This Nigerian Chef Is a Culinary Wizard of Oz
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because Nigerian cuisine is much more than jollof rice.
Ozoz Sokoh turned to food blogging in 2009 as a way to relieve a creeping malaise that was short-circuiting her pursuit of happiness. A geologist living in the Wassenaar, on the western coast of the Netherlands, she was struggling at work and in her quest to find personal purpose. Known for her energy and passion — even for the small things like artful snapshots of her culinary creations — she suddenly felt inert.
“I was also incredibly homesick,” the 40-year-old (who goes by Oz) remembers. “So I began to write as a way to find meaning.” She recorded as she went, documenting new flavors and techniques — from other cuisines as well as Nigerian recipes — “especially the tricky ones like moi moi [bean pudding] and akara [bean cakes], where ratios are key to success.”
Today, Sokoh is back in her native country, where she has become one of Nigeria’s most recognizable chefs, a food photographer and blogger known to her fans as the Kitchen Butterfly — a moniker, she explains, that mirrors her transformation and her love of color, reflected in her dishes, dresses and scarves.
Some people get really outraged. They see my exploration as oversabi [overzealous].
Ozoz Sokoh, aka the Kitchen Butterfly
As a child growing up in Warri and Port Harcourt in Nigeria, however, Sokoh did not love food. In fact, she’ll tell you she hated it (except for sweets), excusing herself from the dinner table with her mouth full of food she refused to swallow. Then, when she was 10 years old, her marine engineer father took the family on a trip to Edinburgh, Scotland — phase one of the butterfly’s evolution. After a day running around the festival grounds with her sister Miranda, Sokoh was so ravenous that she found herself devouring food, rather than pushing it away, for the first time. That appetite to discover, sample and concoct delicious dishes drives her still.
Sokoh chose to study geology, a path that led to her job in Wassenaar, but after returning to Nigeria seven years ago, she’s been all about food (while working as a geologist at Shell Global by day). The result is what she calls the New Nigerian Kitchen, a remix of dishes found throughout her homeland that she shares with her 33,000 Instagram followers — and an approach to documenting Nigerian cuisine in its entirety, which she addressed in a 2014 TEDx Talk. Determined to update perceptions that food in Nigeria, a deeply heterogeneous society, is unsophisticated and not worth exploring, she set out — like her namesake, Oz — to offer a magical land of infinite possibilities. Conjuring as many new combinations as her chef’s imagination could muster, Sokoh presents “remixed dishes” at food festivals and cooking events. She’s also at work on a cookbook-slash-memoir, and last year her jollof rice recipe was introduced to a global audience on CNN’s Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown.
Her creations run the gamut from jams, drinks and sauces made from agbalumo (African star apple) and zobo (hibiscus) to dishes infused with flavors from the many places where she has lived. Raised in the oil-rich Niger Delta, educated at universities in Ile-Ife (236 kilometers west of Lagos) and Liverpool, England, and employed in the Netherlands, she was exposed to different types of food but admits that moving so much left her disconnected from her native cuisine. But she’s back, bringing an entirely new interpretation that emphasizes innovation, new combinations of flavors and ingredients, and exuberant style and presentation.
But her reimagined delicacies have drawn mixed reactions — some fellow Nigerians became instant fans, while others with more traditional views consider her approach an aberration. “Some people get really outraged,” Sokoh laughs. “They see my exploration as oversabi [overzealous].
“They can’t understand how I’ve gone from A — what we’ve always known, like eating agbalumo out of hand — to Z, new ideas like baking it into a cake or dessert, making drinks from it.” To those who prefer dishes as they’ve always been served, she tries to share her discoveries from living in different places. “We have so many possibilities with our food,” Sokoh insists, but still: “People hear ‘New Nigerian Kitchen’ and think it’s all about being outré.”
If putting a unique spin on traditional Nigerian ingredients and recipes is outré, it’s a label she’s willing to accept. “There are purists that prefer things to be left alone, and there are some food enthusiasts that are happy to try these new things,” says Uzo Orimalade, a Lagos-based culinary expert and CEO of Uzo’s Food Labs. “No matter what side you are on, her recipes get people talking.”
And talk they do — at private dinner parties she hosts for select groups of “cool kids” (artsy expats and newly returned natives like her), on social media and at culinary events such as World Jollof Rice Day. For Nigerians both at home and among the diaspora, this August event has grown into a major celebration of one of the country’s most beloved dishes. A self-proclaimed Jollof activist (“It’s spelled with a capital J, not a small one,” Sokoh corrected a commenter on her blog), she is a fixture at the celebration, crafting new versions of the dish to tantalize her followers and win over new fans.
Isioma Onyegikei, the head chef at Brelunds Food Company, agrees with Sokoh’s food philosophy and the need to document the culinary arts in Nigeria. “I think it’s something that we must all do,” she begins. “Nigeria has a lot of foods owing to our diverse culture, from homemade meals to our variety of street foods. They are worth introducing to a larger audience, and that’s why I think the work of Kitchen Butterfly is important. When more people know about our meals, it adds value to the culinary chain.”