Nigeria on a plate

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When you think of this West African country, food might not be the first thing to come to mind. However, cuisine plays a major role in its culture, and there’s rarely a social gathering not accompanied by culinary delights. Lizzie Williams gives us a taste of some of the nation’s traditional dishes

The variety of peoples and cultures within the continent’s most populous nation — roughly 186 million — gives Nigerian cuisine a wonderful diversity of dishes and flavours.

While some common foods such as rice, beans, peas, plantain and yams are eaten all over the country, many ethnicities, such as the Yoruba, Igbo and Hausa, have their own favourite style of cooking.

Ingredients differ because of climate too — fish, shellfish, fruit and green vegetables are most abundant along the forested coast, while beef, goat, grains and pulses are more readily found in the less-watered open north.

Recipes can be simple or complex, but a Nigerian meal usually consists of a starchy staple accompanied by a ‘soup’ — really a comforting thick stew. Generous doses of herbs and spices are used in conjunction with orange-coloured palm oil or groundnut (peanut) oil to create rich flavours for vegetable-, meat- or fish-based dishes, often made very (very…) hot with a lot of chillies ground into a red powder — known simply as ‘pepper’.

This is one ingredient that unites the myriad peoples. Nigerians love their pepper — a Yoruba proverb says, “The man that eats no pepper is weak” — but everyone else should administer with care.

All Nigerians, whether at home or abroad, are undeniably passionate about their food and meals are an important part of family time and social gatherings. Eating on-the-go is popular too, and street vendors and informal hawkers sell delicious snacks and steaming plates just about everywhere — signs saying ‘food-is-ready’ need little explanation.

In Pidgin English, the term ‘chop’ means a meal, a ‘small chop’ is a snack, or canapés at a fancy party, and a restaurant or stall is a ‘chop house’. If you’re hungry, simply say, “I wan chop”, which means, ‘I want to eat’.

Best bites

Jollof rice, the flavourful one-pot rice dish popular all over West Africa, is thought to be the origin of the Cajun dish jambalaya — slaves carried their culinary influences across the Atlantic. It’s cooked down with palm oil, tomatoes, onions and ‘pepper’, giving it a bright-reddish colour and fiery kick. It’s often accompanied by salad and dodo — deep-fried slices of yellow plantain — or meat or fish are added to the cooking process.

Egusi, a spicy yellow soup, is thickened with the seeds of the egusi melon (a sort of wild African watermelon), which add a sweetly nutty flavour to the tomato-based stock. Meat, red chillies, onions, ground dried shrimp and greens are added. Similar stew-like soups are cooked with okra, pumpkin leaves or bitter leaf (a type of spinach) before meat or fish is added; all Nigerian soups are named after the thickener used.

Pounded yam is used as both a starchy side dish and a utensil — much like injera bread in Ethiopian cuisine. White yams are boiled, pounded with a pestle and mortar into a soft dough-like mound, and then chunks are torn off as edible spoons to scoop up soups such as egusi. Pounded yam is one of the fufu recipes — a generic name for the starchy accompaniments — and others include boiled and pounded àmàlà (yam peels), garri (cassava), agidi (cornmeal) and tuwo shinkafa (rice flour).

Obe ata, or pepper soup, is among the nation’s favourite dishes thanks to its intense (usually super-hot) flavour enhanced by ‘pepper’, ginger and garlic. A thinner soup or broth eaten with a spoon, it’s chock-full of assorted cuts, and goat is the standard protein — though you may choose to pass on isi ewu: goat’s head pepper soup. Oxtail, catfish and tilapia are tasty alternatives, and added extras include chunks of plantain or yam and a dash of palm oil.

Akara is a tasty any-time snack — protein-packed fritters of ground black-eyed peas that puff up when fried and have the same texture as falafel. At breakfast, they can also be dipped into akamu or ogi, porridge sweetened with condensed milk. Many Nigerians also eat fried eggs and bread or ewa agoyin (beans and bread) for breakfast, accompanied by a cup of sweet milky tea.

Moin moin is a savoury pudding made of brown beans mixed with onion, bell pepper, palm oil and spices, then blended into a fine paste and steamed in banana leaves. Any combination of extra bits can be added for flavour such as flaked fish or crayfish, slices of hard boiled eggs or corned beef. Ukwaka is a similar steamed pudding made from corn and ripe plantain.

Suya is loved by all Nigerians. Not unlike Thai satay sticks, these beef, chicken or fish kebabs are grilled on skewers, with a seasoning that makes them especially tasty — groundnuts (peanuts), chilli, cayenne pepper, ginger and paprika. Kilishi has similar flavours but is thinly sliced and dried — a bit like beef jerky or biltong. Both are served wrapped in newspaper with slices of tomato and onion, and ‘Suya spots’ are often places where people meet for a cold beer or malt drink too.

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