The Taste of Ramadan in Nigeria
Moi Moi in Lagos, Nigeria
I rush home early from work with one thought on my mind: moi moi. I had left some bean pudding mixture to sit on the counter that morning, and was sure it had defrosted and was ready to be cooked, and it had. Quickly, I boiled eggs and opened a tin of sardines. On the counter, I laid out some small, plastic bowls so I would have enough moi moi to last the whole week.
Moi moi is a traditional Nigerian dish, a pudding-like hunk of steamed, pureed beans made with spices such as onions and peppers. It’s usually eaten for breakfast. Moi moi is a hugely popular meal for breaking the fast among Nigerian Muslims all over the country, and particularly in the west. Here, moi moi is to Ramadan what Jollof rice is to owambes—Nigeria’s lavish parties.
Making moi moi during in a Nigerian home during Ramadan is an act of faith, much like fasting itself. Because you can’t sample the saltiness, or check if it needs more pepper, you have to believe that you’ve measured the ingredients just right, the same way you believe in the rewards of fasting. Only your intuition guides you.
All over Muslim Nigeria, families use this protein meal as a starter course to break the fast before moving on to the heavier portions of the feast. And while Ramadan is a time of reflection and of doing good deeds, it has also become a time for me to hone my moi moi-making skills. Over the years, my moi moi dishes have evolved, reflecting my growth as a Muslim.
Islam first came to Nigeria and spread to Yorubaland, where I’m from, via trade with merchants from Mali, and is here referred to as “esin imale”—religion of the Malians. Nigeria’s Muslims number around 80-90 million—about half of the country’s estimated population of 180 million. The love for meals such as moi moi arose from necessity: beans are one of the staple grains grown in large quantities in northern Nigeria.
Moi moi is typically eaten with ogi—fermented cornmeal pudding. “It’s packed!” my uncle says when I ask why he always eats moi moi for iftar—the meal that breaks the fast. “It’s proteinous, tastes good, and it fills me up.”
Three years ago, my uncle tasted my moi moi, winced, and pronounced it bland. To be fair, I had not made it in the elemi meje or “seven lives” variety, so-called because expert moi moi-makers add such extras as eggs, fish, shrimps, beef, and many more into the mixture—the garnishes constituting its seven lives.
Unlike my bland moi moi of three years ago, this one looks promising. I had added enough red bell peppers to give the mixture an inviting orange color, and enough water to make the mixture light and fluffy. For added spiciness, I had thrown in five Scotch bonnet peppers too.
As I pour the mixture into the containers, splashing a bit on the countertop, I pray that I haven’t over-salted it. I cover the bowls and place them in a pot of boiling water, turning the heat up on the gas cooker. It takes about 45 minutes for the moi moi to become solid from the steam of the boiling water, just in time for iftar.
I hear the muezzin soulfully sing the adhan as the clock strikes 7 p.m. I sit down to break my fast. First, I take a few sips of water as the Prophet Mohammed would often do (although he mostly broke his fast with dates, rather than cooked meals). I cut a small chunk of moi moi and plop it in my mouth apprehensively. The salt levels are just fine. The contrast in texture provided by the hard-boiled eggs and the fish is perfect. In fact, I have to admit that it is delicious. It’s going to be a great year.
4 Cups of brown beans (peeled and blended).
2 small sized onions (blended with beans)
2 red bell peppers (blended with beans)
5 scotch bonnets (blended with beans)
Add 2 tablespoons of vegetable oil
Add 2 bouillon cubes
Add ½ tablespoon of salt
Add 1 tablespoon of ground crayfish
Peel 2 hard boiled eggs. Slice them up.
Flake 1 tin of sardines.
Pour the blended bean mixture into small, covered, plastic bowls (you can also use banana leaves). Add sliced eggs and flaked fish to each bowl.
Place a ¼ filled pot of water on the cooker.
Arrange the bowls in the cooker and let steam for 45-55 minutes.