Magazine article The New Yorker

Yaji

Magazine article The New Yorker

Yaji

Article excerpt

In the Hausa Muslim community of Kumasi, Ghana, where I grew up, in the seventies, yaji was considered the king of all spice mixtures. All yajis contain the following basic ingredients: black, red, and white peppercorns, dried ginger, cloves, dried red peppers, and salt. These are mixed together in a large wooden mortar and pounded with a pestle until floury. Optional ingredients include peanuts and dried garlic. Some yaji makers even add beef bouillon for an enhanced, albeit contemporary, savory effect.

In my house, we had two kinds of yaji. The container for our regular yaji (to which my mother added the foul-smelling but heavenly-tasting locust beans traditionally used in soups in West Africa) sat on a pantry shelf, where my mother could easily find it and sprinkle a tablespoonful into the pot of whatever soup or stew she was making. But some secrecy surrounded the other yaji, which was kept under lock and key in a glass cupboard in our living room. Mother would add a teaspoonful or two of this yaji to anything that Father ate: soup, rice, steak, stew, salad, even taliya, the local handcrafted pasta. Once, when I was nine, I asked my mother why she never gave that yaji to me or my siblings. With a finger to her pursed lips, she replied, "That is for your father only! And don't even think about opening that jar, you hear me?" Her eyes darted to the cupboard, as if to insure that the orange Ovaltine jar in which she kept the prized condiment was still secure in its enclosure.

When I turned eleven, one of my many uncles began sending me to Douala Cameroon's, the best suya joint in the city, to buy him his favorite snack--a thinly sliced and skewered beef delicacy that is ubiquitous on West African roadsides at night. Out of the blue, during one such errand, Douala asked me, "What yaji does your uncle want? The one for men with three wives or the one for men with two wives?" By the time I'd gathered enough wits to say that my uncle had only one wife, a fact well known to Douala, the warm, wrapped meat, heavily doused with some kind of yaji, was in my palms.

Not until late in my teen-age years, after my mother died, did my paternal grandmother yield to my questions and reveal the name of the secret ingredient that my mother had added to my father's yaji. It was masoro, known in English as false cubeb pepper or bush pepper. Its black berries look like peppercorns but are slightly larger and mostly hollow. It has a bittersweet taste and a pungent aroma that is both camphoraceous and spicy. …

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