Elites Have A Responsibility To Elevate Our Food Cultures: Ask Your Grandmothers, By Bunmi Fatoye-Matory
The elites of each Nigerian ethnic group, big and small, must do their best to document, preserve and elevate the traditional food of their people. What are the culinary traditions of the Idoma of Benue, the Chamba of Taraba, the Ebirra of Kogi, the Quanawuri of Plateau, the Izondjo spread across Bayelsa, Delta, Ondo and Rivers?
Food is for nutrition, but it is far more than that. It represents a people’s traditions, history, and heritage. Nigeria is a composition of more than two hundred ethnic groups with different languages, cultures, belief systems, and of course foodways and culinary practices. Currently, there is a pan-Nigerian identity being shaped around food. Many Nigerians swear that jollof rice is an ancestral dish from time immemorial, but this claim is suspect. The peoples of the Senegambia region of West Africa however have a more credible claim to this much-beloved dish. King Jolof was the founding king of the Wollof Empire in the Senegambia region during medieval times. Rice was historically grown in this region. It’s therefore a no-brainer that this method of preparing rice is named after the ancient king. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t celebrate jollof rice as our national dish. All cultures borrow from others, regardless of the dubious claims of some to purity. What we are yet to do is document, catalogue, and elevate the abundant food cultures of the different groups in Nigeria. Apart from our language, food is the other fundamental marker of our identity.
Nigerian food bloggers must be commended for promoting Nigerian cuisine on social media. They write about our food, sharing photos and recipes and educating young Nigerians in the diaspora and at home, who would otherwise be totally ignorant of ways to prepare Nigerian food. In addition, they are also sharing our culinary culture with the rest of the world. But there is much more to be done by the government, culinary schools, chefs, and Nigerian elites in preserving and advancing our food cultures. The main dishes generally regarded as national dishes are often from a few dominant ethnic groups. We cannot afford to ignore the food cultures of the other very many ethnic groups in Nigeria. Each ethnic group, no matter how small, has its own unique food ways, special dishes, preparation methods, preservation methods, and culinary heritage. We are yet to discover these wonders as a nation. From the coast of the Atlantic to the river valleys of the Niger and Benue; from the plateaus to the Sahel, Nigeria occupies an extremely diverse geographical landscape, giving her rich and varied agricultural products.
We need to document our food cultures systematically. The elites who think imported food and culture are better do a lot of damage to our food cultures. This is colo mentality, as Fela reminds us. It is the enduring effect of colonisation often seen in the elites of post-colonial nations. Abandoning one’s language and traditional culinary practices is one of the ways colonised elites demonstrate their feeling of inferiority. The paradox of globalisation, which tends to promote sameness everywhere, is that people now travel far and wide to experience “culture” – those practices that make a people unique. Food tourism is a huge part of international travel. Tourists want to experience the cuisines native to a particular region. They do not want to travel all the way to Lagos or Lokoja to be served hamburgers, pizza, crepes, hot dogs, and cookies.
I took a look at the website of several culinary institutes in Lagos, which are training the chefs who would work in upscale restaurants. On one of the sites, I saw a picture of young Nigerian chef-in-training standing around the Master Chef, a white man. There were pictures of pastries and other baked goods. In the wine section, there was a picture of grapes and a bottle of wine. These images are a serious indictment of our elites, that we are not a serious people who give a lot of thought to our culinary histories and traditions. We do not grow grapes in Nigeria, they are from the temperate zone. That’s why Europeans use them for wine. While that foreign chef might be competent in his own food traditions and culinary methods, he knows absolutely nothing about Nigerian foodways. Who on earth respects a people ashamed of their own traditions, a people who elevate foreign food and cooking methods over theirs? There are so many fruits and seeds in Nigeria that could be made into wine. In fact, there are already different local brewing traditions in the country. The Japanese, Koreans and other Asians make wines from plums, rice, and other agricultural products from their region. Ethiopians make honey wine from honey, which they export to countries around the world. I, like all lovers of Ethiopian food in the United States and elsewhere, enjoy this wine with their injera in Ethiopian restaurants. They cook their dishes with their own native herbs and spices. Why are we not learning the technologies of brewing from our local peoples who have the expertise and have been doing it for ages? Instead of French, Spanish or Chilean wines, we should be serving Nigerian wines in our restaurants, brewed from our local agricultural products. Foreign wines could be a supplement.
We can start documenting the recipes by asking our mothers, grandmothers, and older women in our families: What they ate at various periods of their lives in their localities, how these were processed and prepared, what the rituals around the food are, what herbs and spices were used. This documentation should be done by both men and women.
In the 1980s, as post-graduate students, my then-boyfriend-now-husband and I took a trip to northern Nigeria from Ibadan. We visited the markets in Kano, Jos, Zaria, and Kaduna, tasting delicacies I had never seen before in the South. In Jos, we savoured pito, a local beverage made from fermented millet or sorghum. Even though it was not food tourism, we were delighted to discover the many dishes Nigerians eat on a daily basis. While wandering around Kano, we saw an old lady making some dish in a clay pot divided into sections. We assumed she was a food vendor, so we sat with her since we were hungry, trying to make conversation. But she did not speak Yoruba or English, and we did not speak Hausa. The three of us engaged in that universal friendly language of smiling and pointing. It was evident we wanted some of what she was making, and she tried to explain the process to us. It took some time for her to finish cooking. For free she gave us our first delicious plate of masa, a popular northern dish I would rediscover in Obalende years later while living in Lagos. As a young civil servant in Lagos, at the end of my work day, my colleagues and I would retire to joints serving ox-tail pepper soup, fresh fish pepper soup, isi ewu, asun (roasted goat meat), and other delightful delicacies that were missing in upscale restaurants in Lagos and other urban areas. These types of dishes are the very dishes international visitors want to eat while visiting a country.
Moinmoin is a delicious Yoruba dish which disappears quickly when served at parties here in North America. Traditionally it is wrapped in a special leaf, meant solely for it, before steaming. This leaf lends a flavour and aroma to moinmon that could never be replicated by tin cans or aluminum foil. Where did the leaves go? It takes hard work to sustain culture. It does not happen by accident, it must be intentional. A demand by urban dwellers and restaurants for moinmoin leaves will transform the preparation of moinmoin, preserving the traditions and culinary practices around that dish. Leaves are also better for the environment, they are organic and recyclable, and consumers of moinmoin will be getting a fantastic gustatory experience.
There are popular food shows here that feature some chefs who go around the world eating other people’s food and learning their culinary practices, educating Americans about the diversity of culinary traditions. It is a wonderful way to know a country and its people. In Iceland, with just a population of about three hundred and fifty thousand people, the national dish is fermented shark. The smell of ammonia in this food is so strong it rivals the smell found in strong cleaning products. Still, Icelanders are very proud of their national dish. It makes visitors gag, but in the show I watched Icelanders could be seen sitting around a long beautiful table, eating this malodorous dish with glasses of wine, and showing it off with pride to the rest of the world on global television.
The elites of each Nigerian ethnic group, big and small, must do their best to document, preserve and elevate the traditional food of their people. What are the culinary traditions of the Idoma of Benue, the Chamba of Taraba, the Ebirra of Kogi, the Quanawuri of Plateau, the Izondjo spread across Bayelsa, Delta, Ondo and Rivers? How about those of the Egbema in Rivers, and the Chamo in Bauchi? These are a just a few of the hundreds of Nigerian ethnic groups whose culinary traditions are unknown nationally because of the dominance of the bigger ethnic groups. How do these people prepare their seafood, bushmeat, chicken, vegetables, milk, goat, sheep, cows, corn, local wines and snacks? What do they eat? The knowledge is all there but we cannot leave it to Mama Put and Bukas to continue doing this important national work for us, or to our relatives in the village when we visit during festivals and ceremonies. It is a lazy and parasitic attitude.
The least we can do, with the technology we now have, is to document our food cultures and culinary traditions, and incorporate them into the fine dining establishments everywhere. Serving Pringles to your children or taking your international business associate or visitor to a Lebanese restaurant shows you in a poor light. It shows inferiority complex and a lack of national pride and imagination.
Chinese restaurants and other foreign restaurants are ridiculously expensive in Nigeria. Our elites are willing to pay a mint for these foreign cuisine, not because they necessarily enjoy them, but because they see them as a mark of status. The same elites, when they travel out of the country, want nothing but Nigerian food. Nigerian cuisine, in its wonderful varieties, is yet to be elevated to fine dining in our country. Native spices and herbs are almost absent now in Nigerian elite cooking. Maggi, thyme, curry and other imported condiments have taken the place of the many herbs and spices produced and used by our local food cultures. We need to revitalise all these. The production and preparation of food that use local herbs, spices, and methods of preparation are more sustainable, and speak to the very core of our identity as a people. They stimulate the economy and encourage our hoards of unemployed youth to see farming as a possible way of earning a decent living. So many dishes I grew up with in rural Ekiti have disappeared, to be replaced by inferior and less nutritious imported substitutes from abroad. The enlightened and powerful elites in the countries that export them will not touch such food.
You are what you eat is a saying that means that the quality of your food determines your health. But it is also a definition of your identity. Our universities and culinary institutes should be at the vanguard of conducting research and preserving our food ways and culture. Chefs in upscale restaurants, and in the cafeteria of all institutions in the country, should work with local farmers and women, who are the producers of food, and the custodians of culinary practices.
We can start documenting the recipes by asking our mothers, grandmothers, and older women in our families: What they ate at various periods of their lives in their localities, how these were processed and prepared, what the rituals around the food are, what herbs and spices were used. This documentation should be done by both men and women. Most of the professional cooks and chefs in our restaurants are men, so there can be no excuse that this is a female domain.
A National Culinary Centre should be a resource to store the compendium of knowledge and research into Nigerian food cultures. As a nation, we don’t have plans to build space rockets, neither are we engaged in great architectural projects. We are not pumping money into finding a cure for cancer or building the fastest train on earth. The least we can do, with the technology we now have, is to document our food cultures and culinary traditions, and incorporate them into the fine dining establishments everywhere. Serving Pringles to your children or taking your international business associate or visitor to a Lebanese restaurant shows you in a poor light. It shows inferiority complex and a lack of national pride and imagination.
…a lot of significant income can be generated from the production of local spices and herbs for domestic cooking and export. Nigerian elites only need to kick this up a notch. Elite farmers now export some food products to people in the diaspora, while also satisfying domestic needs.
Our German friends in Berlin are the kind of people who engage in vigorous culture travel. To experience German culture around Christmas time, they took us out for a gustatory experience. He is a prosperous lawyer, and she is a senior judge. Compared to the many restaurants we had dined in during the year, the restaurant they chose was quite simple. There was no fancy décor, but the place was packed full. Cosmopolitan Berliners were there to pay homage to the food they associate with their families, history, and heritage. We waited patiently for some time before we were seated. The food served that day was not exactly haute cuisine. A roasted goose was wheeled to our table by a waiter with a tall white hat and apron, who ceremoniously carved up the goose and served each of us. Then we had some potatoes, vegetables and dessert. We paid a fortune for this meal, but what we were paying for essentially was more than the food, it was culture and identity. They could have taken us to a fancy Italian or French restaurant, but they did not do that. They wanted to share with us what they considered valuable, the meal served by their grandparents to mark that special time of the year. While visiting Madrid one summer, it was Gazpacho, a cold soup from the Andalusia region of Spain, that a Spanish friend took us out to eat. Our own humble akara is renowned as a special gastronomic food in Brazil. Known as Acaraje, it was re-invented by Afro-Brazilians, descendants of those taken away as enslaved people from our land. It is served with vatapa, a paste made from shrimp, bread, coconut milk, palm oil and ground peanuts, and sometimes garnished with prawns. This popular and mouth-watering dish has become a part of the Brazilian national identity. The Koreans are world famous for their fermented cabbage called kimchi.
Countries with renowned culinary cultures attract visitors from around the world because the natives of those cultures put much value in their culinary traditions. We sat next to an American couple from California at a restaurant in Florence, Italy, who had come to Florence specifically to eat Florentine steak, a piece of meat that frankly to me is not different from what we have in steak houses in the United States, but that is not the point. UNESCO now regards culinary traditions as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of humanity. An intangible heritage is defined as “a practice, representation, expression, knowledge, or skill, as well as the instruments, objects, artifacts, and cultural spaces, that are considered by UNESCO as part of a place’s cultural heritage.” Some countries have already been honoured with this recognition because of their excellent culinary traditions.
The more we globalise by erasing or not prioritising our own traditions, the poorer we become. Inventing new ways and technologies is the responsibility of a culture-conscious elite. Our ancestors created technologies appropriate to their time to grow, process, and prepare food. Some of these we need to keep, but we also need to use new knowledge and technology from our education in microbiology, food science, and engineering.
Nollywood has a big role in promoting our various food and culinary cultures, in documentaries and drama. Apart from the government and private institutions, Nollywood has the capacity to influence what we eat, how we eat, and to educate elite Nigerians in not only preserving but developing fine culinary crafts and practices. Everyone eats, rich and poor alike. This means everyone puts money into the food economy daily. The food sector is capable of providing jobs for the many laid-off professionals and unemployed youth languishing away, waiting for white-collar jobs that might never come back. The food sector will always be profitable. For example, a lot of significant income can be generated from the production of local spices and herbs for domestic cooking and export. Nigerian elites only need to kick this up a notch. Elite farmers now export some food products to people in the diaspora, while also satisfying domestic needs. All the stake holders in the country need to work together to tap into our rich and diverse culinary practices, incorporating them into the menu of fine dining restaurants and eateries. I still crave the moinmoin wrapped in leaves. It’s on the list of must-eat when next I visit home. Imagine how much revenue a community can generate by having festivals around their local food. A moinmoin, kulikuli, or isi ewu festival would attract a lot of people, if well organised and given good publicity. The business of eating is good business with infinite possibilities.
Bunmi Fatoye-Matory was educated at the Universities of Ife and Ibadan, and Harvard University. She lives with her family in Durham, North Carolina. She is a writer and culture advocate. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org