Finding a home through West African cuisine and cuisine

There was a time, just a few years ago, when I would invite two dozen strangers to my house for dinner. Twice a month I cooked and serv...


There was a time, just a few years ago, when I would invite two dozen strangers to my house for dinner. Twice a month I cooked and served dishes like pepper fish soup, seasoned with up to 10 different spices; tender goat, braised for hours in a fiery red obe ata; baobab granita; and lemongrass coconut soup on elastic tapioca pearls – all in an effort to connect with the food I grew up eating in Lagos, Nigeria.

I’ve revisited those memories over the past few months, amused by what I once thought were the logistics of serving four courses to a lively group of diners – timing the dishes, finding places for the coats, preparing the bar, for say nothing of today’s face shields, temperature controls and social distancing. And, although I was absorbed by these details at the time, they were far from the big picture. Beyond the meal and hospitality, the dinners helped me answer a question that I only realize now that I was asking myself: what happens to us when we share our kitchen, and what is the story of our food. does she reveal?

My career has always been shaped by my love of food. My years as a professional cook and recipe developer have taught me that the dishes we create contain a story and that the recipes are a testament to how harmoniously the ingredients come together. The recipes speak of a place, a culture and the people behind it.

Right before the pandemic, I started writing a cookbook about the food I have always known, loved and desired: the many cuisines of Lagos, Nigeria’s largest city and cultural connection. Its food embodies the contributions of those who have lived there for centuries and those who migrated there. The memories I had of those kitchens, I knew, were like the memories we have of a favorite childhood hangout or a movie watching when our hearts were full (or freshly broken) – almost dreamlike with the time passing by.

Diasporas – some recent, others culminating in hundreds or thousands of years – make up a large part of American cuisine. The African continent’s imprint has inspired almost as much engaging scholarship as it has irresistible dishes. The larger region I come from, West Africa, has so influenced what we consider essential to the American palace, that its contributions seem almost granted. The ingredients, cooking methods and preservation techniques that I know from home are all present in American cuisine.

But I do not know the eating habits of the continent in the past. To me, they’re all part of the story that I tell with the food I love to cook, and part of the story that I’ll unveil as I write this monthly column. Essentially, my work in this space will strive to continue what I have set out to explore and understand with my dinners – how ingredients, food, and cooking can shape and determine our idea of ​​home.

In many ways, the pandemic has brought us closer to home than ever before. It also caused many of us to sort of (hopefully briefly) reduce the number of people we share a meal with. And, for those of us who love to cook, it sent us deeper into our pantries. There, in some ways, we find the stories we all tell with our food, refine the ideas we have about our origins, and realize what has influenced us along the way.

Where once I would have slapped two large cast iron plates all over my stove to grab pounds of beef suya for newly arrived guests, I’m now tapping into the fastest, easiest ways to connect with the ingredients I love.

Yaji, an essential pantry spice for many West Africans, is something that should be in every kitchen. This recipe, a simple side dish of roasted carrots with a spicy yaji relish, is the result of my digging in my cupboards for a taste of home and grabbing a nice container. Sweet and caramelized carrots roasted on a baking sheet never fail, but you can use it on meats or any other seasonal vegetable. If instead of yaji you have a spice that reminds you of home, that will work just as well.

Recipe: Roasted Carrots with Yaji Spice Relish

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