Hot new food writer Lopè Ariyo wants to make Nigerian food as famous as the curry. And with comforting, deliciously-moreish dishes like Hibiscus chicken and jollof rice, who are we to argue?
For as long as I can remember my weekly grocery shop has always included at least one of the following things; scotch bonnets, egusi seeds, cassava flour, puna yams, plantain, okra, and bell peppers. All ingredients which, for the longest while, I assumed everyone knew about. I first realised this wasn’t the case when I had an encounter with a boy in primary school called Gary. I couldn’t fathom why he was named after a food. It wasn’t until I after I went to boarding school in Nigeria that I realised that food “garri”, dried and fermented cassava granules, was completely different from the name Gary.
I grew up in West Norwood in South London, but when I was 11, my mother thought it was important for me to learn about my Nigerian roots and to connect with my extended family culture. So in 2003 I went to Lagos for boarding school. The two years I spent there really gave me an appreciation for its food. The best meals I had at school were always breakfast, we would often have akara (bean fritters) served with ogi (a fermented custard made from corn). What I loved most was that the akara served as an edible spoon which we used to scoop up the custard.
The normal way to eat traditional Nigerian dishes is with your right hand so my grandma would jokingly call me “posh” when I picked up a fork to eat
I would visit my grandma during school breaks and she would always make okele, a type of dish made from tubers which is similar to polenta though much thicker and much smoother. We’d always have it with soup and stew, often egusi soup (made from melon seed) or efo riro (stewed spinach). The normal way to eat traditional Nigerian dishes is with your right hand so my grandma would jokingly call me “posh” when I picked up a fork to eat.
My favourite part of holidays in Nigeria were when the whole family went for a wedding or some other special occasion. Once we arrived my cousins and I would always rush to the food queues to get our plates of fried coconut rice, moin moin (a pudding made from steamed beans), grilled tilapia and a mountain of golden plantain. Once we were done we’d have big fluffy spheres of puff puff (a Nigerian style doughnut) and little cubes of chin chin ( a Nigerian biscuit) to nibble on throughout the rest of the night.
When I went to university I found myself cooking even more Nigerian recipes as a way to create a home away from home. My housemates would often wander into the kitchen to enquire about the exotic smells wafting from the stove and I found myself cooking for friends who had never touched Nigerian food but only heard whispers of it’s fantastic flavours. Nigerian food definitely lies more on the comfort food style of eating, which is probably why I ended up cooking it a lot as a student. In fact, meats are usually seen as the side dish and the rice or okele dishes are seen as the main.
The first meal I ever made for friends was jollof rice served with chicken. It’s the perfect dish to introduce yourself to easy and accessible African cuisine. It has simple to follow steps and because of its popularity amongst West Africans, the ingredients are inexpensive and easy to find in British supermarkets.
There’s this idea that Nigerian food is basic and bland when in fact it it’s the opposite and has all types of flavours – spicy, sour, sweet, bitter, salty and savoury. I might be biased but I think that Nigerian food deserves to be just as popular as Chinese and Indian – it’s about time African cuisine became mainstream.
Lopè Ariyo's new book Hibiscus is out now