What Nigerian dishes do you love

Food and cultural identity "Colonial strategies cannot stop me"

Food and cooking play an important role in my identity as a Nigerian. My life is determined by the many taste experiences that sweet, sour, bitter, umami and spicy foods leave on my palate. And about my love for unrefined red palm oil, for the seafood and fermentation aroma of dried shrimp or for the soothing broth of the spicy “pepper soup” - all of these delicacies have shaped my culinary and cultural identity.

From Ozoz Sokoh

When I got to know the Brazilian dish acarajé, which is a modification of the Nigerian Akara, in 2009, I was initially surprised. My discovery prompted me to expand my spiritual identity to include black and black. The knowledge that people in slavery had clung to dishes from their homeland for centuries inspired me to document Nigerian cuisine, its typical ingredients and dishes and its global influence.

One of the ingredients I fell in love with is cassava in its many forms. A New World food that quickly established and spread in Nigeria. Today it is one of the three most important staple foods in the country. The Portuguese brought the plant to West Africa around the 16th century. However, it was only to begin its triumphant advance there from around 1888, when the slave trade in Brazil (the last country) was abolished and Nigerian slaves returned to their homeland. They also brought with them the necessary knowledge about the preparation of cassava, because some varieties are poisonous if not processed correctly and thus contributed to its further spread. In addition, the cultivation was promoted by the colonial powers because cassava is a very robust crop: it is resistant to locust plagues and grows even under drought conditions.

I often think about what all of this means and what constitutes cultural appropriation in its essence. If you read about the “Columbus Effect”, you could go into raptures about the wonders of corn and cassava, tomatoes and other “donated” food crops. Until one realizes that they were brought across the sea on the routes of slavery.

“With a stomach full of cassava, one might be tempted to forget the middle passage and the trauma associated with it. Traumas that live on to this day in the souls of the descendants of the enslaved and, in a broader sense, in the souls of numerous black people. "

The most serious consequence of colonialism for cultural identity is its extinction, which is expressed in a continuous erosion of values, language, history and economy of the colonized people.

As a food and content writer, I make a living doing work on food. Anything that limits my time or my ability to do this has economic consequences for me. In my travels around the world, I have had various experiences telling stories about eating habits in order to preserve the Nigerian food culture.

A fact that cannot be changed

I know all too well what it means to be a Nigerian. I was born and raised in Nigeria, and this country has shaped my life. This is a fact that cannot be shaken.
In 2017 I was asked to make a mini documentary on behalf of a well-known German television station, Deutsche Welle (DW). The producer went through all the details with me before we set a day of shooting. After filming was finished, I waited for the broadcast date. Several months later, the producer informed me that Deutsche Welle had decided not to broadcast the contribution. When I asked for an explanation, I received the following reply from the sender:

“You had promised us a lady who works with typical Nigerian foods and dishes (1) and uses them to prepare a kind of haute cuisine in the new Nigerian style (2). What we got from you instead was a lady buying vegetables in a shop that could have been anywhere in Europe (3). She then used it to prepare a salad (4). The film recordings did not have a typically Nigerian character and were therefore not included in the program by the broadcaster. "(5)

My first thought was: “What gives a person who is not from Nigeria the right to tell me what Nigerian cuisine is? And to question my culinary origins and identity? ”When I dealt with the question longer and in more detail, I was only able to identify a distinctly colonialist view and attitude towards Nigeria, which promote a specific, poverty-oriented narrative and an erasure of my knowledge should. I was particularly pained by the waste of time involved.
  • Sunday Alamba © picture alliance / AP Photo
    In this photo, taken on Wednesday, January 23, 2013, workers are preparing hamburgers at the Johnny Rockets restaurant in Lagos, Nigeria. As Nigeria's middle class grows along with the appetite for foreign brands in Africa's most populous nation, more and more foreign restaurants and lifestyle companies are pushing into the country.
  • Sunday Alamba © picture alliance / AP Photo
    In this photo, taken on Friday April 17, 2020, people are buying tomatoes from a vegetable market in the commercial capital of Lagos, Nigeria. Bans in Africa that restrict people's freedom of movement to slow the spread of the coronavirus threaten to stifle supplies of what the continent needs most - food.
  • Sunday Alamba © picture alliance / AP Photo
    Cassava trade in the market in Lagos, Nigeria
I want to try to decolonize this exchange of views:

(1) "Typical Nigerian foods and dishes": There could hardly be anything more typical of Nigerian cuisine than cassava and coconut. They can be found in various forms of preparation, from street food and desserts to many other dishes.

(2) "[...] a kind of haute cuisine prepared from it in the new Nigerian style": Do I have to justify myself for what I've done? How do I know if the broadcaster has done the necessary research and substantive research to understand this salad? And why is my opinion - as an expert on this subject - what fine dining is not accepted and respected?

(3) "[...] in a shop [...] that could be anywhere in Europe": This reaction probably shocked me the most for several reasons, because I went to a street stall near me. And it suggests the question: Would you rather have seen me shop in a "dirty market"? Nigerians, like Europeans, go shopping in many different markets. Why should I fit into a certain narrative?

(4) "She then used it to prepare a salad!": There are a handful of salad recipes in Nigerian cuisine, and I personally think my take, inspired by a street food snack, is great. Why is that not enough?

(5) "The film recordings did not have a typically Nigerian character and were therefore not included in the program by the broadcaster!": This final sentence was the culmination. Everything about these recordings was Nigerian. What power, authority and authority does someone from outside Nigeria have to question the food on my plate? May I do this the other way around? Could I question a German's judgment if he or she puts a potato dish in front of me that I don't know? Would I want to judge where they shop or what inspired their dish?

"The most serious consequence of colonialism for cultural identity is the extinction, which is expressed in a continuous erosion of values, language, history and economy of the colonized people."

The exchange continued as follows: “Just try not to convey the image of a wealthy woman so much. Viewers from other countries in Africa should be able to identify with the story. As long as it doesn't leave an elitist impression. Use ingredients that are available and affordable for everyone because that is the basic idea behind the concept of our show. A quick shop and some information on local eating habits (that's exactly what I did!). Then prepare a good, visually appealing dish with these ingredients and film the protagonist as she eats it with a guest who says something about the meal. "

These outdated forms of representation of poverty and simple pleasures, a lack of knowledge and cultural understanding and sense of context, the desire to paint a certain picture of Africa, are not just legacies from the colonial era, but an expression of a living, flourishing, active colonialism. And the balance of power is obvious, and it works by forcing us to define who people should represent and how they should express themselves. This has absolutely nothing to do with the history, the context, the legacy that define us.

"The balance of power [...] takes effect by forcing us to define who people represent and how they should express themselves."

People, cultures, kitchens continue to develop - and Nigerian and African cuisine can do the same. We can reinvent ourselves and what we do. There isn't a single version of who we are and where we come from. We decide, it's up to us, we decide who, what, when and how. For this reason, the food media must break new ground. We need food writers, storytellers, filmmakers, stylists, photographers, people who eat the food and more. That is why I invest all my energy, my heart and my soul in the new Nigerian kitchen. And not only to establish the food in my homeland, but also to establish my identity as a woman, as a Nigerian, as a black woman, as a “food explorer” and whoever I still want to be.

Colonial strategies can't stop me.

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