Designing dining: How kitchen objects become imbued with culinary culture
Writer Jareh Das explores the double consciousness of an Evwere, a Nigerian (hybrid) claypot, in a piece detailing the way kitchen objects hold an important connection to people’s origin.
When putting together this series, I was keen for us to have a piece centred around cooking, dining and memory. During lockdown, my studio began creating our own homeware pieces, and it’s amazing to think that people might create memories eating from my bowls, or drinking from my mugs. Hopefully, they might become part of a legacy passed down, because this is what we do with homeware. We add memories and stories to it.
This piece explores the natural tendency to add stories to designed objects by an incredible writer, Jareh Das, who explores the topic of food and dining when mixed with design and what it means to her – Yinka Ilori.
As a British-born Nigerian who moved back to my birth city of Newcastle-upon-Tyne as a teenager, one of the things I looked forward to during this period were my mother’s annual visits to the UK. For the duration of her visits, I would eat nothing but Nigerian food and anyone with Nigerian (or African) parents who visit their kids abroad can relate to looking forward to authentic home-cooked meals.
I came to live in the UK in the 1990s with little skill for cooking dishes indigenous to our tribal group, the Urhobos of the Niger-Delta region. My mother would always ask pre-arriving what meals to prepare: “Do you want Banga or Pepper Soup?” or “Owo or Okra Soup?” She would arrive armed with all sorts of spices and condiments impossible to find in the North of England. We would then proceed to visit the only store that sold African food, this at a time when there were few African migrants in the city. We had to make do with what we found while rolling our eyes at the astronomical costs compared to the steal that they would have been back home in Nigeria.
“I craved to have one of these with me in the UK and requested my mum bring one for me on one of her future visits.”Jareh Das
Banga, my absolute favourite, was always top of the list. It is a soup made from cooking a combination of palm nut fruit with an assortment of spices and varieties of meat and fish. It is indigenous to several South-South Nigerian tribes, predominantly the Urhobos and Itshekiris, and is traditionally served in a clay pot called Evwere (or Ewere in another local dialect), with accompanying cassava “swallow” meal known locally as “starch”. The soup is first prepared in a regular pot and then transferred into an Evwere right before serving to thicken until a foamy rim of dried palm nut cream forms, signalling it is ready. The Evwere is a lidless pot built from clay, with a wide-open mouth enabling the person cooking to see the soup thickening as it boils. The outside of the pot can be plain or decorated with motifs including sgraffito lines running from the centre of the base or across its body and rim. The rim at the ends of the mouth is moulded in a manner that creates a flat flap that stretches outward so that the pot can be conveniently carried. I craved to have one of these with me in the UK and requested my mum bring one for me on one of her future visits.
About a decade ago, when I had since moved from the Northeast of England to East London, my mother brought with her as a gift a modification of the traditional clay Evwere. Made from metal, she proceeded to describe it to me as “a stylish version that would fit well into my contemporary British-Nigerian kitchen”. I must admit, I was slightly disappointed not to get the traditional version as there is some indication – call it an old wives’ tale – that cooking in a clay pot contributes to improving the taste of the soup. Alongside this, as someone who loves ceramics, the original clay pot also points to an important long-standing history of Nigeria’s matrilineal pottery traditions responsible for making functional, everyday pottery through a skill passed down from one generation to the next.
Whilst I have no idea who were the makers of the Evwere pots that I remember fondly from my childhood, or its contemporary metal version that now sits in my kitchen cupboard, this dish has become a fond item in my Nigerian-British kitchen. It makes its appearance annually as an integral serving dish for my favourite soup in the comfort of my London home, transporting me back to Nigeria every time I dine with it.
“Food, just like language, is an important connection to people’s origin.”Jareh Das
Pre-pandemic, my mother would visit annually and I would hand over the Banga preparation to her. It has now become a ritual and is still served in my Evwere. For over a decade, this pot has become both a potent symbol and a reminder of how, when people migrate, many other things move with them. It represents more than dining ware and is imbued with both tangible and intangible remnants of a culinary culture that migration forces individuals to leave behind, which becomes strengthened by the diaspora’s transnational bonds to their homeland.
The Evwere, for me, serves as a connection across the globe to my roots as it triggers nostalgic feelings that demonstrate how important food is to the migrant experience. Food, just like language, is an important connection to people’s origin. It is a major celebration of culture, heritage and identity which is able to tell remarkable stories about people, their movement and exchanges. A pot or dish at dinner can just be a vessel for serving food but in this case, it’s so much more. It’s a marker of my beloved Nigerian heritage through an object that others might deem odd when spotted in a cupboard filled with mix-matched tableware, from Ikea to Heal’s, Abuja pottery to charity-shop finds. A hybridised selection reflecting a hybridised diasporic life like mine.
The Power of Storytelling with Yinka Ilori
This story along with many others are part of a guest edit of It’s Nice That by the artist, Yinka Ilori. To read further pieces from Yinka’s curation click on the link below.
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About the Author
Jareh Das is a Lagos and London-based writer, curator and researcher. Her work can be found in a number of publications from Bomb, DOMUS, Ocula, Cultured, CNN Style, Pin-Up and NKA Journal of Contemporary African Art.