Akara Bean Cakes and Spicy Ogbono Soup: Nigerian Cuisine Is Going Global
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Like Thai, Indian and Ethiopian before it, Nigerian cuisine is emerging as the next go-to ethnic food.
Sticky-sweet hibiscus chicken, spiced duck breast with guava sauce, and fluffy, peppery jollof rice sit atop the long dining room table set for a feast. Forty people of different ages and races gather at Lopè Ariyo’s supper club event to try the young chef’s unique Nigerian-British fusion meals. Some are tasting Nigerian food for the first time. Guests begin eating as Ariyo watches in anticipation — excited to discover how the food of her heritage is received.
To most, dishes like akara bean cakes and spicy ogbono soup might be just exotic-sounding names, but they’re beginning to tickle taste buds at Nigerian restaurants popping up in major cities, from London to Toronto to New Orleans. For years, delicacies from Ethiopia and Morocco were the African cuisines most widely available in the West. Now a band of Nigerian immigrant chefs are propping up their country’s tastes as the next big African cuisine, while also battling social concerns and stereotypes.
For me, cooking is about sharing.
Lopè Ariyo, London-based Nigerian chef
Nigerian-born Lohi Busari, 30, was head chef of African restaurant MamaLand Resto-Lounge in Toronto from 2014 until 2016, when she took a break to stay home with her daughter. A food blog she launched in 2009 to popularize Nigerian cuisine draws more than 15,000 page views a month. When Busari first arrived in Toronto in 2004, she struggled to find a restaurant that served Nigerian food. Now, she says, there are at least 15 restaurants serving Nigerian cuisine in Toronto. Busari knows of only two Ghanaian restaurants in Toronto — the next most popular cuisine from West Africa in the city.
In the U.S., chef Tunde Wey, 34, is shining light on Nigerian cuisine — and more. At his New Orleans pop-up food stall Saartj, launched this year, Wey gives white customers the option to pay more than Black customers for the same meal, calling attention to racial wealth disparity. In 2015, he began hosting food events across the country aimed at starting conversations about race in America. There was interest from the beginning from diners of various backgrounds; today, the events sell out, leaving a growing number of disappointed foodies without a ticket.
And in London, the 25-year-old Ariyo won an African cooking competition last year for her fusion fare, scoring a book deal from HarperCollins in the process. A part-time chef at West African restaurant Ikoyi, she also organizes supper clubs where she experiments with new recipes and asks for feedback. When Ariyo started in 2015, she did joint supper clubs with other chefs and the number of attendees would vary. Today, she does the events on her own and regularly fills seats for 40 diners.
Though excited by the growing popularity of Nigerian cuisine, these chefs remain cautious. Historically, the global dissemination of ethnic food has led to Western impersonations. There’s concern that control of Nigerian fare — and the profits it brings — could wind up in the hands of people outside the community. But outstripping those worries is the chefs’ desire for their cooking to reach new heights, and untapped markets.
“For me, cooking is about sharing,” Ariyo says.
Ariyo was born in London to Nigerian parents who rarely cooked. It was while attending boarding school in Nigeria that she discovered the country’s food and fell in love. Ariyo couldn’t get enough of pounded yam and egusi soup. At university back in the U.K., she found herself missing those dishes, so she taught herself how to make them. Her final year at university, Ariyo entered a London cooking competition, conceived by Red magazine and HarperCollins, who were on the hunt for new voices in African cuisine. She won the contest with her hibiscus chicken — it stood out because hibiscus, while often used in Nigerian drinks, is rarely used in food.
The increasing popularity of ethnic African cuisines in the U.K. is understandable given the growing number of African immigrants in the country. In the first decade of the 21st century, Britain’s African-origin population doubled, and it has continued to grow. Chefs like Ariyo are upping African cuisine’s appeal to Londoners, transitioning it from street food to gourmet.
Still, popularizing the country’s cuisine is only one part of what some Nigerian-origin chefs are working on. At Wey’s Saartj, Black customers are charged $12 while white customers are asked to pay $30 for the same meal, to highlight the gap between the average wealth of white families — $919,000, according to the Urban Institute — and Black families ($140,000).
For other chefs, it’s about breaking stereotypes about the cuisine — though it often begins with homesickness. While attending college in Canada, Busari missed her childhood dishes. She spent hours on the phone, asking her mom for recipes for jollof rice and afang soup. Then, she started posting them on a blog, but offering healthy alternatives to traditional Nigerian cooking methods. “A lot of people think Nigerian food is unhealthy because it’s carb-based,” Busari says. “But if you use fresh ingredients and less oil you can still get the same taste.”
Today, Busari boasts an impressive résumé built in Canada. Apart from the restaurants where she’s been head chef, she has a catering business. Her work has helped push Nigerian food into Toronto’s mainstream. Nigerian restaurants are primarily opening in the multicultural neighborhood of North York, Busari says, though they are starting to expand to the suburbs, like Brampton and Mississauga, as well. “Maybe Nigerian food will be in the mall one day,” Busari says, laughing.
Making Nigerian cuisine ubiquitous in the West could come with its own challenges, say some chefs. If it translates to more wealth for Nigerian communities, Wey says he’s all for it, but he worries about others appropriating Nigerian culture. Ariyo shares this concern. “It happens with ethnic food a lot — white males will create dishes based on ethnic recipes and market it,” she says.
Preserving that authenticity won’t be easy. The chefs recognize the merits of cross-cultural innovation — it has helped chefs like Ariyo and Busari make a mark. What is clear is that the next young Nigerian who travels to Toronto, London or New Orleans won’t struggle to find familiar tastes the way these chefs did. The West, long a beneficiary of talented professionals from Africa’s most populous nation, is now lapping up a different Nigerian export: its cuisine.
(This story has been modified. An earlier version failed to acknowledge the popularity of Moroccan restaurants and cited numbers from a restaurant review site that we are unable to independently verify.)