I have been enjoying James Acaster and Ed Gamble’s Off Menu podcast, of which a recent episode features Lolly Adefope talking in part about Nigerian food. I have never to my knowledge eaten any Nigerian food, but it sounds like it involves big piles of chicken and rice, which is very much in my wheelhouse. I decide to eat some.
First I consider ordering some takeaway, which I don’t do that much but the podcast gives an Uber Eats discount code which looks worth a bash. However, it becomes plain that my local Nigerian restaurants’ dishes are unhelpfully titled, like “meat stew”. What goes in them? It’s a risk, and I am risk-averse, as well as oversensitive to the prospect of cultural misunderstanding.
Let’s cook some, then. I pick up some skinless chicken legs at the butcher, with only a light amount of confusion over the issue of wanting them jointed so I can just use the thigh meat. I need one bit of ginger, not a massive bag of it that I’ll never use, and some okra, so I hit up my local Mediterranean food store. I don’t think I’ve tried okra before. It takes me some time to find it there, mainly because I am under the impression that okra is the same size as a courgette. It is quite a lot smaller, as it turns out.
This also needs a Scotch bonnet. I ate one of these the other week in a chicken and veg broth because it came in a packet of other chillies, I hadn’t eaten one before, and I am incapable of throwing things away. On the heat scale I’d place it somewhere around “enjoyed it, but drank a lot of milk after, and wouldn’t eat where anyone could see me”. This one I deseed first, and make a base for the sauce with it, some garlic, ginger and a tin of tomatoes, blitzing it in the food processor till it’s learned its lesson. The chicken hasn’t been butchered all that much, so I separate it as best I can, leaving half of it it as cut chunks and the other half two intact thighs, before seasoning and browning it all off before setting it aside on a plate.
Some onions and tomato puree go in for a bit, taking in the chicken fat, then I add the bonnet base and a load of stock, before tipping in the chicken. The recipe I’m using calls for me to rinse the rice in cold water a few times, the sort of thing I wouldn’t normally bother with, but I’m out of my depth here. Any deviation could lead to calamity and personal ruin. I rinse it dutifully.
There are two things in the recipe about which I’m skeptical. The first is covering the pan with both foil and a lid once the rice is in and leaving it to simmer for 20 minutes. Surely the rice will weld itself to the bottom of the pan? I’m not made of pans. It turns out it’s fine after a few semi-robust shoves of the wooden spoon. The next is that the sliced okra and peppers now go on top of the rice and sauce to steam for ten minutes with the lid back on. Why wouldn’t you just stir them in so they get flavoured by it? But again, I’m not the expert here, so fine, have it your way, Africa. Obviously this works out perfectly well and I was fretting about the whole thing unduly.
A quick guide to the thorny issue of cultural appropriation around food from a man far too privileged to suffer any of its proposed effects: as a white Englishman who’s never been to Africa it is fine for me to cook whatever the flip I want in my own kitchen. However, in the unlikely event that this post goes viral and off the back of it a publisher offers me a deal to write a book of Nigerian recipes, which is then successful enough that I set up a chain of Nigerian restaurants, that’s a bit stickier.
Arguably I’d have a responsibility to acknowledge meaningfully the contribution of the culture that came up with the dishes in the first place. But at the same time this argument relies on certain cultural assumptions, feeding into a lazily-applied stereotype that African people are without power. In a sense this is correcting itself, if imperfectly, through the argument itself being aired, as in the back-and-forth about Joliver’s jerk rice, which means that hopefully the recipe book and restaurant market wouldn’t accept my doing this anyway without a lot of public scrutiny, which would have an impact on my success. In another sense I’d be best off just not releasing a Nigerian cookbook on the grounds that I know absolutely nothing about Nigerian cooking.
I therefore ask you politely not to tweet this link in case this happens because it’d be awkward.