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African or Nigerian: Who are we as food

By Gbubemi Fregene
10 June 2016   |   11:15 am
One might say they are similar countries with similar cuisines, but the food is still rather distinct. From the coconut milk laden curries of Thailand, to the comforting bowl of Pho from Vietnam ...


African or Nigerian : Who are we as food

“African Food served here” “Africana Options available” “African Restaurant”. Those are a few ways I have noticed Nigerian restaurants tend to categorize their food at home and abroad. With the copy abroad, I can make a small case for it but why in Nigeria can we not just say we serve Nigerian food? When someone says “I feel like Asian food tonight”, they have to decide between Chinese, Thai, Vietnamese or Japanese.

One might say they are similar countries with similar cuisines, but the food is still rather distinct. From the coconut milk laden curries of Thailand, to the comforting bowl of Pho from Vietnam, the cold raw rolls of sashimi and seaweed rolled rice from Japan, we can clearly see different Asian countries have different cuisines.

But when you travel abroad and you go to an ‘African restaurant’, it’s not truly Africa. You don’t see any Cheb from Senegal or Chakalaka from South Africa or any lamb dish that’s slightly Moroccan. What they usually have is a few Jollof variations and 3- 5 mainstream soups. That is what they call an African restaurant.

Who are we as food as Nigerians? Jollof rice? A plethora of soups? Agege bread? Pepper in everything to signify our strong black man blood? We are such a diverse and rich culture and with our 250 dialects and over 300 tribes, we are clearly cuisine diverse. So I’m a little confused when we use the word ‘African’ to symbolize what could have easily been “ Nigerian”. When I served my country during the NYSC scheme, I probably experienced more about Nigerian food than all my life in Benin and Lagos. From the masa women on my way to work to the Buka that served possibly the best Oha soup I ever had, it started to hit me that there was more to Nigerian food than Jollof rice and Egusi soup. I always wondered why we weren’t circulating the culture enough or even at all.

I am still never impressed with how the spectrum is always limited to only mainstream soups and dishes you would see depending on the state you are in. We as Nigerians we are not travelling enough in Nigeria and to other African nations to truly soak culture and food experiences. I still dream of the day I would be able to travel like Noble Igwe and take on a few African countries. My experiences with other African foods include an excellent Senegalese restaurant my friend introduced to me plus my various trips to Ghana and my research and mixing with North African friends. It is not enough and I want more. I need to eat at a few grandmas homes and sample what some new age chefs are doing so my culinary heart and mind is full of the true African food experience.

In my opinion, my friend Ozoz Sokoh (aka The Kitchen Butterfly) is the fairy godmother of new Nigerian food and kitchen. She one of the rare persons that have asked themselves “What more can we do with our ingredients?”. From this simple question, she created several ingenious meals using traditional Nigerian ingredients such as pawpaw and chilli jam and beer and chilli sauce. That is how you celebrate Nigerian food. I find so many of us want to still repeat history. Nothing wrong with where we are coming from but how about we make a new history that leads for a richer heritage?

Our great continent has so much history and culture and of course, food! Africa is a home to 54 countries, home to 1.1 Billion people; Algeria is the largest by size and the Nigeria largest by population. Africa is beyond a melting pot of culture and heritage so you can imagine the length depth and breadth of the cuisine. Yet there are Nigeria restaurants that say “We serve African Food”.

Dear Nigerians, don’t assume too much. African food mustn’t be a fire hazard in your mouth before its authentic. Copious amounts of palm oil doesn’t validate your meal. If we are going to call it African, let’s not be selfish. Let us learn and share. If we don’t like it, we can tweak it and say it’s our version for our palette. Chinese restaurants give us Nigerian friendly Chinese food all the time and we clear our plates.

Let us allow this generalization come from strangers and not us. “I feel like having African food today” “ Oh sure what type? Nigerian? Moroccan? Ghanaian? Tanzanian?”

We are Nigerians. Our Mother is Africa. Our Essence is African. Our Food is Nigerian.