Hibiscus is a beautiful and colourful cookbook filled with Nigerian-inspired dishes. I say Nigerian-inspired because the dishes are based on traditional Nigerian food and ingredients, but feature unconventional methods and spices, to offer a unique experience, and cater to a Western (British) audience. I was a little shocked by some of the dishes featured in the cookbook, like the Okra and Mango Salad (because Nigerians typically serve okra cooked in a soup) and the Amala Chocolate Muffins. However, I kept an open mind, and tried 4 recipes from the cookbook. Here’s what I learnt.
1. Food Scales are the bane of my existence
A lot of the measurements in the cookbook are in grams and milliliters. So, guess which broke university student had to go out to buy a food scale? Me. Just me. I brought this upon myself 🙄. Then the overpriced digital food scale had the audacity to act up on me. It was so annoying! I would have like 2 cups of flour on the scale, and it would display the weight as zero grams, and then jump to 200 grams if I added an extra cup. I tried so hard to get this thing to work. I read the manual, I slapped it a few times, I screamed, I prayed, I even asked nicely—imagine me talking to a food scale, begging it to work. At some point, I just gave up. I was so excited about making the Hibiscus Coconut Cake (pictured here) but the food scale just ruined the whole experience for me. By the end, I was frustrated. My cake was supposed to look brown with flecks of hibiscus flower inside, but because of my faulty scale, I think I added WAY too much hibiscus because the cake came out purple. It still tasted pretty nice though, so all my efforts weren’t in vain. But you would have to pay me to use a food scale again. Can we just stick to cups and teaspoons as units of measurement please?
2. Steamed Jollof Rice is yummy!
Usually, jollof rice is made by boiling rice in a mixture of blended onions, tomatoes and peppers, with chicken stock and some seasoning. So I was quite surprised when Lopè Ariyo’s recipe called for a steamer basket. Now, I don’t own a steamer basket, so again, guess which broke university student bought equipment for this recipe? I hope you can tell how committed I was to testing the recipes in this book. The author said that steaming the jollof rice is the best way to ensure that the rice doesn’t burn (and you don’t mess up the liquid to rice ratio). I’m guessing that was her way of fool-proofing the recipe, but in my experience the burnt part of jollof rice is usually the best part. Nevertheless, the steamed jollof rice was very tasty, and there was no blending involved (which is a plus on my side). I was skeptical about a jollof recipe that didn’t include chicken stock or bell peppers, but Lopè proved me wrong. As someone who struggles to perfect the liquid to rice ratio in my jollof rice, I think steaming is a really good option. It just takes a lot longer to cook, and I don’t think I have that patience.
3. Cameroon pepper ≠ black pepper (I learnt that the hard way)
This anecdote is also jollof related. I don’t have black pepper in my spice rack. Frankly, I don’t think it has any flavour. Lopè’s jollof recipe calls for some black pepper, and because I couldn’t find any at the grocery store (or maybe I forgot to look) I decided to substitute it with Cameroon pepper. Mind you, Cameroon pepper is quite spicy, I always sneeze whenever I open the pepper container, and I add it to dishes in small pinches. This jollof recipe already had cayenne pepper and scotch bonnet chilli. I don’t know why I thought my fiery Cameroon pepper would be a good substitute for bland black pepper, maybe because they share the same colour, I don’t know. I’m sure my struggle with the food scale killed the remaining brain cells I had that evening, so I just wasn’t thinking properly. I added my Cameroon pepper in the same ratio as black pepper, and it made all the difference in that dish. I could not eat two spoons of the jollof rice without drinking water. It was really tasty, I just needed to take multiple breaks while eating it, to quench the intense burning on my face, shed a few tears, and ensure that I could still feel my tongue. So, yeah, lesson learnt.
4. Hibiscus has a delightfully tart taste in dishes
I had never cooked with hibiscus before purchasing this cookbook. I think that’s what intrigued me about the book—the idea of putting flowers in savory dishes. We use the hibiscus flower, to make zobo in Nigeria (some call it sorrel drink). Zobo is basically hibiscus tea that has been steeped for a long time with sugar and spices added (and fruits sometimes, my mum likes to add pineapples). Here’s a simple zobo recipe, if you’re interested in trying it out (I would suggest rinsing the flowers before use). Anyways, I tried the Hibiscus Chicken and the Hibiscus Coconut Cake to get the full hibiscus experience, and I quite enjoyed it. I think the taste is similar to that of a cranberry, and it added a unique flavour to both dishes. The cake tasted like a fruit cake (partly because I added too much hibiscus) and the tartness of the hibiscus worked really well with the other spices in the chicken. I especially enjoyed the sweet hibiscus sauce that came with the chicken. The hibiscus chicken is definitely a recipe I would love to try again.
5. Don’t be afraid to think outside the box
Like I mentioned earlier, a lot of the recipes in this book made me scratch my head. I was hesitant about the ingredients and food combination. For instance, the Hibiscus Coconut Cake has egusi listed as one of its ingredients. Egusi is a dried melon seed that is used in savoury dishes. I couldn’t imagine what purpose it would serve in a cake, but it seemed to work. There was no weird taste in the cake and it was really moist. I don’t know how Lopè Ariyo thought to include egusi in a cake or on a salad, or to season food with hibiscus flowers, but I’m glad that she did because her creative and frankly unusual ideas created the colourful and inspiring cookbook that I am writing about today.
In closing, Hibiscus is distinctive in its presentation of Nigerian food. It showed me that Nigerian food can be fancy and elegant, and that we have a lot of unique dishes across the country. It also showed me that I am half the cook I thought I was. A lot of the lessons I learnt were related to my cooking fails. Before this cookbook, I really thought that I was The MasterChef, because my friends relegate all cooking-related tasks to me. Now, I know that I still have a lot to learn. I also know that I am adding a few extra teaspoons of Cameroon pepper the next time a friend asks me to cook for them. I’m sure that would teach them to assign the cooking to someone else.