London’s new It Spot, iKoYi is not the Nigerian restaurant of my parent’s generation, and it makes no attempt to be. Seating approximately thirty-five with an open kitchen, iKoYi does not serve the type of food we imagine eating when we demur, ‘There is rice at home’. Yet, it is distinctly and authentically Nigerian. I found myself wondering how, and why, I was so comfortable from the minute I walked into the packed and bustling restaurant. Perhaps it was the guests who looked exactly like me, or the warm smile and firm handshake from the co-owner, Ire Hassan-Odukale, that eased me into an immediate familiarity in the space. More than likely, however, it was the the fact that Star, a quintessentially Nigerian beer, was offered on the menu.
Dinner at iKoYi confirmed something I have suspected for the last six years. Nigerian food and culture are on the rise in the global sphere; benefitting from such a perfect storm of events that it almost seems divinely orchestrated. In the first place, our population size and its continued exponential growth, combined with the stereotypical nigerian aggression and entrepreneurial spirit, have ensured that there are Nigerian communities in almost every country in the world. It is only right, then, that the swift spread of our culture and our cuisines should follow, especially with the democratizing effect of social media.
In the diaspora, many well-known Nigerians often reference their favourite dishes. From Anthony Joshua professing his love for Pounded yam and Egusi; to John Boyega instagramming a plate of jollof rice; to the now-famous JME lyric on the song ‘Rari Workout’ (Man’s backing jollof and plantain, you man are eating rice and ketchup, dead), pop culture is ripe with these instances. People with the scents and tastes of Nigeria as the background to their youth are now sharing these pleasures to the world through instagram blogs like Afrolems and Tokunbo’s Kitchen, dinner clubs, and fast food restaurants like I Go Chop.
Many naija natives, away from home for study or work or due to immigration, have found ways to satisfy their longing for home and comfort, through recreating their favourite dishes, or drooling over photos online. Ozoz Sakoh, known as the Kitchen Butterfly shares her own experience easily; “I found myself for the first time, away from home seeing the beauty of Nigerian flavours and textures when I lived abroad. Before then, I ate but took it for granted. I didn’t ‘rate’ it at all, there was no need to. Scarcity and lack have a way of refocusing your attention, helping you re-value things you’d perhaps not paid heed to. The kind of ‘adversity’ one experiences abroad makes you fearless enough to forge ahead, break barriers, and create beauty on the plate.”
Similar to the Kitchen Butterfly, many other Nigerians have been exposed to food handling and presentation an international level and have come to expect a consistent level of excellence. When, as is usually the case, this home-grown excellence can’t be found, they go ahead and create it themselves. Two major players behind this push for excellence are Nosa Oyegun and Folayemi Agusto, food critics and founders of the Eat.Drink.Lagos blog (which garnered international recognition through a CNN feature), who assess the culinary scene in Lagos and tell it like it is. Due to this rapidly expanding and evolving platform, the Lagosian diner is better informed and able to hold restaurants and culinary providers accountable.
Back in the motherland, weddings are big deal to which much time and resources are directed. Only the best is acceptable in the Nigerian wedding-industrial complex. This commitment to quality and luxury has influenced all aspects of the wedding festivities, including the food. Wedding caterers are being encouraged to push the boundaries of their crafts, and take risks with traditional Nigerian food in order to make what are often the most highly anticipated social events even more memorable. Contrary to the picture these weddings paint, Nigeria is in an economic recession. For most people who have to pick up a ‘side hustle’ to support themselves, the catering industry is a no-brainer with its low entry cost and potentially high rewards, contributing to rapid growth in the culinary industry.
The ability to share content with the rest of the world has been indispensable in creating a global following for Nigerian food. The #jollofwars (which Nigerian won) could not have gained the same sort of traction and notoriety without its hilarious twitter hashtag. The rise of terms such as food porn, which refers to images that portray food in a very appetizing or aesthetically appealing way, is also directly a result of this increased emphasis on visuals and images in popular culture. In response to this, or perhaps in tandem, Instagram’s accessibility and visually focused feed has given rise to dozen of food blogs, like Dooney’s Kitchen and 9jafoodie, creating communities of Nigerians at home and in the diaspora, bonding over their shared culture. Iquo Ukoh, of 1Q Food Platter echoes this sentiment saying, “Social Media and Instagram in particular is about pictures. What’s interesting to take photographs of? Other than clothes, it’s all about food as that is the driving force which gets people to gather around more often than not.”
As often is the case with rapid exponential growth, Nigerian cuisine is at a crucial developmental stage. Due to the effect globalization has had on consumerism and consumer behaviours in the global south, the mass market, in addition to haute cuisine, will be a very important player in boosting the success of West African cuisine on the global stage. Already, there are numerous international and local options for fast food and takeaway that are updated versions of the traditional Buka. Fast food restaurants like the Ghanaian ‘Chop Pot’ on Liverpool street in London boast all the same flavours adapted for cross-market appeal, with ubiquitously ghanaian menu items such as Banku and Kelewele. Restaurants like iKoYi and Nok by Alara represent the other side of this West African takeover: the highly important haute cuisine. Striking in both portion size and the completely original meal renditions ; these restaurants offer food as art. With fresh, minimalist, and disparate yet complementary tastes, it is just like the people it represents: complex, warm, and diverse. This is innovation at its finest.
However, we must not make the mistake of relying too much on external standards of what is modern. We must ask of ourselves, and answer, the question ‘What should modern Nigerian cuisine look like?’ For the Kitchenbutterfly, “the future of Nigerian cuisine is in the pages of books published by local and mainstream international publishers, it’s flavours are in cocktail glasses the world over, its food on plates from Miami to Prague and every table in between. The Future of Nigerian cuisine is on farms, in research papers, on TV, in back gardens, in secondary school curriculums. It’s in so many places, with so many voices, all celebrating the wonders and diversity. I truly believe [in] it.” Like Ozoz, I believe in it too.
PhotoCredit: Ekó Café