A GUIDE TO NIGERIAN DISHES





Nigerian cuisine is fragrant and savoury, fiery with heaps of blended chilies or fresh and spicy from greens and aromatics.

















BY: JAVIER LEAL  
ILLUSTRATIONS: CAROLINE HILSON 
8th May 2018  /  Version 1.3











Introduction




West African food is enjoying a well-deserved renaissance in cities all over the world. Ghanaian and Nigerian restaurants offering a modern twist of their cuisine are sprouting, alongside well-established restaurants serving expats with a more traditional menu. These, often branded as ‘African’, are run by West Africans from mostly Ghana or Nigeria – unlike other African restaurants, which generally will indicate what cuisine they serve. Save some pan-african specialties, they will mostly offer either one cuisine or the other. 

Nigerian cuisine reflects the culturally diverse population and its marked tribal differences, however, some broad traits remain across the country. One characteristic is the remarkable variety of ‘soups’—looking more like a thick stew than a broth—typically enjoyed alongside a ball of a pounded starch, popularly called swallow. Rice is also eaten as accompaniment or as a meal in its own right, either plain or cooked in tomato and spices.






The taste




Nigerian food is spicy more often than not. Flavours are savoury and intense, with a particular liking for smoky, sour and pungent aromas – some of these due to a particular taste for fermented ingredients. There is an abundance of nutty dishes made with local seeds, mostly in its grounded form. A range of herbs and bitter greens, smoked or dried dried fish and high-quality palm or groundnut oil are common ingredients. The starting sauces for many of the dishes are typically tomato-based. Desserts aren’t common in Nigerian cuisine, but occasionally sweet items like puff puff (doughnuts) or chin chin (a type of fried snack) might appear on the table.


While jollof rice might be Nigeria’s most international dish, locals might disagree on crowning it their national dish. Different regions might favour different dishes, often those associated with the most populous ethnic group in the area: the Hausa people in the north and suya skewers, the Yoruba near Lagos with egusi and pounded yam, and the Igbo in the south east with their okro soup and abacha salad – to name a few examples. Some regional dishes may prove hard to find elsewhere, but plenty other dishes are widely popular and enjoyed across the country. Some of these are easily found in restaurants abroad, since they tend to cater to Nigerians from all backgrounds.

Luckily for the rest of us, most Nigerian restaurants abroad normally offer foods that are not served in restaurants back home since they are more commonly regarded as street food. Puff puff or suya are both roadside classics that fall into this category.


Nigerians’ love for fish almost rivals their fondness for meat. Fish can be found in many shapes and forms across countless dishes, both acting as a flavouring or as the star ingredient. In this regard, the taste resulting when mixing fish and meat is not just commonplace, but quite sought after. Ground crayfish and dried stockfish for soups, as well as grilled or braised fresh fish are frequently featured. Beef, goat, mutton and chicken appear in plenty of dishes (pork, on the other hand, is not a favourite). Meat is added onto stews in big chunks, bone-in, so they slowly braise together. Offal is very popular and in some cases preferred over lean meat, some dishes calling for specific cuts: goat tripe for peppersoup, kpomo (cow skin) for okra or assorted meat1—a bit of everything—for edikaikong.





‘Swallows’




When it comes to turning a soup into a full meal, a staple is needed. Nigerians —as well as other countries in the region— do with swallows, a thick mash with a consistency similar to a dough, eaten with each morsel of food. They can be made from a wide range of raw ingredients, the most popular are starchy tubers like cassava or yam, some grains like wheat, rice and maize, or even pounded plantain. In most cases they are rehydrated, steamed and then pounded until smooth. Alternative names can include okele, the Yoruba term, or the Igbo ilo ihe.

Swallows range from a variety of textures and colours, some resembling mash potato in taste and texture, others featuring more interesting flavours like amala (this one made with the skin of the yam). Some of the raw ingredients used to make swallows are slightly fermented, which also helps breaking down the sugars and adds a level of complexity to the flavour and texture.


Garri / Eba
Garri is the most popular kind of swallow, also called eba when made just with water. Garri is the fermented, coarse flour from cassava tubers after being rehydrated and fried in palm oil. It goes great with ewedu and ogbono.



Fufu / Akpu
Fufu is a widely eaten swallow both in Nigeria and the rest of Africa. It’s commonly made with fermented cassava paste. Boiled until well cooked and pounded until smooth and elastic.



Amala
Amala is made from yam flour that turns dark when dried. Its flavour is more complex than garri, with hints of toasted grains or even herbal tea. Similar to garri, it goes well with any ‘draw soup’ as ewedu, okra or ogbono.



Semolina / Semovita
A filling and nutritious swallow made from milled durum wheat. Possibly, the one with the more familiar taste to the European palette.



Plantain fufu
Plantain fufu is a delicious light swallow made from dried green plantain, boiled and pounded until smooth. Since it’s made with unripe plantain, its flavour is balanced rather than sweet.



Pounded yam / Iyan
The by-product of mashing boiled yam until it reaches a dough-like consistency. It goes well with pretty much all Nigerian soups.





Restaurant customs




Nigerian food at modern restaurants proceeds in a similar way to other cuisines. Small chops (or appetisers) are eaten first, alongside drinks. Soups, stews and other dishes are served afterwards, paired with the chosen swallow dough. Portions aren’t traditionally shared. Dessert at the end of a meal is not a Nigerian custom, however, some restaurants might offer generic options like ice-cream or créme caramel.

Nigerians born and raised in their homeland eat most food with their hands. If cutlery is needed, spoons are more common than forks, specially when eating rice or clear soups. Traditionally, a bowl of warm water might precede soups, as hands need to be clean before digging into swallows.

To eat, use your right hand to tear a little dough (1), make a little ball with your fingers and then flatten slightly (2), before using it to scoop some of the soup and then swallowing it (3).

Using fork and knife to cut swallows is unheard of. If you’re averse to using your hands, use a spoon to scoop some of the mash, then mop up some soup with the spoon. Many Nigerians don’t actually chew but ‘swallow’ the whole morsel, which apparently can take years of practice.
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Drinks




Drinks aren’t the focus at the Nigerian table, but there certainly are a few clear favourites. Malt, the non-alcoholic brew made out of toasted cereals is sweet and refreshing, great in contrast with the savoury Nigerian soups. Guinness beer is extremely popular among some ethnic groups.





What to order







Akara

Kosai

Peeled black eyed beans seasoned with spices and peppers turned into fluffy and crispy fritters. A breakfast classic when served alongside pap (cornmeal porridge) or custard. They are an addictive party snack or otherwise excellent as appetisers. Ideally served freshly fried, avoid the reheated ones as they become soggy.


Beans and plantain porridge

Pottage / porridge

A hearty stew made with ripe plantains and red or black eyed beans. Depending on the restaurant preference the sweet plantains might be fried separately or just added to the beans so they boil together. Enjoyed on its own, although some people may have it alongside a helping of rice.





Chicken gizzards and plantain

Dodo gizzard / gizdodo

A small chop or appetiser of tantalising chicken gizzards, seasoned with chilli and spices, traditionally served on a skewer with onions and peppers. They may also be fried and braised in perfect harmony with ripe plantains. If the portion is generous it might be a good idea to have it along a portion of rice. Once again, a great example of how Nigerians can turn the humblest of ingredients into an unexpectedly addictive dish.

Edikaikong soup

Edikang Ikong

A nutritious and heart-warming stew made with finely chopped fresh waterleaf and pumpkin leaf as main ingredients. They might also include dried fish and assorted meat. Depending on the availability of the ingredients, some other similar leafy vegetables may be used. Nigerians regard this soup as one of the healthiest and more protein-rich.




Egusi soup

Ofe Egusi / Efo Elegusi

The almost undisputable queen of all Nigerian soups. This delicious and comforting thick soup is the amalgamation of ground egusi (melon seeds) and a some kind of chopped leaf, most commonly pumpkin leaves, bitter leaf or spinach. Following strict Nigerian custom, assorted meat and a combination of dried and smoked fish are added to the stew. The stew looks grainy and lumpy but it’s soft to the bite, with a comforting nutty taste. Eat with gari, fufu, amala or pounded yam.


Ewedu soup

Ewedu elegusi

Unlike other Nigerian soups, ewedu is pleasantly gentle and mild in taste. The ewedu leaves (jute leaf) give this nourishing soup a characteristic viscosity – the ‘draw’ effect – and an intense green colour. Ewedu is rarely served on its own but in combination with a more flavour-intense stew like gbegiri (as shown in picture) and a serving of amala.




Fried plantain

Dodo

Ripe plantain, the firmer and less sweet variety of banana, deep fried and served piping hot. As an accompaniment it’s the favourable partner to rice dishes, but its versatility as a side dish allows it to appear in any meal of the day. Without being crispy, it should be nice and dry outside but soft to the bite.

Fried rice


Don’t be fooled by the familiar name, this is a fully adopted Nigerian specialty and a must dish at parties and celebrations – only surpassed by, obviously, jollof rice. The rice is often flavoured with curry powder, stir-fried with hand-cut pieces of vegetables (peas, carrots, peppers, sweetcorn) and meat (chicken, chicken livers), occasionally shelled prawns too. Though sounding simple, no shortcuts should be allowed in the preparation of fried rice. Look for firm, bright-coloured vegetables that still retain their flavour and easily separated rice grains.




Goat meat

Asun

Tender and juicy bite-size pieces of smoky (or actually smoked) goat meat, often barbecued and then shallow fried/steamed alongside heaps of spicy peppers and onions. Although any part of the goat may be used, it is usually served deboned and with the skin on.

Isiewu

Isi Ewu / Goat’s head

A true finger food, dig-in favourite, isiewu is a peppery stew of braised goat’s head —you heard right— chopped and cooked in little water until the meat is succulently tender and the sauce is thick and aromatic. Once you see past the fact that you are eating an actual head, the flavour and textures you will find around the boney chunks are surprisingly addictive, similar to the textures of nkwobi (cow foot soup). The utazi leaves (bitter leaf) plus heaps of spices and chili will also leave your tastebuds singing.





Jollof rice

Jollof / Jellof

Nigeria’s most international dish is made by cooking rice in a blend of tomatoes, red peppers, chillies and onions – resulting in a distinctively red-coloured dish. But don’t be deceived, the dry spices and the scotch bonnet pepper provide a fiery kick that makes jollof a main dish in its own right. Pieces of meat, mostly chicken, and dodo (fried plantain) are welcome additions.

Personal taste varies when it comes to the texture of the rice: some seeking a more drier and separate grain, while others preferring a stickier consistency. Nonetheless, Nigerians across the board hold this dish in high esteem, rendering any celebration incomplete without a generous helping of jollof rice.

Moi moi

Moin moin / Moyi-moyi

A steamed, savoury cake made with peeled black-eyed beans, onions and chili peppers which shape takes after the mould it’s been cooked in. Moi moi should be firm but moist, being easily cut with a knife. Fillings or extra ingredients make Moi moi even more nutritious and complete with corned beef, hard boiled eggs or sardines as common choices. A Yoruba saying, Moimoi elemi meje (Moi moi with seven lives), states 7 as the perfect amount of ingredients. As a standalone dish works best at breakfast, but it can easily go as an accompaniment for other dishes, often those rice-based.




Ogbono soup

Draw soup

A soup made with the bush mango seed which gives the dish its famous viscosity, similar to okra or ewedu. Its subtle flavour –with quite a unique, silky aftertaste to it– can be a bit of an acquired taste. This dish can vary substantially in preparation and ingredients, but a choice of meat, the usual ground crayfish, smoked fish and a chopped leafy vegetable are common additions. The slimy texture goes well with okra, and it’s eaten alongside fufu, pounded yam or rice.


Okra soup

Okro

The widely loved and nutritious okra (also known as ladies fingers) plays the hero ingredient in this draw soup, where it’s chopped in small pieces to maximise the release of flavour and texture. The characteristic viscosity from okra it’s comparable to that of ogbono and ewedu. As with most Nigerian soups, it can feature assorted meat or fish, mostly in the form of dried stockfish. If you’re lucky you might find a couple pieces of curled kpomo (boiled cow skin), a delicacy amongst Nigerians.





Pepper soup

Peppersoup

A popular light soup made with little chunks of either assorted meat, catfish or most popularly goat. Generally more watery than the standard thick Nigerian soup, but that doesn’t prevent it from packing a flavour punch. The meat is boiled in the spicy broth along chilli peppers, herbs and a mix of spices, particularly the calabash nutmeg. You can grab a spoon and just dig in, as no swallow is strictly necessary – but pounded yam, garri or amala are apt accompaniments.


Peppered snails

Garnished snails / Igbin

One of the most appreciated Nigerian ‘small chops’, peppered giant African snails. Cooked in a similar manner than gizdodo: with plenty of chili, onion and cooked before they’re too soft – as they are prefered to have a bit of a bite to them. They’re typically ordered as a sharing dish.





Puff puff

Pof-pof

Fluffy and soft deep-fried balls with a crisp and golden outside. Easily one of Nigeria's favourite party snacks. However, the dough being just slightly sweet, they’re loved at any given occasion.


Suya


Nigeria’s undisputable item of street food. Suya is the dry spiced, skewered and grilled beef or chicken pieces. Sometimes prawns, ram meat and offal are accepted varieties. What makes suya special is yaji, the spice blend it’s coated with. Proper yaji is always homemade, intensely aromatic and characteristically nutty after the peanut is added to the mix.





Yam porridge

Asaro / Yam pottage

A hearty, satisfying meal of half-mashed boiled yam and tomatoes. The natural-occurring sugars in the yam provide the sweetness that makes this dish special, and its intense red hue –after palm oil, tomatoes, and red peppers are added– makes it visually appealing.


Malt drinks


Malt drinks are the non-alcoholic, carbonated beverages brewed out of barley, hops, maize and water. Since they’re essentially unfermented stout beer, their flavour is very sweet, and of a dark brown colour. There are many brands on offer, Malta Guinness possibly being the nation’s favourite. Malta goes with virtually anything, remember to enjoy those B-vitamins ice-cold!













CONTRIBUTORS:

Amaka Nwosu is Nigerian-born photographer and filmmaker with a focus on West African culture based in London.

Tokunbo Koiki is the founder of Tokunbo’s Kitchen, a pop-up service with monthly supper clubs serving authentic Nigerian dishes.

Caroline Hilson is an artist and illustrator influenced by kawaii fashion and female identity based in London.

SPECIAL THANKS TO:

Brenda Duru, Lopè Ariyo, Yasmin Omotosho, Tobiloba Akibo.
ILLUSTRATION CREDITS:

Fufu / Akpu: africanbites.com, Garri / Eba: matsecooks.com, Amala: Loveplayeat, Semolina / semovita: wazobiaafricankitchen.com, Plantain fufu: cheflolaskitchen.com, Pounded yam / Iyan: ruthsbuka.com, Akara: Ayo Ishola, Beans and Plantain porridge: Jess Kitchen, Chicken gizzards and plantain: Bheerhugz Cafe, Edikaikong soup: afrodelicacy.com, Moi moi: Global Food Book, Ogbono soup: Obalade Restaurant (Amsterdam), Okra Soup: Tasty African Food (London), Peppersoup: Obalade Restaurant (Amsterdam), Peppered snails: Ayo Ishola, Puff puff: Rem Rem Catering, Yam porridge: Telande World.
  








Footnotes:

1 The term assorted meat comprises a mix of cuts used for soups and stews which can include pieces of beef, goat, tripe, cow skin and other offal.


Mark

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Javier Leal is a home cook and graphic designer working in the advertising industry since 2005.