CreditCreditJohnny Miller for The New York Times. Food Stylist: Rebecca Jurkevich. Prop Stylist: Paige Hicks.
There is a saying in Yoruba, one of the languages spoken by the people of southwestern Nigeria, that translates as “The soul that does not eat pepper is a dead soul.”
The saying refers not to just one single element, but to the variety of ingredients in Nigerian cuisine that add heat to a dish: the mild tingle and smoke of selim peppers, the sudden rush of alligator peppers, the sustained heat of a habanero. We don’t say a dish is spicy — we say it has pepper. Pepper is not meant to overburden your palate, but to stimulate it with an interplay of flavors, and to bring your mouth to life.
One way to capture Nigerian cuisine in a sentence is to say that, for me, it provokes the senses in a way that mashed potatoes, cheese pizza and chicken noodle soup simply do not. I was born in Berlin and raised in Lagos, Nigeria. Although I’ve lived in the United States for two decades, I still remember my first few weeks exploring the food of downtown Newark, a sometimes lonely, sometimes exhilarating confrontation with a question that many immigrants ask: Where are the flavors and spices that I knew back home?
If you have to experience culture shock, New Jersey is a fascinating place to do it. I was 16 when I arrived, and I was required to attend classes at a community college for a semester before I could join my older brother at a four-year school in Maryland. I didn’t understand any of America’s systems. Do the ticket machines on the bus break $20 bills? Where do quarters work aside from laundry machines? It was bewildering in every way.
These memories also linger as food experiences: What is a fried chicken sandwich? What is a slushie? The heat of the summer, the stuffy and humid avenues — those were familiar. But my life in America, and my career in food, began with this sense of bewilderment, and a search for that which would anchor me.
My quest to connect with the food of my childhood really began only a few years ago. The past, no matter how distant, grows within us. After 15 years working in the food world — in bakeries, restaurant pastry kitchens and test kitchens — and developing recipes in cuisines familiar to American readers, I began asking questions about whose culture was being reflected in the food I was making. I realized that I had not included myself in the conversation.
Now I have been asked by The Times to develop a collection of 10 essential Nigerian recipes. It is a responsibility that I do not take lightly.
Nigeria is a country three times the size of Italy, and it has just as many regional cuisines. The food in the north is influenced by the availability of cattle and other livestock; our coastal regions use more fresh fish than their neighbors, which highlight dried or smoked fish in their dishes. Red palm oil suffuses dishes from the south. In a country where dozens of ethnic groups interact, we have developed a cuisine that transcends tribal boundaries, recipes that can be considered national dishes.
My approach in selecting these 10 recipes is to reveal two complementary qualities of Nigerian cuisine: its singularity and its accessibility. (As such, I had to leave out recipes that are among my favorites, like nkwobi. As much as I’d like readers to spend a day off from work perfecting a long-simmer cow’s foot, I want these recipes to be practical.)
These dishes are primarily informed by the cuisine of the southwest, the part of the country where I grew up. I would love for them to serve as a starting point — there’s nothing definitive here, though all are, I hope, recognizable to Nigerians, and most West Africans. They are what I share first when I cook in my Brooklyn home for friends old and new.
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I have found that it’s important when cooking Nigerian food to trust the ingredients to do their work. The ingredients are “Nigerian” only in their interactions with one another, and will take time to conspire in your pot. To accomplish the variety of textures that make the dish stand out, each recipe should be approached with patience and a sense of adventure. Do not be burdened by notions of authenticity.
Also trust the preparation and techniques — with a long braise, the muscle fibers in the goat leg will tenderize and surrender to the peppered juices of the obe ata, a bright red purée of red bell peppers, onions and tomatoes, with habanero for added heat and complexity. A whole habanero with seeds will lend its gentle, lingering heat to the jollof rice. Fermented locust beans will plump up nicely with a soak in warm water, and will collaborate with crayfish and red palm kernel oil to make an umami-rich pot of efo riro, or stewed greens.
You may go to great lengths to find selim pepper, calabash nutmeg and uziza seeds, but it will be worth it: Each sip of the whole fish pepper soup is like a loud refrain singing to your senses. The peanut-based dry spice mixture that seasons beef suya, the ultimate Nigerian street food, will have you licking your fingers. The beautiful complexities revealed in these flavors and textures are the most satisfying aspects of Nigerian cuisine.
In a funny way, that term — “Nigerian cuisine” — is a lovely bit of enthusiasm, but it’s almost too broad for its own good. Nigeria is vast, and its dishes reflect the geographic, cultural and ethnic divides that exist within our country. When it is explored in depth, our cuisine reveals the nuances of regions and
The 10 Essential Recipes
1. Jollof Rice
When it comes to jollof rice, the debate is playful, passionate and — among West Africans of different nationalities — endlessly ongoing.
As a dish that is served in Nigeria, Cameroon, Ghana, Liberia and Sierra Leone, to name just a few of the countries where it can be found, it has as many iterations as it does devotees. To whom does it belong? To all of West Africa. Who invented it? Some agree it was the Wolof people of the historic Senegambia region. Similarities to its closest culinary relative, the Senegalese national dish thiebou djeun, are immediately apparent. Still, we Nigerians are fiercely proud of our jollof, and the fiery tanginess that greets your palate.
And fiery it is, and smoky too, especially when it’s cooked in a stockpot over an open flame. The edges of the pot sear the rice, and that blackened rice scents the whole batch. This is our party rice, served at ceremonies and celebrations.
A successful batch of jollof rice requires a few key ingredients: a sauce of obe ata (the tomato-pepper base found in several dishes), herbs, spices and meat stock, and a perfect sauce-to-rice ratio, so the cooked grains remain separate.
This jollof is a recipe I’ve been working on, and it requires very little tending. I have found that the best way to do it is to make it in the oven, which relieves me of an hour of checking and stirring the pot. But there are sacrifices. Missing from the oven version is the slightly smoked flavor you get from the little bits of rice that have browned on the bottom of the pan. That’s nothing a pinch of smoked paprika can’t fix. (View this recipe in NYT Cooking.)
Pepper soup is a brothy stew made with seafood or meat, a blend of toasted spices and chiles. One generous spoonful of this spicy soup is all it takes to feel a sharp tingling in your nostrils and that sensation of a sweat coming over you, like the humidity of noontime Lagos. I have a vivid memory of experiencing this soup for the first time as a child, in a hot and crowded kitchen, the fragrance and steam rising from the pot. And what was inside the pot? The whole head of a goat. The broth surrounding the head was cloudy with herbs and spices.
The blend of spices in the soup can vary by region. The Niger Delta blends contain anywhere from eight to 12 components. The versions made by Igbo and Yoruba cooks may contain fewer ingredients, but will feature delicately sweet calabash nutmeg and smoky selim peppers in the mixture. It is difficult to say which spices are crucial and which can be omitted. Know that every time you make it, even the slightest alterations will lead to wonderful and surprising outcomes. (View this recipe in NYT Cooking.)
3. Beef Suya
Suya is a popular Nigerian street food made of thin strips of meat that are generously seasoned, skewered and grilled. Tender, well-marbled cuts of meat are marinated in a dry rub made primarily of ground ginger, cayenne and roasted peanut powder, a mixture known as suya spice or yaji. This preparation is particular to northern Nigeria and began as a method of meat preservation for the Hausa and Fulani nomadic people who rear cattle in the desert that spans the region.
These days, the streets of Lagos and most major Nigerian cities are lined with roadside grills commonly known as suya spots. Also ubiquitous are the oil-stained newspaper pages that the meat skewers are wrapped in. While the suya is still warm, and just before you’ve handed over your cash, raw onion and tomato slices are tossed in the wrap.
As a street food, suya is rarely made at home. But for Africans in the diaspora longing for a taste, this adapted version is good for any occasion when a grill is ready to go. (View this recipe in NYT Cooking.)
Obe ata is the Nigerian mother sauce for soups and stews, and my versatile, back-pocket sauce whenever I need an accompaniment for starches. The addition of meat makes obe ata irresistible, especially after their flavors have had a chance to meld in the pot.
Braising meat is a common technique in Nigerian cooking. The meat is usually served as it comes, bone-in and skin-on; it’s easy to tell what you are having when you get a chicken leg with the foot still attached, or the fish head is staring back at you from the pot. (We use everything we can.) Goat is common in stews, but beef, pork, chicken and fish are just as popular — it all depends on availability and preference.
I like to serve this dish at my dinner parties. It’s wonderful to set down a generous platter for guests to share with goat leg that has been tended to for hours and obe ata spooned over the top. Garnished with fresh herbs and citrus zest, the dish should explode the senses — a riot of red and green on the plate, a fierce tangy aroma in the air and a lingering heat on palate. (View this recipe in NYT Cooking.)
Every region of Nigeria has a version of stewed greens, in which the greens are paired with intensely flavorful pantry items to create a complex dish. Efo riro is a version particular to the Yorubas and can be found on menus and in kitchens all around Lagos and the southwestern part of the country.
Amaranth greens (called tete in Yoruba, and known as callaloo across the Caribbean and in the United States) are the greens of choice for efo riro. Obe ata is the base sauce, and red palm kernel oil adds richness, but umami-rich staples like fermented locust beans, dried crayfish and smoked fish or chunks of air-dried cod steal the show. (View this recipe in NYT Cooking.)
Plantains are omnipresent in Nigerian cooking — fried, grilled, boiled, dried, powdered, sweet or not. Dodo is the word in Yoruba for fried ripe plantains, and the cut of the plantain determines its place at the table: Nice thick slices on the bias are typically served as a main course with stewed meat, while smaller diced cubes or rounds are served as a side dish. I like to think of fried sweet plantains as the perfect side to help temper the spice that Nigerian cuisine is known for, and this recipe does just that. (View this recipe in NYT Cooking.)
To tell the story of frejon, a dish of beans puréed with coconut milk, is to tell the story of the city of Lagos and its rich history and diversity. Lagos is on the southwestern coast of Nigeria, and it is currently the most populous city on the African continent. Its ports have always been a center for trade and commerce in Africa.
Beginning in the 15th century, the Lagos port served as an exit point for the trans-Atlantic slave trade, and in later years, a point of entry for a number of repatriated slaves from Brazil. As more returnees settled in Lagos, Afro-Brazilian influences suffused everything from food and architecture to agriculture and religion.
Frejon, or feijão de leite in Portuguese, is a simple dish that tells the story of forced migration and return. A popular Nigerian brown-eyed variety known in Yoruba as ewa oloyin (honey bean) is used for an unforgettable, slightly sweet purée, but varieties like adzuki, kidney, pinto or black-eyed peas will yield similar results.(View the recipe in NYT Cooking.)
West African yams, which appear often in Nigerian cooking, are larger, much starchier, denser and less fibrous than American yams or sweet potatoes, with stark white flesh. A versatile and popular preparation is “pounded yam,” but the logistics of making it at home can be daunting. Look up a video on YouTube and see what I mean; you’d have quite the culinary adventure ahead of you.
These fries are easier to make, and are a well-known snack and side dish. This preparation is one I use in my own kitchen, and it’s a nice introduction to the unique starchiness of the West African yam. (View the recipe in NYT Cooking.)
9. Agege Bread
Agege bread is a white bread, versatile, simple and cheery, but it’s denser and sweeter than American white bread. I grew up near Agege, a small town that has now been swallowed up inside the ever-growing Lagos metropolitan area, and that gave the bread its name. It was once the only site of a large wholesale bakery that made and distributed the loaves all over Lagos. The bread is now found wherever Nigerians are.
This bread is not meant to dazzle you. It’s distinctiveness is in its texture and sweetness, all of which make it the perfect vehicle for Nigerian cuisine. Want a few slices with your stewed eggs in the morning? That’s O.K.! How about a nice chunk to dip in your obe ata for lunch? That works too. (View the recipe in NYT Cooking.)
10. Puff Puff
The Nigerian version of a doughnut, puff puff are street food, and fall under a category called “small chops”: appetizers that can be popped in your mouth in one or two bites. They’re served plain or tossed in sugar, maybe with a dipping sauce or coulis, and there are versions stuffed with sweet or savory fillings on restaurant menus in Lagos.
The genius of puff puff is in the simplicity of the dough. The combination of a nutmeg-spiked batter, a bit of patience for the yeast to rise, and time to fry up the balls result in the most delightful little puffs. I highly recommend tossing the fried dough in spiced sugar. The added layer creates an irresistible crunch when you bite into each puff. (View the recipe in NYT Cooking.)