Nigerian food for novices - The Pool

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

HIBISCUS CHICKEN

Prep time: 20 mins, plus marinating time * Cooking time: 30 mins * Serves: 4
I find it quite odd that hibiscus is mainly used for drinks in Nigeria and isn’t incorporated into more cooking. For me, hibiscus is to West Africa as sakura is to East Asia, or rose is to the Middle East. Hibiscus tastes quite similar to cranberry and when I’m looking to have something vibrant, I turn to this recipe. The flavour of the chicken is quite rich, so I recommend pairing it with a salad or rice boiled in coconut milk, and dressing simply with fresh parsley. Dried hibiscus petals can be found in most African and Caribbean stores, or online.
  • 4 chicken breasts
  • 2 tbsp coconut oil, melted fine-cut dried hibiscus petals, to serve
For the marinade:
  • 1 tsp celery salt
  • 1 tsp onion granules
  • 1tsp garlic granules
  • 1 tsp black pepper
  • ​1 tsp ground white pepper
  • 1 tsp cayenne pepper
  • ​1 tsp finely chopped parsley 2 tsp finely chopped tarragon
For the sauce:
  • 2 tbsp freshly squeezed lemon juice
  • 200ml unsweetened coconut water
  • 2 tbsp fine-cut dried hibiscus petals
  • 4 tbsp coconut sugar
  1. In a large bowl, combine all the marinade ingredients. Toss in the chicken breasts and coconut oil, mix so that the chicken is well coated and leave to marinate for 30 minutes.
  2. To make the sauce, whisk the lemon juice, coconut water, hibiscus and coconut sugar in a small saucepan over a medium heat. Bring to the  boil before reducing the heat to low, then leave to simmer for 15 minutes until the liquid has reduced by half. Set aside and allow the sauce to cool completely for roughly 15 minutes, until it thickens.
  3. Put a griddle pan over a medium heat to heat up, and meanwhile brush each marinated chicken breast with the sauce. Place them in the hot pan and cook, giving each side 4–5 minutes before turning – they should be nicely browned and cooked throughout.
  4. Plate the chicken and drizzle over any of the remaining hibiscus sauce. Sprinkle over some crushed hibiscus petals and serve with fried coconut rice on the side.
NOTES: This is a great dish for a date night in and you could easily swap the chicken for duck breast to make it that little bit more special.

JOLLOF RICE

Jollof rice actually originates from Senegal, although it’s popular throughout West Africa. Every country has a distinct way of making it. One might play with the cooking method, type of grain or the colours of the tomatoes and peppers used to give it a unique twist. Nigerians in particular like to use parboiled long-grain rice to create theirs. However, the one thing that can be agreed on is that if yours is soggy or looks wet, it’s considered a failure – Jollof rice should never look like a risotto. It’s a dish that people feel very sensitive about and many Nigerians are convinced that theirs is the best known to man. I’ve provided two recipes: one steamed version (shown on the left overleaf) because it’s almost impossible to burn the rice when it’s cooked this way, and one cauliflower version (photographed on the right overleaf). I turn to this when I’m trying to reduce my carb intake or if I just want a slightly lighter meal.

STEAMED JOLLOF RICE

Prep time: 15 mins * Cooking time: 50 mins * Serves: 4
  • 2 tbsp coconut oil  2 tbsp tomato purée
  • 1 Scotch bonnet chilli, deseeded (if preferred) and chopped
  • 4cm piece of fresh ginger, peeled and grated
  • ½ onion, finely chopped 325g baby plum tomatoes, finely chopped
  • 1 tsp dried thyme
  • 1 tsp cayenne pepper 1 tsp black pepper
  • ½ tsp ground cloves 1 tsp onion granules a pinch of salt
  • 250g basmati rice 2 or 3 bay leaves
  1. In a frying pan set over a medium–low heat, melt the coconut oil and add the tomato purée, Scotch bonnet, ginger and onion. Fry for 5 minutes  until the onion takes on a red hue. Add the chopped tomatoes – there’s no need to blend them but you can do so if you prefer – along with the herbs, spices and salt. Stir well and continue frying for a further 5 minutes until the tomatoes become deep red in colour.
  2. Meanwhile, set up the steamer by filling a saucepan with water and bring to the boil. Place the steaming pan on top and bring down the heat to medium–low.
  3. Remove the tomatoes from the heat and add the basmati rice. Mix until the rice is well coated, then transfer the mixture to the steaming pan. Spread out evenly and top with the bay leaves. Cover and steam for 30–40 minutes, fluffing the rice with a fork every 10 minutes to make sure it is cooking evenly, until the rice is tender and cooked.
  4. Take the steamer off the pan, fluff the rice once more and spoon on to hot plates to serve.

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Lope Ariyo

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  • Food Blogger, Cookbook Author & Chef
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