In a sofa-lined living room in Khirkee, south Delhi, a handwritten poster on the wall spells out a long list of rules, beginning with: “No settling of cases here. No holding of meetings here.” It’s signed by this establishment’s management-of-one, a Nigerian woman in her late thirties named Joy. Joy is chef, manager, and everything else at this kitchen for home-cooked Nigerian food, where she serves take-away or lets customers eat in her living room.
The first time we visit, we wait on Joy, who’s out running errands with her 70-year-old mother, Ayito. “In Nigeria, if your daughter can’t cook, you are in trouble,” Ayito tells us. “But even my only son knows how to cook.” While a younger Ayito worked as a secretary at a global petrochemical company’s office in Nigeria’s Delta State, her four children would finish all the cooking. “I started to teach my kids to cook basics like beans and rice when they were eight years old,” she says. “By 12, they could cook perfectly,” she says.
Ayito has been here three months. She came to seek treatment for back and knee problems. Now she watches Indian movies to pass the time. The language barrier doesn’t matter. “I get Star Plus channel back there, too.” She’s planning to teach Joy’s nine-year-old daughter to cook as well. But now that her daughter cooks for a living, Ayito worries that Joy gets no rest. “We couldn’t even go to Sunday church today because she was so tired,” Ayito says.
“Sorry sister, I don’t cook on Sunday,” Joy says herself, when she comes in. “I need rest too”. Tomorrow, she’ll make jollof rice. For now, she has a pressing task at hand: she smells a rat. A customer who comes in to buy food is roped into her quest, helping her move the sofas to locate the source of the smell. There’s no rat: It’s probably the street outside, heavily dug-up for civic works.
The next day, we turn up just as she’s returning from supply shopping. “All African people like Nigerian food because it makes you strong.” She gets her ingredients from Nigeria – on her own trips or when relatives travel back and forth - including the red oil “that Indians don’t have”.
“In my jollof rice, only the rice and tomatoes are from India,” she says. The thyme, curry powder, groundnut oil, and Maggi cube, among other things, have to come from home. She holds out in her palm a few dried melon seeds that will go into her melon soup. “These too.” Even the crawfish, she dries and brings from home: “The fish here has a lot of chemicals.”
For all that, India is easy to live in, or at least easier than China, where her husband is employed. She’s visited him twice. “Here, if you say you want to buy bread, people understand your language, at least,” says Joy.
In Joy’s living room, an electrician is tinkering with a faulty AC, helped along by Joy’s daughter, who interprets for the adults in flawless Hindustani, “picked up from Star Plus.” The setting is nothing like that of a traditional eatery. Instead, a wide mirror covers one wall with a wooden counter protruding from a right-angle to it – the typical setting of a neighbourhood salon. The hairbrushes, driers, hair-curling and straightening irons, and bunches of hair-extension packets on the wall are evidence of Joy’s second profession.
Unlike her organic skill at cooking, she has professional training as a hair-dresser; she took a three-year course in southern Nigeria’s Benin City. “When she’s not cooking, she makes people’s hair. The day she is making hair, she does no cooking,” declares Ayito.
The doorbell rings just as Joy sinks into the sofa with a piece of fried chicken that she heated with a previous customer’s take-away. Ayito slowly walks to answer the door with her usual heart-warming chants of “You’re welcome” to anyone who comes in. It is a brawny young Nigerian man with tattoos snaking up his arms, shoulder-length hair twisted into a gravity-defying knot of dreadlocks.
That’s Joy’s work on his hair. “It took almost one day,” she says. With his easy smile and tongue-in-cheek humour, he praises Joy’s cooking and hairdressing skills while also pulling her leg. He, Joy and Ayito chat in Nigerian English. (Mother and daughter otherwise converse in the Itsekiri language.)
He lights up a cigarette along with a bitter-roots concoction of plant roots that Joy has made. “It helps against malaria and diabetes,” she says. He leaves without a meal, though: our presence makes him a little uncomfortable. “Our people don’t like too many questions for fear of being misunderstood by the locals or the police,” Joy explains.
Next, two Congolese men walk in; the air is instantly more formal, and Joy addresses both of them as “sir.” “Comment allez-vous?” one of them asks in French - how are you? Joy smiles, then moves to the kitchen to fix their order. She has heated a plate of a flavourful ogbono soup that is like a meat stew: one of her favourites. To go with, there is a steaming-hot starch, akpu, that is identical to the Congolese fou fou.
The men watch the Uruguay-Russia World Cup match on TV, with their plate of comfort-food. Joy, tired from working the whole day and the previous night, is eager to catch some sleep. “I am waiting for them to leave so that I can sleep for just one hour.” It’s nearly 10pm. It will not be before 6am that she will really get to sleep, until around noon. In the next room, grandmother and granddaughter have already killed the lights, watching TV - maybe Star Plus.
Getting there: Call +91 9818878556 for more information.
Akshita Nagpal is an independent multimedia-journalist based in New Delhi.
Photo Credit: Instagram.com/NigerianStore
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