A couple of months ago, I got a pingback notification. This means that another blog has tagged mine on a post. I followed the link and found this blogger in Australia that tried my Fish Imoyo (recipe HERE), I thought okay wow, all the way in Australia. Yes, I know my Google Analytics reports tell me that I have readers in Australia, but it doesn’t feel real until something like this happens. A few weeks ago too, someone emailed from New Zealand. Yup, New Zealand. A Nigerian who relocated to join her husband. She kindly passed me an old Delta recipe, that I can’t wait to try and share with you guys. Anyways, back to my Aussie blogger. She said she struggled with the recipe because she couldn’t figure out what “blended pepper mix” meant. In her words, obviously your blog is written for Nigerians, who would understand what I meant, but she would have appreciated if there was more detail. She further said Google did not help too. I don’t blame Google. Blended pepper mix doesn’t describe anything. I apologised to her and said I would put up a post about it, and explain all I need to. That was months ago, and I totally forgot until 2 weeks ago, thanks to Instagram. I was just extolling the virtues of Instagram two days ago right? Well, it has brought me more blessings than networking. The comments also provide golden food tips. Remember to follow @dooneyskitchen.
Anyways, the “pepper mix” terminology ends today, well it kinda ended months ago but I didn’t publish the post. I dug this out of my drafts folder. After the interaction with the blogger, I thought Dunni, call it something Nigerian. I wanted to name this for posterity, after all the French have their Mirepoix, the Spanish have their Sofrito. The Haitians have their Epices. In fact the Cajuns and Louisiana Creole’s have something similar called “the holy trinity”. According to Wikipedia “The holy trinity (Onion, bell pepper & Celery) is the base for much of the cooking in the regional cuisines of Louisiana. Variants use garlic, parsley, or shallots in addition to the three trinity ingredients.” This pretty much describes our “pepper mix” doesn’t it?. It is the base of most of our cooking, from stews, to soups, to rice dishes, pottage dishes, eggs, you name it. We have different variants too, with ingredients like garlic, ginger and onions. The ubiquitous ingredient seems to be pepper, the hot kind, ata rodo (scotch bonnet/habanero pepper), which could come either as fresh or dried.
I was going to name this Nigerian Red Pepper and tomato Base, I thought against it, because tomatoes are left out in a lot of native soups, so I decided to try naming it in Yoruba. I came up with different combinations of Yoruba (the only Nigerian language I speak) words. I thought of calling it Ata Aise, ‘Ata’, the Yoruba word for pepper and ‘Aise’ meaning raw, because essentially, it is a raw pepper mix. Then I thought hmmmmmn, that may be difficult to pronounce, try again. The Yoruba word for mix is ‘darapo’, so the term Ata darapo came up, but I imagined how that too, would sound no a non Yoruba speaking person. With each permutation, I was googling to see what already existed. Then I thought okay, blend/grind, in Yoruba is ‘Lilo’, so I thought ‘Ata Lilo’. My grandmother and Big Oladunni have used the term “Ata Lilo” uncountable times, I don’t know why it didn’t occur to me at the start. I typed that into google and Africuria came up. It took me aback, I tell you because none of my previous combinations existed in Google. I clicked on the link and squealed in delight. OMG, it describes this pepper base PERFECTLY. Whomever the writer of that blog is, we need to sit down for drinks. Cheers to you. So, people let us use this term and stamp it into the online history books. I like giving our foods the Nigerian name that it deserves, because it helps our food keep its identity. Anglicizing, our Nigerian foods, doesn’t make it stand out proudly, or calling it my least favourite term “African food”, is a crime against individuality. Dooney’s Kitchen sets a trend. It coins a name and it goes on people’s lips around the world. So, when next you see me refer to Ata Lilo, you know I mean this tomato, onions, red pepper and ata rodo (scotch bonnet/habanero pepper) mix. or whatever permutation of the pepper mix. So, let me define this properly, and create a Wiki entry for it:
Ata Lilo (pronounced A-t-ah Lee-loh) – This is raw pureed tomatoes, onions, red bell pepper and ata rodo (scotch bonnet/habanero pepper). This combination is pretty much standard, and ubiquitous in Nigerian cooking. The puree can be smooth or rough, depending on what you are cooking. It is varied based on what you are cooking. For traditional Nigerian soups, the tomatoes, and sometimes onions are left out. For stews, rice dishes, or pottage dishes, it can be flavoured with ginger, garlic and green pepper. The best way to understand Ata Lilo is to see it as a base for most savoury Nigerian dishes. Think of it as a Béchamel. It is the mother sauce of which the flavours used in Nigerian cooking is built upon. Like Béchamel, the pepper mix is also quite individual, and varies based on taste.
Before Ata Lilo is used in cooking, it is mostly boiled to reduce its water content, which will cut your cooking time in half, and if it comprises of tomatoes, boiling also helps to get rid of the sometimes acidic taste of the tomatoes.
When boiled, Ata Lilo can be referred to as Ata Sise (pronounced A-t-ah See-say). ‘Sise’ in Yoruba, means to cook or cooked, so Ata Sise is simply the cooked or reduced pepper base.
Boiling does take a very long time, especially if you have a large quantity of Ata Lilo. I have three cheat methods below, listed in order of quickest duration.
Cheat method 1 – Straining after blending
This tip was given to me at different times by my cooking sisters on Facebook. I had this knowledge months ago, but the opportunity to try it never came, until I was forced to last weekend. After blending, pass your Ata Lilo through a fine sieve.
This gets rid of most of the water, and you have a thick consistency which you can cook with immediately. Oh, you think this will take time or it is tedious, trust me, it doesn’t. If you have a large sieve, you can be done in under 5 – 7 minutes. Compare that with the time it takes to boil Ata Lilo. I had only a small sieve and it took me about 10minutes. You bet, I am going out to buy a large fine sieve, or even a large cheese cloth. This method is brilliant, when you only have a small – medium volume of Ata Lilo, and especially when you are in a hurry.
Cheat method 2 – Steaming before blending
This was given to me on Instagram first by @oyinlola_babs, and then other people echoed what she said, with someone even saying that is how her grandmother taught her to do it. See why you should be following @dooneyskitchen on Instagram? The golden cooking tips that people give out in comments, are worth their weight in gold. So, I tried it out too, and yes it is longer than method 1 above, it took me about 15 minutes, but it saved me the physical effort of straining through a sieve. This method is simple and ingenious really. Place your peppers, onions and tomatoes in a pot with very little water, and steam.
The heat will sweat them down, and basically cook them, when the water has dried up, the skin of the peppers and tomatoes should feel soft, and almost cooked.
you can even leave for longer, to have caramelised bits at the bottom of the pot. Yums!!
When you blend these steamed bits, the Ata Lilo is thick, smells like pepper that has been boiling for ages, and you can cook with it immediately.
……………..and there you have it
Cheat method 3 – Roasting Peppers the Italian way
This is the longest of the three methods, but probably the oldest too. From our Italian cousins, who do this to make their pasta or pizza sauce, you simply place all the items for your Ata Lilo on an oven tray and roast in an oven for 35 – 45 minutes.
I used this method for my Palm oil and Iru Pasta dish – Farfalle a la Nigeria. Recipe HERE
Dooney’s Kitchen Tip – If I had to choose a favourite cheat method, it would be Steaming, because you can do a large batch of peppers at once, which may be prohibitive in the straining method, and with the roasting method, you will have to roast more than one batch, and considering it takes that long to roast a batch, you may as well use the boiling method.
FAQS – I have been asked multiple questions about Ata Lilo in the past, so I decided to add to this post, facts I have acquired from my mum and grandmothers, from friends, and also tips I have received from you guys, over time. So, here goes:
Facts you need to know about Ata Lilo
1. For certain dishes like stews, pottage dishes and rice dishes, where you need a bright red/orangey pleasant colour, you need to add lots of tomatoes. Very essential
2. For traditional soups, especially those involving vegetables, tatashe is key, and you will be better to blend roughly.
3. If your Ata Lilo is too hot (spicy), adding blended tomatoes does the trick. if you have already cooked it, add Palm Oil. Palm oil is brilliant for toning down the heat.
4. How do you know if your Ata Lilo has gone bad? Bubbles. Look out for bubbles. I had to do this deliberately to show you what I mean.
Fermentation causes gases to be released, which show up as bubbles at the top. You may taste your ata lilo or ata sise and it may taste fine, but bubbles are the first sign that it is going off.
What do you do when that happens? Boil immediately. This halts the fermentation process and you can cook with it, with no foul taste or food poisoning.
5. If you live in a region where power is not stable, this is how you store pepper without refridgeration. This is from the files of SYTYCC on Facebook, copied with permission.
The Nigerian way of preserving Ata Lilo without electricity.
1.Grind your pepper.
2. Boil till thickens.
3. Pour into air tight bottle while still on fire (e.g. big bama bottle).
4. Cover immediately & put into boiling water.
5. Leave for 2-3 mins.
6. Do not refrigerate, store anywhere in your kitchen either in the kitchen cabinet.
NOTE: it can last for months if not opened & as good as fresh. Once opened, use all
- Glass Bottle = You can use any other bottle just make sure it is air tight & a wide bottle neck 2 make pouring d hot pepper in when hot easy.
- Before using bottle, please wash bottle and lid thoroughly, pour hot water in bottle and leave for 10minutes to sterilise bottle before you use.
6. Always taste your Ata Lilo. This will give you the best indication as to what your stew or soup will taste like. If you don’t like the raw taste, you will struggle with seasoning it when you cook. So, taste, taste, taste. If it is too sharp, add more onions or tatashe. Tomatoes are sometimes sharp, especially when it isn’t the right season for them. If it is too sweet, guilty party is most likely the onions, so add more tatashe first, then tomatoes if you wish.
7. What type of onions to use – red or white? I say it boils down to preference. I prefer red onions, my friend Funmi says they are too sharp, so she uses white. Let your taste buds guide you
8. You still would want to boil, how do you stop the pepper from boiling over? Weeeeeell, the first time I heard the wooden spoon over the pot tip, I tried it out and it didn’t work. See picture below, funny story. I tried it again another time, and it worked. Weird right?
Anyways, the sure fire method I know is to add a little vegetable oil to it. Works like a dream. Picture below was of making stew, but surprise surprise, yes you can see some splashes as expected, but the presence of oil ensured that it didn’t boil over.
9. Can you use Ata Lilo directly for cooking in its raw form? Yes you can. Look at my recipe for Mama Adeola stew HERE. Olusola Sanni’s instruction was to pour the pepper directly from blending and it was fine.
10. Can you use canned Plum tomatoes? Sure you can. I do that when I can’t find ripe juicy red tomatoes. Sometimes the ones we get here have this weird pale orange colour that tastes so tangy and acidic, I opt for canned plum tomatoes as a substitute and it is fine
If I have missed anything out, or if you have more cooking wisdom to share regarding Ata Lilo, please let me know by dropping a comment and I will update this post, with due reference to you
So, after all this talk, here’s my recipe for Ata Lilo – I am sure every cook has their own unique blend
- 2 pieces of medium red onions
- 5 pieces of tomatoes - or 1 can of plum tomatoes
- 3 pieces of ata rodo
- 3 - 4 pieces of tatashe
- This will serve for at least ¾ of a standard blender jug full
- Combine all the ingredients in a blender, and puree till smooth or a rough blend.
- Use either of the 3 cheat methods I listed in this post, or go the old fashioned way of boiling.
So, this has come in time for your weekend shop. I hope you find the information useful. Have a great weekend folks!!!!