Refreshed, full and energetic. That’s how a cup of soaked garri makes me feel, especially when I accompany it with cold water, condensed milk and a piece of fried fish on a very hot afternoon, just after getting home from work. I’m a school teacher, and seeing my learners bring garri to school often makes me reminisce on my childhood days when garri was the order of the day. Even so now. I love how the staple feels in my hand when I scoop and pour it into my mouth, like a handful of fine sand, only it’s not sand but an edible food made from cassava. The way its sharp tartness slaps my palate within the first few seconds makes me think of how life can be so hard when you’re just starting out but then becomes bearable and even sweet when you persist and pursue your goals doggedly.
Garri is a staple produced from the tuberous roots of freshly harvested cassava through a series of processes. First of all, the cassava roots are cleaned, peeled and grated into granules. Afterward, the resulting cassava mash is put in sacks, which are then placed between heavy planks and tightened with a strong rope. This is done to squeeze water and starch out of the cassava mash. It is left there to dry and ferment for days and then fried either in palm oil or without it. The preparation of garri is one of the most arduous and back-breaking processes of food production, yet garri remains one of the cheapest and most readily available food items in Nigerian markets today. Because of its wide consumption nationwide, it’s easy to spot households that own a mill where they process garri for sale.
In many Nigerian homes, garri is not a scarce commodity. A truly versatile and ridiculously affordable food, it prides itself as every common man’s food because of its year-round availability. Garri can be eaten in different forms. It can be taken as a light meal (snack) when soaked in water or as a solid meal (swallow) when added to hot water and kneaded into a dough to make ebà, which is then served with a choice soup. In its dry form, garri can also be added to soft cooked beans and palm oil to make a solid chunk. Whichever way you choose to take your garri, you can never go wrong with it.
But anyone could tell a well-processed garri from a poor one. The grains should be crispy, dry and lacking foreign materials. Depending on how and when garri is processed, the final output can vary in taste, color, grain size and swelling capacity. The most popular types are Ijebu garri, produced in the southwest by the Ìjèbu people of Yorùbá origin, and Igbo garri, produced by the Igbo people of Eastern Nigeria. Ijebu garri is white and has a more pleasant sour taste because it’s usually fermented for a longer period during production, while Igbo garri is coarser and can be either white or yellow, as it’s made from yellow-skinned cassava or white cassava mash fried with palm oil. To avoid buying garri that wouldn’t meet their expectations in regard to taste and crispiness, you’d normally find a Nigerian buyer scooping some garri into their mouth to ascertain its quality before buying. Many can’t afford to buy and take a bad garri home. Better to test the waters before plunging into the deep rather than drowning in the tastelessness of a bad decision.
As with many facets of Nigerian life, the practice of drinking soaked garri is now almost inextricable from the diet of most Nigerians. Soaked garri with sugar formed the basis of a good afternoon meal when I was growing up. In those days, whenever we got home from school and told our father that we were hungry, he’d simply say “E lo mu garri” (go and drink garri). And that’s almost always true for other families too because it’s readily available.
For many Nigerians, soaked garri can easily serve as an easy-to-grab afternoon meal because of its affordability. It can be taken with sugar, groundnut, dried meat, fried fish, akara (bean cake) or sauced ponmo (cow skin) depending on one’s choice. Some people drink their soaked garri with accompaniments like raw pepper and salt. And some drink it just like that. In truth, there’s no one way to drink a cup of soaked garri.
“My best-soaked garri is with an ice block, lots of sugar with biliki (milk) and enough groundnuts per spoon,” relishes Sherrifdeen Abatan, a school teacher I work with. As for Abdulrazaq Kazeem, another teacher who hails from Saki, garri is a delicacy. He says, “I take my garri by adding a pinch of salt and sugar then breaking kuli-kuli or peanut inside it.”
Kuli-kuli is a byproduct of processing raw peanuts or groundnuts. It is sometimes called “German stone” by young Nigerians. Interestingly, there’s a song dedicated to the versatility and sumptuousness of its combination with garri. It goes:
This short song purports that when you have the four elements—garri, water, sugar and kuli-kuli—in place, you have a great meal set before you. Since the high fiber content of garri makes it very filling, a cup of soaked garri can satiate you for as long as your stomach wants. Even if you choose to make cooked garri (ebà) and down it with your soup of choice, you’re still in for a beautiful no-hunger-till-dusk ride.
When I was leaving home for college in early 2015, one of the prioritized food items on my mom’s grocery list for me was a bowl of garri. And whenever I went home during semester breaks, I’d return back to school with my Ijebu garri. Likewise in 2019 when I was traveling to Kebbi State for my one-year national service with the National Youth Service Corps, I had a good measure of Ijebu garri in my suitcase to last me for a year. This feeling is universal for almost all Nigerians.
Garri is as omnipresent as it is uncomplicated. It maintains an important position on the tables of many Nigerian households regardless of social class, and it’s hugely popular across the country. Plus, it’s rich in starch and contains protein and some essential vitamins like folate, which is especially important for pregnant women. These health benefits contribute to its wide consumption nationwide. Though it’s regarded by some as the last resort when there’s nothing in the kitchen, it’s a no-brainer that this so-called “common man’s food” is today being packaged and exported to countries outside of Africa.
“Yes. I carried garri in my luggage when I was moving to UK,” says Deborah Adegoke, a Nigerian student currently studying in the United Kingdom. Meanwhile, there is a trending TikTok video of a Nigerian soldier training in the U.S. army who was drinking garri with kuli-kuli. The video has hitherto garnered over 70,000 reactions and several amusing comments, one of which said: “Garri is the biblical manna that fell in the wilderness out of Egypt. Been saving man since forever!”
Apparently, garri can be likened to Nigerians’ manna, because it’s indeed a life-saver—and a delicious one at that.