I have been going to Port Harcourt all my life because it is the closest big city to my ‘village’ and my grandparents settled there after they retired and decided they’d had enough of travelling the world. As a child, I spent many a Christmas and Easter holiday there. In the early days, when the roads were safer, we would set off at the crack of dawn and drive down from Lagos – Dad driving, Mum as co-pilot, and the three of us snotty pikins in the back. The car would be loaded up with all our favourite toys, wellies and rain coats for surviving the inevitable PHC rain, and the corned beef sandwiches and carrot sticks we always made for the journey the night before. I remember the drive; sleeping and waking in endless cycles, punctuating each phase of the journey with some sort of edible treat, and stopping at various points along the way to buy sacks of garri, heads of plantain, piles of yam, baskets of tomatoes, clusters of giant black snails, bottles of palm wine. I remember these things fondly – how fresh the produce was, how close the farms were to the road, how effortless the quality seemed and how we took it all for granted.
Nigeria has changed a lot, and we don’t do nearly as many road journeys as we used to. We fly now; and pray, and hope for the best. But even though you miss out on the journey, there are still a few roadside pleasures to be had once you land, and one of them is the roast plantain that comes with fish. Dear Lagos, I am sorry, but the boli here does not even compare. OK you get some nice plantain and roast it and if you’re lucky you eat it with a few groundnuts or ube to add some intrigue to the flavour; but in Port Harcourt, in Elekahia specifically, this boli and fish is an institution.
Imagine sweet, ripe plantain, huge pieces of fresh, briny mackarel, slathered in the most delectable peppery, palm oil sauce. Aaaaargh! Get out of here, the stuff is absolutely mad. You know when people say the food is so sweet that if you are not careful you might bite your tongue? This is what they are talking about. These pictures are from the last time we went to PHC. I insisted on the detour to Elekahia just to get this. Just as we landed, it began to rain, and so the pictures you see below were taken while I juggled my phone, my umbrella, my wallet and my camera, trying not to let everything get wet and ruined. The lady selling kept looking at me like I was absolutely mad because I don’t think that anyone else shows such intent interest in her stall , but her judgement was the least of my problems. I kept fast forwarding to the point where I’d be home and out of the rain, enjoying my fish, and so everything else just paled into insignificance. Oh, how food can focus the mind…
I haven’t yet tried to replicate this at home because I can’t begin to imagine how I’d go about recreating the flavours. The thing about street food is that it’s just that – street food – and your home kitchen is often too pristine to breed the kind of grottiness that perfects the original road-side taste. The first time I went to PH this year was for my cousin’s wedding at Easter and because of the timing of events, I missed out on this plantain and fish treat. So when we went again in August for my graddad’s 10-year rememberance ceremony, I was determined to make sure I had this meal. This is one of my two staples whenever I visit. a) Plantain and fish from the roadside and b) Okazi soup or Fulo Okazi, made at home by a loving, doting aunt . No trip is complete without this combination (and I plan to make some okazi this weekend so I will try to take pictures and blog about it).
As with all street food, I must remind you to make sure it is freshly made and piping hot when you buy it. That way, you are likely to avoid any dire consequences. I have never had any issues, but I just had to say that for all the people who may not be aware of the correct way to do this hahaha 🙂