Like jollof rice love, but more committed, because to produce the dish you have to know how to skilfully wield a pestle and mortar, and you have to have the back, biceps, triceps, and hamstrings, as well as strength. You have to be living in a house that permits pounding, not in sandwich conditions in a period conversion in London. In summary, yam tubers are cut up, boiled, then pounded with their still boiling leftover water, until a stretch forms and the yams become something like mashed potatoes but oh so much better, denser, more moreish. I’m sorry to place pounded yam in comparison to mashed potatoes, but what is one to do when even the best comparisons fail? 

Pounding yams sounds easier than it is, and because of the strength and skill needed there is a somewhat successful counterfeit in the diaspora called yam-poundo  (I have no love whatsoever for this substitution, but to each her own). Yam-poundo needs only a pan of boiling water, a “turn-gari” and strong arms. That is, no hamstrings, or strong back, just some decent arm muscles, asbestos fingers to hold the pot in place on the hob, and a high quality omorogun/turn-gari/turning stick that knows how to speak Ẹ̀bà. Yam poundo is closer to mashed potatoes; it is supposedly flour processed from the West-African yams, preserved and packaged. When I say yam-poundo is successful, you must understand it is commercial success I’m talking about, not palate success. People are probably eating nostalgia or similitude or simulation or delusion. Yam-poundo is nothing and nowhere like pounded yam. 

It’s a paywall, but a small one

Read this post and get our weekdaily newsletter for $3 a month