Post by Evelyn Owen
We’re thrilled to present the second installment of Blogger Spotlight, and this time we’re talking about FOOD.
Ozoz Sokoh, also known as the Kitchen Butterfly, spoke to us via email about her adventures in and with Nigerian cuisine. A star of the foodie scene in Lagos, Ozoz coined the phrase “New Nigerian Kitchen” to express her cooking philosophy and practice, which centers on celebrating Nigerian cuisine, understanding and experimenting with ingredients, and most importantly documenting her finds for future reference.
Why “butterfly“? She says: “When I think about my journey with food, I reflect on the fact that I’ve evolved as an eater, and as a cook who is interested in more than the food on the plate. So I use the butterfly as a metaphor to chart my metamorphosis and growth. And hopefully, my writing reflects some of the color and vibrancy of the butterfly.”
We asked Ozoz about her journey so far, and where she’s going next…
What inspired you to start blogging?
I wouldn’t call it inspiration per se but a desperate, quarter-life crisis which got me thinking about my life beyond the tri-dimension of work, marriage, and motherhood. I was thirty three, living and working in The Netherlands and I struggled with my identity and what defined it. Food, writing, and photography have always been important to me. I’ve been cooking since I was thirteen, and writing my whole life—which is what happens when you have an English teacher for a mum! I’d been taking photographs too, from polaroids when I was young to going on geology field trips at university in Liverpool. In the early 2000s I’d also begun reading blogs—food ones in particular—so the concept of all three loves of mine in one space—food, writing, and photography—was not new to me.
One Friday evening in 2008, my Brazilian friend, P sat at one end of my open kitchen while I cooked some Chinese food for dinner. She was writing a blog post and it struck me, literally a “light bulb” kind of moment: “I could start a blog.” That I could actually turn things round, from just reading to actually writing. I knew in that instant it would be a “safe space” for me. I was away from home, unhappy, unsure about my purpose but I knew that food, and Nigerian food in particular—writing about it, cooking it, and sharing it—would be very much “comfort food.” So I plunged into it head and heart first, creating for myself a place where who I was didn’t result in points being docked, where I was in total control, the supreme! And it worked. In the process, I discovered the infinite possibilities of food—to forge bonds, create connections, relieve history, celebrate heritage, learn about life, and much more.
Who is the main audience for Kitchen Butterfly? Do your readers tend to live in Nigeria, elsewhere in Africa, or outside the continent?
I write first for myself and then for Nigerians, at home and in diaspora, and then the rest of the world. I think it’s important to share what I know with Nigerians: what I’ve learned about our lexicon and food language, and how that shapes understanding of our cuisine and its elements. We first must know it, and then we can explain, uphold, defend, and celebrate it with the rest of the world. My blog analytics show that more than half of my readers are based in the US.
Describe your typical food shopping trip. Do you always buy from the same places or people? What kinds of questions do you ask when you’re choosing ingredients?
My typical shopping trip, the one I really, really, enjoy, is my Friday evening one. It’s often the end of a hectic week and food therapy begins in the market. I go to the same places week in, week out. My favorite place is a market under a bridge on the banks of the Lagos lagoon where you can get fruits, veg, and seafood. I also go to a supermarket close by my house, but the market is everything.
On Fridays, the sellers go to the farmers markets themselves in preparation for the weekend so every stall is bursting with vibrant, fresh, colorful produce. I love the beauty and the variety. Though the produce in the market is mostly local there are also a lot of interesting Indian/Chinese vegetables too. For instance, I discovered the Indian okra, known as ‘lady fingers’—a long, slim variety that doesn’t have as much “draw” (the mucilaginous quality prized in Nigerian soups) in contrast to the stubbier, Nigerian one.
To be honest, most times I send my ‘customer’—the gentleman I buy most of my produce from—my list by SMS hours before. I usually get the same things: scent leaf (a minty, basil-y Nigerian herb), cilantro, mint, peppers, ginger, citrus (with limes and lemons varying depending on my current faves) and whatever else is in season (especially with my seasonal produce calendar, the first-ever compilation for Nigerian fruits and vegetables.) I do this so that the half hour I spend in the market is purely for pleasure. I walk from stall to stall, admiring the produce, looking at the shapes and colors, taking photos of the “abundance” and the ambiance, asking about source and provenance, and learning new uses. Market women especially are great resources for learning how to cook new things or to use old ingredients in different ways.
Of course I buy things that aren’t on my “regular” list: half a kilo of fresh peas in their pods, sweet cassava, berries if they’re fresh, mushrooms, radishes, beetroot, pumpkin. I leave the market with everything I need for the weekend and the week ahead.
For anybody new to Nigerian cooking—can you recommend a few recipes as a tasty starting point?
Oh yes! A meal of Jollof rice, and Dodo with Suya, washed down with a cold mug of Chapman.
Jollof Rice is our red, spiced rice. Well, it’s not really ours but we’ve claimed it, and now make the best pots—no Nigerian gathering is complete without it. Originally, Jollof rice is thought to have come from the Senegambia where a 14th century Wolof/Jolof kingdom existed. At the time, the region was known as the grain coast for its growth and use of rice, millet, barley and other grains. It is believed that Thieboudienne, as this dish is called, was the creation of Penda Mbaye, a cook at the colonial governor’s residence in Saint Louis, Senegal. Her original creation used barley, fish, and vegetables. But then, during a barley shortage, she used rice instead and ta-da! Thieb was born.
So how did it get to Nigeria and change its name? According to James McCann, in his 2009 book Stirring the Pot: A History of African Cuisine, the prevalence of Jollof rice in cities throughout West Africa suggests that it was brought there by tradesmen from the Djula people who moved between commercial centers, establishing cultural enclaves and influencing local cooking cultures as they went. I can imagine traveling salesmen referring to a dish or a recipe by its source, by its origins… so hypothetically, Jollof could have gotten its name from men of commerce. I’ve written more about the history here. In any case, Jollof rice has been around for a long time (The Kudeti Book of Yoruba Cooking, published in 1934, has a recipe for Jollof rice which feeds 6!) and it’s not going anywhere.
Dodo, sweet ripe plantains, fried till golden because dodo is bae. Love, love, love it. To accompany Jollof rice though, a small dice is the recommended way to cut it (as opposed to larger, diagonally sliced pieces.) Because shapes matter too as part of the dining experience. Because food is more than just eating.
Suya typically refers to grilled beef skewers coated in a complex peanut spice that is flavorizer and tenderizer too! The dry spice mix—yaji, made of peanut powder with the oils extracted, onion, ginger, garlic and other spices—makes suya what it is. These days, and very New Nigerian style, I make suya of everything including vegan ingredients—so tofu and vegetables for instance are fair game. If you want to stick with tradition though, make some chicken or beef skewers over a grill and serve up with slices of fresh tomatoes, red onions, sliced cabbage, and chili pepper.
Chapman is a mixed drink of orange, lemon and lime soda, blackcurrant cordial, and bitters, commonly Angostura, that is really refreshing. It is the perfect balance of sweet and fruity and can be jazzed up in many ways, notably by adding a dash of Campari, an Italian digestif.
Can you tell us about regional variation in Nigerian food? How do ingredients, techniques, and specialty dishes vary from region to region, or from city to city?
I find Nigerian cuisine fascinating. A lot of the same ingredients are in play—rice, beans, leafy greens, spices, seeds and nuts. The fascination? Seeing how they are used differently from east to west, north to south. The influences and geography shape what ends up on the plate. Seafood, both fresh and dried is common along the southern coast; the north is influenced by Arabic and nomadic culture and practices. The ingredients are similar, as are techniques. What varies is the use and combination of spices, the protein and other regional produce.
One of your main goals is to fill a gap in people’s culinary imaginations by celebrating Nigerian cuisine. Why do you think Nigerian food hasn’t received the recognition it deserves? Do you see things changing?
For a long time, food and eating in Nigeria has been about sustenance, about food as serving a primary function. This has kept Nigerian cuisine in the realms of “what’s fundamental” as an element in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. But…there’s more, and that extra is what’s coming to the fore. I definitely see things changing, thanks to travel, and explorers like myself who not only experience food but experiment with it, research and document it. I see perceptions changing as we organize, discover and share what knowledge there is about Nigerian cuisine.
Living in the Netherlands changed my perspective of food. It showed me that cuisines are all connected and full of similarities (marked by geography and climate, history and heritage) in spite of the obvious differences. One day, I walked down a high street, struck by how familiar the aromas were. I got to a stand where a gentleman was making olieballen: fried dough studded with dried fruits. One bite and I was transported home to Nigeria and PuffPuff, our own version of fried dough sans dried fruits. On investigation and further research, I find that almost every culture has a version of fried dough, some dipped in sweets syrups like the Turkish and Greek Loukomades, some dusted in icing sugar, and on and on and on.
It was also while living in Netherlands that a Brazilian colleague introduced me to acarajé, a bean fritter, which is a direct descendant of Nigerian akara, having crossed borders and boundaries as a result of the slave trade. It was a journey that saw simple akara achieve cult status in Bahia-Salvador, northeast Brazil, where it is food of the gods, and is made and sold by daughters of the goddess in specific dress and with such ceremony that one sees how history and heritage shape food and cuisine. From it, I learnt about a distinction in Brazilian cuisine between alimenta, everyday food on the plate, versus comida, food that nourishes the spirit and soul.
I believe things like my seasonal produce calendar—a first for Nigerian fruits and vegetables, and one of a handful across the continent categorizing African produce; talks like my TEDX Port Harcourt talk where I shared my visions for Reimagining Nigerian cuisine; my interview with CNN African Voices; and more, are changing what people know and how they feel about Nigerian food. Some of these things have always been here, but never shared with a wider audience. Blogging, social media, cooks and chefs intent on exploring local ingredients, and a greater interest in “Africa” are carving paths for its recognition, changing the face and game of Nigerian food!
When it comes to trying out new recipes, you’ve written about the importance of balancing tradition and understanding with exploration and innovation. What is the most daring experiment you’ve undertaken so far?
I think making Eba chips is by far the most daring experiment I’ve undertaken in my journey. Eba is a stiff paste made by combining fermented cassava meal and water. It is the traditional accompaniment to stews and soups. In many ways it is similar in texture and use to fine cornmeal—the Italian polenta. Fying eba was inspired by polenta. Hmmm, it was an interesting one and honestly not bad at all. I want to work on it a bit more to see what comes out of it.
Apart from Nigerian food, which other cuisines do you draw most inspiration from? Can you recommend some of your favorite “fusion” recipes?
I love SE/ Asian – Vietnamese, Thai, Japanese; Indian; Middle Eastern, Brazilian and food from African countries because they share so many elements. My favorite fusion recipe is a Nigerian scent leaf dip which becomes a green curry, made in the manner and style of a Thai green curry but with scent leaf (an herb that’s similar to Vietnamese perilla and Japanese shiso) and fresh coconut. It is partly inspired by an Indian coriander chutney my late friend Renu taught me, and my love of Thai curries. As a dip, it is yum. And also as a curry which I serve with a ripe papaya salsa and Thai jasmine rice. Another one is my cassava and coconut salad, which reminds me in some way of green mango salads in Vietnam and Thailand because of the ‘shredded’ main ingredients but also the addition of fresh chilies and herbs, lime zest and toppings of peanuts or sesame seeds.
You often emphasize the importance of documenting things, from kitchen experiments to historical preparation methods. Why is it so essential to keep records, and are there ways that home cooks can get involved?
Yes, I am a strong believer in documentation; what gets recorded can be remembered, referenced, and reimagined. This is important, this is about the preservation of our history and heritage. Our way of immortalizing our stories, stories we have lived and should remember. Keeping records, remembering in ink, with words is the only way that our explorations, our discoveries, failures and successes, our knowledge, and our history in the end are written. I’ve began to create simple documents that describe Nigerian cuisine, including its flavors and textures, for instance my guide to soups; tastes & flavors; balance in Nigerian dishes; and food pairing in Nigerian cuisine.
You live in Lagos, the gastronomic capital of Nigeria! What foodie trends do you expect to hit the city this year, and where’s the best place to try them out?
Ha ha to Lagos being the gastronomic capital of Nigeria. Foodie trends? Yes, here are a few I think we’ll begin to see more and more of:
– ‘New Nigerian Kitchen’ theme to menu items—quite a few cooks and chefs are exploring and interpreting Nigerian cuisine, and you’ll see a great variety from restaurant menus to pop-ups and everything in between. You’ll find new combinations; focus on seasonal produce and fine dining presentations, for example at Nok by Alara, a restaurant in Victoria Island, and a host of offerings at food festivals run a couple of times a year by the folks at Eat Drink Lagos.
– A greater focus on the ‘experience’. A lot of cooks and chefs are creating cultural experiences with dining. It’s not just about the food—it’s about traditional serve-ware like calabashes and clay pots, it’s about laying the table with gorgeous, vibrant fabric, it’s about the entirety of the meal. The same restaurants serving up New Nigerian style dishes will deliver on this.
– The rise of Northern Nigerian cuisine. With social media and the rise of tourism across Nigeria, there is a lot more exposure to the Arewa Kitchen—the traditional cuisine of northern Nigeria. More people are trying dishes; more stores are stocking ingredients, produce, and products. It is wonderful to see!
– Exploration of seasonal produce—greater depth to creations with seasonal produce, and a lot of ‘small batch’ offerings in stores and online.
– More experimentation with drinks and cocktails from zobo (Hibiscus sabdariffa) and tamarind to the African star apple (Agbalumo, Udara), Baobab, and more.
Thank you so much, Ozoz, for this mouthwatering chat about your foodie adventures!
Check back soon for the next in the Blogger Spotlight series…