Gari Underrated, unappreciated, this cassava powder is Nigeria's most important food

A cup of garri can take different forms; it can be drunk with cold water as a snack, kneaded into a dough called eba, eaten with soft boiled beans. The possiblities are, as they say, endless.

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Press am well”, one of my colleagues, Daniel said to the other, Charles - he was remoulding a handful of eba to suit his personal specifications.

“Roll it in your palms and put that hole where the soup can enter”, Daniel continued, like a pastor admonishing his followers to pray.

Because it is not ideal for preservation and reheating, it is somewhat unusual to find anyone flirting with eba in the office kitchen.

The spread of food delivery services has solved that problem, also providing many options, including the eba and vegetable that Chinedu was having for lunch.

Doing it for the culture is how he described it.

There’s no house in this country that does not have Gari”, Daniel motioned towards me as I slapped my fingers against my laptop's keyboard.

Half of me was interested in the conversation. The other half just wanted to type words and ignore the festival of vegetables swimming in Chinedu's bowl.

But I looked up at Daniel. Then he went on a brief tirade about how, even outside Nigeria, you will hardly find a Nigerian house that doesn’t have at least one cup of Garri somewhere, just because...

To be honest, it is somewhat arrogant to expect that every Nigerian owns some garri, either because they need it or just because.

Only, there is a good chance that the statement might may be true.

play The yellow gari of Nigeria's Igbo people is ideal for kneading into eba and eaten with soups, made with vegetables and peppers. (Pinterest)

 

Gari is made from cassava, the main food crop across large parts of West Africa. The cassava tubers are mashed, then sieved and fried.

In Nigeria, this simple process produces nine million tons of gari a year, according to the Consultative Group on International Agriculture and Research (CGIAR)

The term "Gari" has Hausa origins and is mostly used to refer to the familiar granular powder; yet different tribes and cultures prepare the flour in different ways and the results are also referred to by the same wide, encompassing term.

The Igbo prefer “yellow gari”, prepared by adding palm oil to the cassava either when it is mashed or fried. This type of Gari is ideal for kneading, with hot water, into a thick dough that can be eaten with soups.

The Igbo call this dough “Gari” as well.

To the Yoruba, hot water and gari make “Eba”. The major difference with the Igbo equivalent is in the taste and colour of the flour. The Yoruba prefer a sour-tasting gari with no extra additives that can be made into a paste or consumed otherwise.

Where Yellow gari is used to make Eba, it is referred to as “Eba Ibo”.

Starch-based staples are a major part of the West African diet; Gari is one of the most important of these foods but it is also considered a favourite because it can be used in various forms.

The thick, starchy Eba is mostly an afternoon dish. Its heavy carbs, coupled with the variety of Nigerian soups make for a very filling meal that is built into most diets.

Gari can also be consumed as a snack when poured into cold water and “supported” with sugar, groundnuts, dried fish and more.

play Preparing Gari is a team effort. The women who fry the dried paste are usually family members of the farmers or contract staff of sorts that only work when the cassava crop is prepared. (CGIAR)

 

Not one to be selfish, it can also offer support to other dishes; gari can be sprinkled on soft cooked beans. This food mix is called yoo ke gari or Foto gari in the Ga language, in Ghana.

Compared to the other main staples, Gari is relatively cheap. In a region where over 50% of the population lives below the poverty line, it provides an invaluable option.

Take for instance: Rice. A bag of rice fluctuates between 18k and 20k per bag. Rice is mostly boiled solely, as white rice to be eaten with sauce; or with spices and vegetables, as Nigeria’s famous Jollof or Fried rice.

By comparison, a bag of Gari cost 12k at the height of food prices in June 2017.

For the families who stock it up, a bag of rice can become eba, yoo ke gari, gari and water, kpo-kpo gari and much more.

It is why Kemi, a mother of two, decided when she had to choose between both, that Gari was the better option.

"My children are not so young so they need heavy foods in the afternoon", she tells me over the phone. "It's just the smart choice. I can buy rice from canteens but I prefer to have garri in my house", she continued.

"My husband can eat rice at work, but what will I tell him if he comes home and there's no eba in the house", she adds.

In small communities, food retailers also sell it in cups or small polythene bags for as little as 10 naira.

Its affordability in the smallest quantities, as well as its price and importance, are why gari has found a place in the culture of the people who consume it.

No-one asks a Yoruba man if he eats Eba.

play In large markets. gari traders gather together creating a "gari section" of sorts. In communities, the lone gari seller is a fixture along major roads or streets. Petty traders also sell the powder in small quantities. (Flickr)

 

It is also why, unless you’re an ageing pop-star with glorious dreams of building an empire, no-one needs to advertise gari.

Take it from a rapper who is known for his knowledge and affiliation with Yoruba culture as he is for his witty, instructive lyrics.

On “Hustle, Loyalty, Respect” off his 5th studio album “Street OT”, Olamide raps

Ti iya won ba fe gba kadara, won ma gba kodoro

Garri no get advert, ko ni ka ma p’olowo

If we leave out the threats in the first line, the second loosely translates to

No-one advertises Gari, we don’t have to advertise ourselves”.

And it is true.

Gari has reached that level of necessity where the people who buy it know exactly what they need and where to get it from.

In many ways, its place as a staple is partly why Gari is such a recognisable food, and even that is no coincidence.

As it is made from cassava, Gari has a very high starch content. This makes it suitable for those hoping to fill the belly or gather new energy for the day’s activities.

play Nigerian pop star, Davido enjoys a plate of garri propped by groundnuts and sugar. In Nigeria, it is consumed as a popular snack. (Naijaloaded)

 

When it is made into a dough, Garri cannot be eaten alone; instead, soups and sauces ease its passage down the gut. The soups, like “egusi” and “efo riro”, a thick combo of spinach, lettuce and other leaves, are made with peppers and vegetables that form an important part of any diet.

For this reason, parents encourage their children to “finish their eba”, “and the soup too!”.

In a region where there is not much variety when it comes to food, eba is one of the few ways that vegetables make their way into the diet.

For the millions of students spread across te country's boarding schools and university hostels, gari is not just food, it is a friend, a brother, a loving companion in times of need.

"That's the first thing I pack when I'm going to school", Siji, a student of the Federal University of Abeokuta tells me. "If your garri has finished in school, then it means your food has finished because everybody brings more gari than anything else".

Still, for all that it offers in a simple, granular powder, Gari is the ugly duckling of Nigerian foods.

Because it is cheap, most associate it with hard times and poverty.

The man with a bowl of gari soaked in cold water is often seen as one who cannot afford anything else. It would be difficult convincing anyone that he drinks it because he just wants to.

In truth, the staple does have its stones.

Gari is made from cassava, which is high in hydrocyanic acids. Consumed in large quantities, the cyanide in gari can cause serious eye defects.

Still, it will be near impossible to discount iwhat Gari offers, beyond easing hunger.

play "Koko Garri" was a heavily advertised packaged product marketed by D'banj. (Pulse)

 

Where rice is majorly imported, Gari provides valuable income for the local economy. The cassavas are harvested by farmers and farm hands, mashed and fried by mothers who have made it into an art.

These mothers sell it in bulk to companies who repackage it or retailers who sell it in smaller quantities. At each stage of the process, money makes its way into Nigerian hands and wallets.

Through its transition from cassava tuber to powder, gari becomes a source of income, a staple, an accompaniment, a dessert (where it is combined with peanuts and honey to make Kanyan), and a snack.

There is a reason why, when he had argued the details of shelf life and numbers with the hosts and he realized that groundnuts were close by, M.I asked, on that now-infamous episode of Loose Talk Podcast, “You get gari? Bring it now”.

Minutes later, he proceeded to enjoy a cup of the powder, generously blessed with sugar, groundnuts and cold water.

Garri really doesn’t get the love that it deserves.

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