Culture Tuesday is a new weekly column in which Best of Vegan Editor Samantha Onyemenam explores the cuisines of different cultures across the globe through a plant-based and vegan lens. Click here to read last week’s column about Indian Cuisine.
Culture Tuesday – Nigerian Cuisine
Nigerian cuisine is one of the most flavoursome in the world. Each tribe and ethnic group has its own cultural dishes which feature starches, grains, beans and a plethora of herbs, spices, and vegetables which leave homes and their surroundings with an enticing aroma. Although only very few Nigerian dishes are traditionally vegan, a lot of them can be made vegan easily through the omissions of certain ingredients. Ingredients that can be locally sourced might be added to replace some of the umami flavours found in the traditionally made dish and meat substitutes such as soy chunks or seitan can be used as an alternative to meat in meat-laden dishes.
Although only very few Nigerian dishes are traditionally vegan, a lot of them can be made vegan easily through the omissions of certain ingredients.
“There’s rice at home!”
“There’s rice at home,” is one of the most used phrases in the vocabulary of Nigerian parents and adults, in general, as a reason for not eating out or ordering in. This is because Nigerian cuisine features a myriad of rice dishes, rice is usually bought in bulk and, as Nigerians also tend to cook in bulk, often, there’s rice in the freezer waiting to be thawed and reheated.
Some of these dishes have been nicknamed “Party Rice” because they can be found at almost every event hosted in Nigeria or by a Nigerian.
The most commonly made rice dishes amongst Nigerians are jollof rice, fried rice, coconut rice, Native rice, ofada rice and rice and stew. Some of these dishes have been nicknamed “Party Rice” because they can be found at almost every event hosted in Nigeria or by a Nigerian.
Every rice dish is usually served with fried plantains (dodo).
Although rice, on its own, can be rather bland, Nigerians always either infuse their rice dishes with herbs, spices, vegetables, purees made from onions, chilli peppers, ginger and/or other ingredients such as freshly made coconut milk or Nigerian palm oil. In the case of rice dishes that do not infuse the rice during the cooking process, the rice is always served with a sauce. This sauce could be stew (which refers to a rich fried tomato sauce), ayamase/ofada sauce (a sauce made with green bell peppers or green tomatoes and palm oil), ofada stew (made with red bell peppers and palm oil) or soups. Every rice dish is usually served with fried plantains (dodo).
The Land of Vegetable Soups
Nigerians love soups and some people, mainly in the Eastern tribes, believe they must have at least one soup per day. When we see or hear the word, “soup,” most of us immediately think of soups like tomato soup, potato soup, carrot soup or a cream of something soup – anything served in a bowl that requires a spoon to be eaten. However, in Nigeria, soups are seldom liquid or a puree of any form. There are soups such as pepper soup, gbegiri (a smooth black eyed bean soup) and ofe Owerri and ofe Nsala which feature liquid or pureed elements and can be eaten with a spoon. However, in the case of all the soups, apart from the pepper soup, they are eaten with starchy mounds known as swallow or fufu.
Nigerian vegetables tend to have distinct scents and flavours that are usually not found in vegetables not local to Nigeria.
The other soups popularly eaten in Nigeria tend to be vegetable-dense as Nigerian produces a range of green leafy vegetables. These vegetables include spinach, waterleaf, ugwu (pumpkin leaves), bitterleaf, ukazi, uziza, and green. For people outside of Nigeria, some other green vegetables can work as substitutes for these. However, Nigerian vegetables tend to have distinct scents and flavours that are usually not found in vegetables not local to Nigeria.
Some of the vegetable-dense soups commonly eaten by Nigerians across the country include okra soup/okro soup, efo riro (a spinach and tomato stew/soup), ewedu (jute leaf soup), Edikang Ikong (pumpkin leaf soup pronounced as “eddy-kai-kong”), onugbu (bitter leaf soup) and miyan kuka (a baobab leaf and dried okra soup).
Other, less vegetable-dense, soups might be made from nuts or seeds. For example, egusi soup (made from melon seeds), beniseed soup (made from beniseeds/sesame seeds), banga soup (palm nut/palm fruit soup) and groundnut soup (made from groundnuts/peanuts).
Swallows: The popular fufu
Swallow and fufu are terms used to refer to smooth thick mounds of starchy foods prepared to be eaten with a soup. Every tribe in Nigeria has a fufu they eat although, in more modern times, almost every type of fufu is available in every region of Nigeria.
Fufu, regardless of its type, is traditionally eaten with freshly washed hands as some believe the food is more delicious when eaten with hands.
Fufu is traditionally made with rice, cassava, semolina, unripe plantains or yam to make tuwo shinkafa, eba, semovita, plantain fufu, pounded yam or amala, respectively. On their own, they are bland and rather neutral tasting. However, served with soup, they are a vessel for carrying the soup and they take on the flavour of the soup which they are dipped in. Fufu, regardless of its type, is traditionally eaten with freshly washed hands as some believe the food is more delicious when eaten with hands.
In present times, Nigerians have proved that fufu can be made from almost anything. It is now possible to find oat/oatmeal fufu, coconut fufu, sweet potato fufu/potavita, cauliflower fufu, eggplant fufu and even cabbage fufu. These were developed to cater to Nigerians who would rather consume less carbohydrates, who follow low-carb diets or are trying to lose some weight while still eating traditional dishes.
Palm Oil: The victim of stereotyping
Previously, ofada stew, ayamase, and banga soup included palm in their description. However, a lot of the dishes mentioned and a lot unmentioned contain elements from the palm tree, especially palm oil.
Palm oil is a victim or stereotyping because most people in the “Western World” believe that all palm oil is unsustainable, leads to gross deforestation and the death of orangutans (similarly to how a lot of people believe that all coconuts are harvested through the forced labour of monkeys). This is not the case in Nigeria or in West Africa, as a whole. West African palm oil is sustainably produced and tends to be sourced on property that people in more rural areas live on (coconuts are also harvested by humans who climb the trees to harvest them as they are needed).
those dishes once referred to as “poor man’s food” are now known as popular, sought-after, posh Nigerian delicacies
Palm oil is an ingredient used to flavour or add colour to a lot of Nigerian dishes. However, it is also the oil most easily sourced and used in areas with less imported ingredients. Therefore, it is the go-to oil for many dishes in less developed or poorer areas although those dishes once referred to as “poor man’s food” are now known as popular, sought-after, posh Nigerian delicacies. Some of these “rags to riches” dishes are palm wine (which is actually an alcoholic drink, native rice, ofada stew, ayamase, akara osu/akara elepo (bean batter fried in palm oil), native soup, gbegiri, miyan kuka, and abacha (fried julienned cassava/African salad). Some dishes can be made without palm oil if it is unavailable or being made by someone on a low-fat diet. However, it is a necessity for the flavour of some traditional dishes.
[Image by K’s Cuisine: “Gbegiri”]
Beans – The Growth Food
Beans are cooked in a plethora of ways in Nigeria. They are enjoyed by both younger and older people. However, they tend to be fed a lot to children believed to be short due to the old-wives’ tales that state that eating a lot of beans will make a child really tall. The lack of giants in Nigeria begs to differ.
In Nigeria, beans are used to make main dishes, sides, and snacks.
In Nigeria, beans are used to make main dishes, sides, and snacks. Nowadays, lentils are used as a bean substitute in most of the dishes when black eyed beans, brown beans or honey beans are unavailable or when the food is being cooked for people who find lentils easier to digest. Some of the most popular dishes predominantly made of beans are gbegiri, akara, moin moin (steamed bean pudding/cake), beans (a very creative dish name), ewa riro (stewed beans), ewa oloyin/ewa agoyin (beans porridge with stew), adalu (beans and corn pottage), dan wake (bean dumplings), okpa (steamed Bambara bean/jugo bean batter) and frejon (pureed beans and coconut milk – a dish influenced by the trans-Atlantic slave trade).
Fermented foods are made and consumed in Nigeria for four reasons – flavour, better texture, increased nutritional value and reduction of naturally occurring toxins. Some of the traditional fermented foods are wara (soy cheese/tofu cheese/fermented tofu), garri (fermented and fried cassava flakes for making a garri cereal or eba), abacha, amala (made from fermented yam), ogi/pap (fermented cornmeal/cornstarch usually served with akara as a breakfast food), ogi baba (fermented milletmeal) and ugba (fermented oil beans used to make an Owerri version of the African salad).
Fermented condiments are used to add noticeable umami and traditional flavour and smell
Fermented condiments are used to add noticeable umami and traditional flavour and smell to particular dishes. For example, ofada stew, ayamase and some soups. On their own, these condiments have a strong unpleasant smell. However, when they are added to dishes during the cooking process, they impart a delicious flavour to the dishes. These condiments tend to be fermented beans and seeds such as ogiri/iru/dawadawa (locust beans fermented according to Igbo/Yoruba/Hausa practices, respectively), daddawa (fermented soy beans), ogiri-egusi (fermented melon seeds), ogiri-isi (fermented castor seeds), ukwa (fermented breadfruit) and ogiri-ugu (fermented pumpkin leaves). These condiments are usually bought from local/traditional markets already fermented.
Small Chops – Famous Nigerian Treats
Small chops are typically fried Nigerian appetisers, treats, snacks, or finger-foods which can be eaten in one to two bites. They are found at almost every event and tend to be a mixture of sweet and savoury dishes inspired by the international (mainly Nigerian, Ghanaian, English, American, Lebanese, Indian and Chinese) demography of Nigeria.
A serving of small chops always tends to contain puff puff (deep fried yeasted flour batter), vegetable spring rolls, samosas, mosas (balls of deep fried mashed plantains) and some definitely-not-vegan items which can easily be made vegan by replacing animal byproducts with their vegan versions (plantmilk and an egg substitute) and replacing meat with meat substitutes such as tofu, seitan, soy chunks, tempeh or pieces of young jackfruit.
those which are not traditionally vegan can easily be made vegan
Other traditional treats, appetisers or snacks that are not necessarily considered as small chops include kulikuli (fried seasoned peanut paste), plantain chips, crisps/potato chips coconut candy, peanut burger/coated peanuts, chin chin (crunchy fried dough), handpies (semi-circular handheld pies), doughnuts, buns (fried dough which is rocky and crunchy on the outside, but soft and fluffy on the inside) and kokoro (crunchy fried cornmeal). Not all of these are traditionally vegan, but those which are not traditionally vegan can easily be made vegan by opting for vegan butter or vegetable oil, plant milk and an egg substitute where required.
Modern-Day Nigerian Food
Historically, Nigerian food has always been very flavourful and aromatic. However, a significant amount of the modern-day cuisine was influenced by the Trans-Atlantic slave trade and colonisation which led to ingredients exclusively found in the Americas being brought to Nigeria by the European colonisers and grown in the country. These include tomatoes, chilli peppers, butternut squash and pumpkins (more commonly used by the Hausa people), corn, beans, potatoes, bell peppers, peanuts (groundnuts), wheat and fruits commonly eaten in Nigeria such as pineapples and papayas (pawpaw).
modern-day Nigerian cuisine is a perfect fusion
The modern-day Nigerian cuisine is a perfect fusion of Native Nigerian recipes and recipes with Native American ingredients and influences from Brazilian, Indian, Lebanese, and European cuisines. It takes you on a journey across Nigerian tribes and other parts of the world through flavour experiences. It truly is food that touches the soul of those who eat it.
For more information on, or recipes for, dishes featured, each image used can be found on Instagram through the accounts credited.
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