All over Africa, a gastronomical revolution is quietly underway. Everyone knows about the emergence of Afro beats, the industry titan that is Nollywood, and the respected fashion weeks and designers in Nigeria, but perhaps even more exciting is the growing attention and status Nigerian — and by extension African — cuisine is receiving both within the continent and across the globe.
Dishes like Nigeria’s version of jollof rice have attained a cult following with dedicated social media pages, international and local “Jollof Festivals”, and current referencing in pop culture. Many Nigerian foods like Efo (a type of vegetable soup) Egusi, plantain, yam porridge, Moi Moi, and more, are also being promoted by chefs and influencers as healthy vegan options.
The largest country in West Africa by population, and 7th in the world, with over 250 distinct ethnic groups, Nigeria is an incredibly diverse country, and Nigerians are a formidable bunch. Often referred to as the "Americans of Africa" due to their sheer numbers, flamboyant personalities and style (all those amazing weddings!), and their tendency to dominate their chosen fields, Nigeria's influence on modern African culture can be seen and felt in various sectors, all over the continent and beyond. From music to literature, to film, to fashion, Nigeria's public image dominance has shaped the way modern Africa both views and interacts with aspects of our culture.
The mavericks at the forefront of this culinary renaissance are young, educated, well-travelled local chefs who aren’t afraid to flip convention on its head. Nigerian chefs, irreverent and bustling with new ideas, are creating fresh takes on the classics to entice a new generation of consumers who no longer look to the west to set culinary trends. From Heels in the Kitchen chef Imoteda’s exciting if slightly blasphemous recipes like egusi tortellini and plantain puree, to food blogger Ozoz Sokoh’s Agbalumo (African star fruit) Mimosas and Nkwobi Jollof, these local chefs are breathing new life into old favourites.
It’s not just local talent either. Nigerians who grew up abroad and studied in culinary schools in New York, France, and London are returning to the continent in droves, and using their Michelin level skills to take advantage of the rising interest in Nigerian culture on the continent and the newfound interest in fine dining among Africa's growing middle class and adventurous youth. Chefs like Alex Oke, Gbubemi Fregene (who has a Diploma in Cuisine from Le Cordon Bleu Culinary Institute in Paris, France), Chef Taylor (owner of Afro-Fusion restaurant in Abuja) and many more are estalishing French, Japanese and Italian fusion restaurants in Lagos, Dakar, Abuja, Accra, Nairobi, Cape Town and elsewhere, spreading both fine dining and the Nigerian experience.
Some may say that Nigeria isn’t the first country to try to introduce fusion and commercialise their cuisine, and they will be right. Countries like South Africa, Tunisia and others boast burgeoning and active local food scenes, but it is also true none of them has reached the level of commercial exposure and cultural relevance that Nigeria’s has.
The attention garnered by Nigerian cuisine in recent years has had a domino effect all over Africa. Due to the popularity of Nigerian Jollof rice and the ensuing Jollof wars, countries like Senegal have attracted renewed culinary interest, with foodies even journeying to the country to put Nigeria's Jollof to the test against the original.
Africa's culinary renaissance has only just begun, and although there are a lot of factors in play, Nigeria’s part in the rise in food culture and awareness can’t be overstated. The visibility Nigerian cuisine has recently gained has put a spotlight on the continent, and other countries along with their talented chefs are putting their best foot forward to capitalise on the attention. Although the conversation still heavily focuses on Nigeria, especially in West Africa, countries like Kenya, Senegal, Ghana, Ethiopia, South Africa and others are seeing greater interest from both national and international enthusiasts and media.
By Leonard Okonta
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