I’ll like to start by writing this warning. NIGERIAN FOODIE PEEVE ALERT! Readers Beware. I am Nigerian, born and bred. I grew up with great cooks, and I grew up eating Nigerian food all my life. Nigerian food is incredibly rich and robust and it is quite sad, that we are not proud of our food the way Indians, Mexicans, Middle Eastern, Chinese, Spanish, French, Caribbean and Italians are.
Beyond the shores of Nigeria, no one knows about our food except us, and people who have come in direct contact with us through friendship and marriage. In major cities and smaller towns all over the world, you will find the food of some (if not all) of the people I just listed. Nigerians are one of the most migratory people in the world, and our food doesn’t speak for our immense presence globally.
Quite a number of people lose their food identity when they live abroad, and some are too quick to adopt the food of the area they live, in my opinion. I understand that Nigerian food is not readily available in some areas, but has anyone wondered how come the food of lets say the Indians and Chinese are ? They are proud of their food, they carry it everywhere they go, they set up shops in their locales, they set up takeaways. Is that more of a business thing than a cultural thing? Maybe a mixture of both, I’m not sure. Even in the remote areas of some parts of the world, you will find at least one Chinese takeaway.
I’ve had a few friends over for dinner who tell me, “Dunni, you’ve made my year. I haven’t had Egusi soup in ages.” Shockingly, some of them live in London, where you can find everything plus the local wooden spoon. I also get pained when my fellow Nigerians condemn our food during healthy eating debates. Nigerian food is fattening, its all carbs, it is too oily, it is this, and that. Personally I disagree. Modify your cooking style, control your portion sizes, cut down on the size of meat served per meal, eat more vegetables, cut down on the oil, above all exercise. You’ve been average sized almost all your life, then you get an office job, you develop a sedentary lifestyle, years after Nigerian food suddenly becomes “fattening”. You’ve been average sized almost all your life and in a few years of relocating abroad you gain weight and suddenly start pointing fingers at Nigerian food. I’m no nutrition expert, but I’ll loudly and proudly defend Nigerian food any day. It is not the food per se, it is lifestyle changes that may need to be made to make your body as efficient as it used to be. Hey, I may be wrong. Hands up, don’t shoot me.
We probably all grew up with spicy food, but the palate of some has evolved to no longer tolerate spicy food. Some children born to Nigerian parents may not even know that much about Nigerian food or how to prepare it (true stories). I was cooking Ogbono soup at a family members house one day and his 12 year old daughter (100% Nigerian parentage) asked me “Aunty what is that?” I was shocked to say the least. I’m not sure this will apply to Indian or Chinese children living abroad. I have seen an Indian colleague eating a curry at his desk. As unpleasant as the odour was in an air conditioned room for that matter, he didn’t get up from his desk till he was done, and no one complained. You won’t find many Nigerians doing that. They would rather take the food down to the cafeteria (personal observation) or eat a less “offensive” meal life Jollof rice or rice and stew at their desk. Being the foodie that I am, I can unashamedly say, I’ve taken Yam and Egusi (filled with iru, crayfish, stockfish, dried fish) to work and eaten it at my desk. My colleagues, turned up their noses and kept commenting about the aroma but as no one dared ask me to leave, I sat at my desk and finished my lunch. I have eaten Aya Mase (Green bell pepper stew with Iru and Crayfish) with rice at work before, Beans full of crayfish and dried fish and fried plantain. Surprisingly, I have been berated by some Nigerian colleagues, and some have even told me, I must be very bold, weren’t my colleagues complaining? I told them – not to my hearing. I draw the line at Eba, Semo, Okra and Ewedu though, as I would have to eat with my hands and that is not professional.
Americans are hung up on Chinese food. The British love Indian food.I know their historical ties are responsible, but Nigerians have been living abroad for a long time too. Maybe if people who emigrated before me embraced their Nigerian food, and took it global, who knows, we probably would have Nigerian takeaways on every corner, (just as you probably have Nigerians living or working on every corner) not just in select restaurants or food joints. Funny thing is, in a short while, my colleagues stopped noticing and they even took an interest in my packed lunch and asked me many questions about Nigerian food. I have recently won my boss over with Chin- Chin. She absolutely loves it and I don’t know, but it just may have improved our relationship.
I will be discussing with the Events Department to organise an International Food day, just so I can sneakily introduce my 3000 strong staff members to Nigerian food and food from other parts of the world of course. There is a noticeable Nigerian presence at my place of work, so I hope I will get some support and I implore your Bella Naija readers to do the same if you can.
We are known for some not so nice things, let us also be known for our great food. What is the point behind this post? With the teeming population of Nigerians abroad, I think we should have takeaways by now, we should have introduced the people of our adopted countries to our food. We are doing well professionally all over the world, raising the bar, and making our people proud. Most of us grew up with amazing cooking heroines from 2nd and 3rd generations, family recipes etc. So when you hear celebrity chefs talk about things they learnt from their mothers, aunties, grandmothers I can relate and so can many of us. Atoke’s post about grandparentreceived a lot of comments regarding food and cooking. We have a lot to offer food wise. A lot. Our food is no less great than the Indians, Chinese, or even the Great French food. It is all about packaging and presentation.
You watch cooking channels, and you have shows dedicated to all the food from the cultures I listed above. The only African feature I have seen is Moroccan, and their food tends towards Middle Eastern cuisine, so I still say African food is still not being represented, and maybe just maybe, we let it happen. One of the celebrity chefs in England Reza Mahammed is of Indian origin. He presents a show on Food Network called Spice Price of India. He is such a funny character. I tuned into Food Network one evening and I saw another show of his “Rezza’s African Kitchen”. The tag line of of the show is “Join Rezza to learn the secrets of the African Kitchen”. I was shocked, then it slowly turned to irritation and then annoyance. Yes it is great that African food gets some airtime, but presented by a chef of Indian origin, traveling through Africa and showing the world our food? SERIOUSLY! The execs couldn’t find an African chef? Don’t get me wrong, I’m not some African Activist, but I just felt bad. I later shrugged it off and said, “really Dunni what did you expect?” Who knows Africans and food? So I’m back to the issue of we have a massive presence, but food wise, we are still puns in the global food industry. I really can’t blame The Food Network. They are in the business of television. I was happy to watch the pilot of Afropolitan. Hopefully, we have started our journey.
Don’t get me wrong, I also cook foreign dishes. On my blog, I have written about recipes of foreign origin but with a Nigerian twist and I intend to explore more. The world is global, and through our experience of food, it must reflect it. At the same time, lets also carry the identity of our food into foreign dishes that we prepare. I was in Lagos and Abuja last year, and I was quite pleased to see a new crop of fancy restaurants. The kind of swanky places you’ll find in New York, Paris and London. My joy quickly turned to annoyance when I noticed that a large portion of their menu was of foreign origin. I kept asking my friends, what is going on? Have I been away for too long? I am in a restaurant in Lagos, I shouldn’t have to be perplexed about the menu. I am in my country, my food haven. I was told, Ah, Dunni, “na so we see am o”. “Nigerian food has been relegated to Buka’s and Mama put, or a casual mention on the menu list”. “Dignified big boys and girls eat A la carte”. “Our food is not tush oh”. “How do you expect MD so so to be eating Egusi or Efo riro in public”? It is great we are also becoming connoisseurs of foreign food, but to relegate our own food to the background on the journey to getting there? Someone please explain to me why?
I have always wanted to do something with Nigerian food outside the kitchen of my home, and starting my blog Dooney’s Kitchen, I hope is the beginning of that journey. I must say, I am very pleased with the responses I have gotten from you Bella Naija readers on my BN Cuisine posts and it has given me the boost I needed to take this head on. So as I have gotten us talking about Nigerian food on one of the most popular media exports from Nigeria, I hope I will also challenge you to take Nigerian food beyond your homes and represent. Who will be joining me? I you want to talk about food that you love, or you love preparing and you have recipes you’ll like to get out there, and talk about. Bella Naija has a tight schedule so, I humbly submit myself as the medium to let us do so. We have the numbers, lets get talking.
Watch out world, Nigerian cooking shows on Food Network with globally sold recipe books will be coming to you soon.
Photo Credit: littlemissgastronome.blogspot.com