2.7.2021 Dinner in Lagos
Chicken Pepper Soup
Pepper soup: this is THE Nigerian soup, as ubiquitous as, but much more flavorful than, our chicken soup. We’ve structured this menu as an Owambe, the Nigerian (particularly Yoruban) word for a lavish party, normally birthdays or weddings (Google “owambe” for some seriously cool fashion). Nigerian parties are always an event, with plenty of music, food, colors, and oftentimes lavish displays of wealth. That said, there are a few constants, at least for the culinary repertoire. One is Jollof Rice, which we’ll describe below. The other is the beloved pepper soup, a broad blanket term for a protein (normally goat, beef, chicken, or fish; fresh or smoked) cooked in a flavorful nutty, earthy, bitter, and spicy broth. The distinctive flavors in this broth come from an array of indigenous spices such as alligator pepper, uziza seeds, calabash nutmeg seeds, and selim pepper pods (shout out to Kasoa Market here in AA for having a great spice selection!) combined with fresh herbs such as ginger, lemongrass, and scent leaves. A cure-all for every ailment and a celebratory dish in its own right, pepper soup might make your tongue tingle but you’ll be back for more. Gluten Free.
This is it. This is what Nigerians’ go to an Owambe for - it’s all about the Jollof. Far from an obligatory rice side, jollof is the main event at any Nigerian party. The dish originated in the Senegambia region of West Africa and is named after the Jollof Kingdom that used to rule the area during medieval times. Today, all the countries running down the coast of West Africa have some version or another of this dish. This piquant rice is so popular and people are so opinionated about it, that there is an active West African rivalry known as the Jollof Wars, especially contentious between Ghanaian jollof and Nigerian jollof (the difference is mainly in the type of rice used). Besides the fact that World Jollof Day is August 22, the only other thing that these two factions agree on is that Jamie Oliver’s version is an abomination (check out 2014’s #Jollofgate). Nigerian jollof is meant to be smokey, with a whole subset of the dish known as “party rice” and made over a wooden fire, the burnt pieces on the bottom, similar to the paella’s socarrat, being the defining feature of the dish. Although we didn’t make ours over a wood fire, we did add some smoked paprika to give it extra depth. The blend of tomatoes, onions, bell pepper, scotch bonnets, and West Indian curry powder (a legacy of the British) creates a truly magical amalgam that gives this rice its distinctive red hue and slight warm undertone. It’s also the precursor to many Creole rice dishes such as jambalaya. Gluten free.
Obe Ata Goat Stew
Obe Ata - the sauce made with the trifecta of Nigerian cooking: fresh tomatoes, red onions, and a variety of peppers, here red bell peppers and scotch bonnet. This tangy and mildly spicy sauce forms the base of much of Nigerian food, used in jollof rice, meat stews, and braised vegetables. When the Portuguese came to Nigeria, they brought with them many ingredients from Brazil, such as tomatoes and a variety of chilies native to Latin America. West Africans from Senegal to Angola embraced these new ingredients and adapted them into local recipes. These techniques then returned to the Caribbean, where they were mixed with West Indian spices (brought over from India by the British) to form the basis of many curries (like our Jamaican goat curry). In Nigeria, the pepper is such an ingrained part of life that there’s a common saying that “the spirit that doesn’t eat pepper is a feeble one.” From tatashe (bell peppers) to sombo (cayenne) to ata rodo (scotch bonnet), almost every dish in the country contains the subtle spice of capsaicin. Here we slowly braise goat legs with thyme, ginger and garlic before stewing the meat in obe ata. Gluten free.
Known in Nigeria simply as salad, this is definitely not your average lettuce dressed with vinaigrette affair. Closer to a slaw in our nomenclature, no Owambe would be complete without this crisp and crunchy side dish that goes perfectly with the jollof. At first glance, you’d think that there’s nothing particularly Nigerian about lettuce, cabbage, carrots, tomatoes, pasta, eggs, cucumber and corn - and you’d be correct, this isn’t one of those dishes that go back centuries. It’s a product of British colonization, the addition of Heinz baked beans and Heinz salad cream a dead giveaway (salad cream was created as an alternative to mayo during WWI and has been beloved across the pond ever since - we’ve made our own version for this dish). Despite its colonial roots, it’s now a modern Nigerian staple...we were surprised when we kept seeing recipes for this dish over and over in all the blogs and cookbooks. But after having it with the jollof, the stew, and the dodo, it all makes sense why it’s been claimed by Nigeria. Contains eggs, gluten; vegetarian.
The classic accompaniment for jollof, dodo, or fried ripe plantains in Yoruba, is the perfect counterweight to the spicy and rich flavors present in both the rice and the goat stew. Sweet ripe plantains are fried in an onion-infused oil before being topped off with a red onion and lime relish. The caramelized sugar in the plantains act as welcome sweetness that is moderated by the zippiness of the vinaigrette. It is thought that this is the grandfather of the Latin American tostones and maduros common in the Caribbean and Latin America. Vegan, gluten free.
From Ghanaian bofrot (ball floats) to East African mandazi and South African koeksisters; from the Italian zeppole to the French beignet to the Indian gulab jamun - almost every culture in the world has their own version of fried dough. In Nigeria the puff-puff is king. Part of the “small chops” category of street snacks, puff puffs can be eaten for breakfast (like doughnuts), an afternoon snack, or dessert. This fermented dough with its pillowy interior has countless variations throughout the country, with some adding nuts or dried fruit, others using Nigerian palm wine instead of milk. Regardless, this is a staple for any Lagosian get together. We’ve made the dough the traditional way and spiked it with nutmeg. Then we toss the fried fritter in a spiced sugar blend made with allspice, clove, and nutmeg. Contains dairy, gluten; vegetarian.
The Nigerian Chapman is probably the most famous and popular drink in Lagos (and the country for that matter), served in every bar, restaurant, and club or for any special occasion. The story goes that it was invented in the 1930s in the prestigious Ikoyi Club in Lagos, where a bartender named Sam Alamutu first concocted this mix for an British officer known as Mr. Chapman. Officially a mocktail, this drink is made with Fanta and Sprite, but the distinctive flavors come from the grenadine, Angostura bitters, cucumbers and citrus (lime or orange). It’s also common to spike this punch with vodka, white rum, gin, or even Campari or Aperol - really anything goes. Check out our Featured Recipe so you can complete your Nigerian Owambe!
Journalist Dipo Faloyin jokes that “Lagos is the punchline to a joke that could start: 21 million people unburdened by self-doubt walked into a bar…” and with that spirit in mind, our next menu in observance of Black History Month is from Lagos, Nigeria. While we have been fortunate enough to travel to most of the places we talk about, Nigeria is an exception. Neither of us has been here, and so we take on this menu both as a challenge and with the understanding that we have much to learn about Nigerian cuisine. For starters, we have learnt that there is no such thing as “Nigerian cuisine,” just the way there was no Nigerian nation-state before colonialism. Instead, there were more than 300 independent groups, the largest of them being the Igbo, Hausa, and Yoruba people. In 1914, Britain joined them all together to create Nigeria, showing a disregard for geopolitical nuance that was very much the modus operandi for the British Empire.
What that means today is that Nigeria, the most populous country on the African continent, has a complex cuisine shaped by immense variation of culture, geography, and religion. The country is split almost equally between Muslims and Christians. The spread of Islam in the North started as early as the 11th century, and so the Muslim-majority Hausa north has distinctive Arab influence in the cuisine. The Christian south is divided ethnically with the Yoruba in the west and the Igbo in the east; their cuisine is focused more on starchy tubers, seafood, and rich stews. In the context of our 5-menu series focusing on African / African American culinary traditions, it is this broadly “West African” cuisine that is the base from which much of Southern, Creole, Caribbean, and Latin American cuisine is derived. This is the cuisine enslaved people brought to the “New World.”
The Portuguese arrived in Lagos (Portuguese for lakes) in the late 1400s, bringing many new crops such as cassava, and most significantly, initiated the Transatlantic Slave Trade on the West African Coast. This practice would be continued by other European powers, one that would enslave millions and forever link the destinies of West Africa and the Americas. After the Portuguese came the English, who left their own indelible mark on the country, bringing Christianity and English, a language that continues to be a class marker in modern-day Nigeria. Many of these enslaved peoples would go on to Virginia, Brazil, and the British Caribbean. From jambalaya to cassava fritters to curried goat to grits - the origin is West African.
Remember how we said the British consolidation of modern-day Nigeria disregarded the differences between various groups? This came back to haunt newly independent Nigeria in 1967, when civil war erupted between Nigeria and the secessionist state of Biafra. We highly encourage you to read more about it in our Additional Resources, along with the music of resistance that emerged (on our Spotify). In the end, more than a million people died in the conflict, and while the war ended in 1970, the scars go deep - political instability and insidious corruption has stifled the country and essentially forced Nigerians to fend for themselves.
But where in all of this is Lagos, the hot and humid bustling megacity which, by itself, is the fourth largest economy on the continent? The city is a deeply divided one —Victoria Island houses international billionaires (where many of Africa’s richest live) whereas the mainland is much less wealthy and more densely populated. But by all accounts, however, Lagos seems to be unique in one regard: optimism. When Bourdain visited in 2017, he called it one of the “most dynamic, unrestrained, and energetic expressions of free-market capitalism and do-it-yourself entrepreneurship on the planet.” Faloyin says that “in Lagos, thinking small is a sin… [it] is governed by confidence – an innate, unshakeable certainty that the city is home to Africa's finest; a system of deep faith born from having the world's highest ratio of people to good dancers and a palpable belief that God dey.” And these aren’t two cherry-picked examples: so much of the research we’ve done focuses on what Nigerians themselves are doing to make their country better, from the proliferation of Nigerian cuisine blogs, to a focus on technology and innovation. It should come as no surprise that they are also one of the most successful immigrant groups in the United States and are now a powerhouse in the literary world with exports such as the great Chinua Achebe, Chimamanda Adichie, Helen Oyeyemi, and many others. Lagos has a cult of personality, one of strength and persistence which, at the end of the day, has had more impact on the Americas than just the food.
Featured Recipe: Nigerian Chapman
Makes 8 cup
4 cups Fanta
4 cups Sprite
1/2 cup Grenadine Syrup
1 tbsp Angostura Bitters
1 medium Cucumber
1 tray of ice cubes (sprite)
Optional: white rum, vodka, gin, campari, etc.
Add Sprite to an ice tray to make ice cubes
In a pitcher, add equal amounts of Fanta and Sprite. Next add grenadine syrup, angostura bitters and combine together
Chop the cucumber and lime and add to the mixture
Garnish with mint leaves and serve with the Sprite ice cubes
Optionally, spike it with your favorite spirit, such as white rum, vodka, gin, campari or whatever you like!
Featured Recipe: Puff Puff
For the dough:
3/4 cups warm whole milk
2 teaspoons yeast
1/3 cup sugar
1.5 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 tablespoon salt
1/4 teaspoon grated nutmeg
canola oil for frying
For the sugar:
1/4 cup sugar
1/4 teaspoon grated nutmeg
1/8 teaspoon ground allspice
1/8 teaspoon ground cloves
Mix the warm milk, yeast, and ½ tbsp sugar in a small bowl, letting it rest until foamy (~10 minutes)
Separately, combine the flour, salt, nutmeg, and remaining sugar. Pour the yeast mixture in the center of the dough and stir to combine the ingredients into a smooth batter. You can use a spoon or a mixer. The batter should be slightly wet and loose, similar to pancake batter
Cover the bowl with a towel or Saran wrap and leave in a warm place to let the dough double in size, about an hour
In the meantime, mix all the ingredients for the spiced sugar
Pour enough oil to deep fry the fritters (~1-2 inches deep) and heat to 350F. Line a baking sheet with a paper towel
Using spoons or an ice cream scoop, drop the batter into the hot oil, a few at a time to avoid overcrowding. Fry, turning frequently until golden brown and cooked through, 5-6 minutes. Careful not to overheat the oil or the fritters will get too dark before getting cooked. Place the fritters on the lined baking sheet.
While still warm, toss the puff puffs in the sugar mixture. Enjoy!
Recipes Inspired By:
Nigeria is firmly established in the internet age, and this is no more evident that when it comes to sharing recipes. There are very few comprehensive Nigerian cookbooks, but countless amazing blogs. Below are a few of our favorites, but this is by no means a comprehensive list:
The Queen of Nigerian blogging, Sisi Yemmi has transformed her food blog into a Nigerian lifestyle forum
Jemimah Adebiyi’s blog is authentic and very well curated
One of the original bloggers, Chy Anegbu is a powerhouse with online content and a few cookbooks
Chef Lola went from Geologist to food blogger and has some amazing recipes
Ozoz Sokoh has an incredible amount of knowledge about Nigerian food and its history
Chichi has a wealth of information regarding Nigerian food and that of the diaspora
Imma’s blog is fantastic for African and Caribbean recipes, and especially thoughtful about the overlap between the two
An amazing source and the backbone of this menu, Yewande Komolafe’s interview with the NYT and her fantastic recipes are a perfect primer on the foods of Lagos
A must read history of Nigeria, this article succinctly summarizes the recent Biafran Civil War and its impact on modern-day Nigeria
Nigeria is a powerhouse when it comes to contemporary literature in English—from the great Chinua Achebe to the canonical Chimamanda Adichie. In fact, check out Pemi Aguda and Ayokunle Falomo, two incredible writers from our very own University of Michigan Helen Zell Writers’ Program!
One could write whole thesis dissertations on Nigerian music since the 1930s and its impact on the nation building. Below is a very, very, very brief synopsis and we recommend checking out our Spotify playlist, which is built chronologically per the below:
The highlife musical genre originated in present-day Ghana as a combination of traditional Akan rhythms with western instruments. This music gained popularity with the Igbo people of Nigeria and became the soundtrack to independence
Nigerians were always connected with the music of the UK, influenced by rock and roll and Beatlemania during the 1960s. However, with the Biafran Civil War in the late 1960s, Nigerian psych rock became the music of resistance. Temi Kogbe wrote this amazing overview on Nigerian psych rock and the bands that defined the generation. Essentially, many Igbo musicians left Lagos and fled east to avoid persecution and created this harsh, psychedelic sound as a method to cope with the atrocities of war.
Perhaps one of the biggest stars of West African music and one of Nigeria’s most vocal critics of the military juntas during the 1970s and 80s, Fela Kuti is a pioneer of Afrobeat, a genre combining traditional Yoruba and Afro-Cuban music with funk and jazz.
Lagos is the unofficial creative hub of Nigeria, and perhaps even all of Africa. When my wife and I were traveling in East Africa, all we heard (literally) was Nigerian music at every restaurant and bar. Artists such as Wizkid, Burna Boy and Davido have taken the continent by storm and are now commercially successful in Europe and the States. NYT even did a roundup in 2019 of 5 musicians to listen to from Lagos