Chef Shola Olunloyo brings Nigerian food to the forefront

Apr 5, 2019

Shola Olunloyo is a chef who has dazzled Philadelphia and the blogosphere for almost a decade with his modern technique. He was born in Nigeria and raised in both Nigeria and the United Kingdom. Here in the US, he showcases Nigerian food not only on its own but also interwoven with other global cuisines by way of his experimental Studiokitchen project and pop-up dinners. Essential influence on his work comes from deep inside culinary traditions of his family’s native Nigeria. Contributor Ali Bouzari had a wonderful conversation with Shola and got some advice for how American home cooks can bring the flavors of Nigeria into their kitchen. Learn more about Shola's food at his Studiokitchen website and beautiful Studiokitchen Instagram.

Ali Bouzari: We're here to dive into Nigerian food specifically because this is something that, until I met you and we started chatting, I had no understanding of this incredibly deep food culture of almost 200 million people. Before we get into the deep stuff, can you give us the stereotypical, like paella, ramen, Belgian waffle level of what foods might commonly serve as shorthand for Nigerian cuisine?

Shola Olunloyo: It's funny that you use those specific examples because I think in every culture and cuisine, and specifically in Nigeria, ceremonial rice dishes are almost ubiquitous. From paellas to rijsttafels to risottos, pilafs, all those things. In Nigeria they have a specific dish, jollof rice, which is a big amalgam of rice and vegetables and meats. It's almost more directly or genealogically similar to Valencia paella.

There are all kinds of fritters that would be like donuts, savory or sweet. Puff puff is the name for one, which may be a derivative of English “double puff.” And then there's a bean fritter which is called akara, which is beans that have been soaked, skins removed, with onions and chilies. It's a more complex and I think more delicious form of what would be a falafel. So, all those things exist. We don't have a noodle culture, but we have rice and other starches - cassava, fermented grains that ground, pulses and other things.

Shola Olunloyo Photo: Shola Olunloyo

AB: Sounds like already there's rice, there's legumes, you mentioned chilies. It sounds like there's a lot going on; there's a lot of staples. I know just from Wikipedia that Nigeria is agriculturally robust and it spans everything from the lower desert-y savannah portion of the Sahara all the way into tropical rain forests and coast. There's a lot going in terms of ingredients.

SO: Yes, that’s absolutely correct. By the time you go down to the Niger Delta, the area in the south-southwest, it's very rich, lush territory. There’s tons of cocoa growing among all the vegetation. We have about five or six microclimates in Nigeria.

AB: And untold ingredients coming from all of those places.

SO: Absolutely. Even though indigenously everyone's using it in the established traditional pathways, my view in the last few years – and mostly now – is to see how all those ingredients and flavors are able to be translated into the modern context without losing the whole.

AB: Right. Before we get into the more modern-leaning progressive uses for beans and cassava and sesame and ground nuts, which I believe is what Nigerians called peanuts, can you give us a brief primer on some of the go-to Nigerian cooking techniques? This is a culture that is really into grilling and pressure cooking and long stewing.

SO: They're not inherently high-tech dependent preparations like pressure cooking. But every other established method of cooking food in the world applies to what Nigerian food is: roasting, grilling, braising, steaming. Except that, for example, those processes may involve more traditional vessels. When we steam, there's a Nigerian dish that's called moin moin – not all of this is repetitive words, but those two happened to be [laughs] – and it's basically a puree of soak beans with some palm oil, other spices, dried shrimp. It is wrapped in banana leaves and folded neatly into packages, then laid and steamed over stalks of banana leaves. And this would be almost similar to on the delicate side a Japanese chawanmushi and on the more firm side a Mexican tamale that would have been done in a corn husk. But the ingredients are natively Nigerian.

We do a lot of interesting things that I'm not quite sure how they ended up in West Africa. Maybe they are indigenous. Like some stews have meats that are fried before they are stewed. And I don't mean like the typical French seared short rib that you then transfer to red wine or demiglace or beef stock. It's like a deep-fry that's crispy. The closest correlation I can see for it is the Cuban dishes like vaca frita, where the meat is still stringy but still braised and stewed.

We share a lot of techniques with – and I’m not a movement of people expert – but like the movement of people through the slave trade from West Africa through the Caribbean, to the West Indies and into the southern part of the United States, I see some correlations in the same techniques. Yes.

AB: So, there's some shared fingerprints going back through time that you can see the trails that all of these techniques forged all over the world.

SO: Yes, absolutely. We just try to express them in Nigerian, more primal forms. Cooking on charcoal, cooking on wood, using native plants to be vessels, calabash, pumpkin seeds. All those things.

From Shola Olunloyo's Studiokitchen Instagram || Left: A spread of black eyed peas, iru peaso and tehina. Dried red shrimp and ham hock "XO" sauce. Carabinieros oil. Black eye peas dressed in their reduced cooking juices, smoked turkey garum and virgin peanut oil. Smoked nora chili. Chive blossoms. Roti bread on the side. | Right: Wellfleet oyster. Egusi soup "Rockefeller." Shrimp "Mignonette" Garum. Sea grass. Photos: Shola Olunloyo

AB: Where are the test kitchens of Nigeria? Where are all of these ideas forged? Is there a long history of cooking and royal courts or is there are a lot of street food? Are family cooks more prominent than restaurant cooks in the Nigerian culinary consciousness?

SO: Nigeria's culinary consciousness hasn't really developed a culinary class as you've seen in other countries, you know, with Food Network and Michelin stars and all of those things. It's a very native cuisine in many ways. Nigeria hasn't had royal courts per se like you would see in India or Egypt or places like that. The food is an intrinsic family experience. It's about eating dinner together on Sundays. It's about weddings. It's about births. It’s about Christenings. All the ceremonial aspects of life and religion are the primary drivers of ceremonial cuisine in Nigeria as opposed to actual ceremony; maybe a little bit Christmas, New Year's. But otherwise they're mostly human stories and feed in the people who are part of them, their friends and the attendees. If you go to a Nigerian wedding, it's almost comically absurd the amount of people and the amount of food that is cooked.

AB: Family-style may be redundant as a descriptor.  

SO: It's like extended family in Nigeria. Dinner with like a hundred people, you know? Essentially cauldrons.

AB: I love that. I caught that you mentioned dried shrimp. It's always interesting to see that cross section of climate, economics, religion, depending on whether a culture wants to ferment stuff into booze or whether they're trying to cure things to bring out umami for a largely vegetarian diet. It's a nice litmus test for a culture. Can you tell us about the way that Nigerian cooks traditionally and contemporarily preserve and ferment food?

SO: Nigerian preservation is very similar to regions of the world that have the same climate and geography. That would be Southeast Asia, Thailand and Malaysia. Like in the delta areas of Nigeria. Let's deal with fish, because you know fish does not last forever. You either eat it fresh or you have to start actively preserving it in some way. Whether it's salted, dried, or mixed with other things to allow it to ferment a little and then it's dried into paste. Fish sauce, shrimp paste, all those things. That's how it's treated in Nigeria.

Then they become secondary umami, a component for more complex dishes. There are vegetarian leafy stews that require you to use dry shrimp for them to taste good. So, the concept of one being a vegetarian – even when one exclusively eats vegetables – in Nigeria is like nonexistent. There’s going to be dried shrimp in your spinach-type green stew because it adds depth. I think for the cuisine of Nigeria the primary driver of preservation was longevity, being able to save food for different times a year. But then secondarily when people became aware of the depth of flavor that those ingredients create, that became a process.

AB: You just spent a number of sentences describing all the different ways that Nigerians generate umami. A personal passion of mine is tracing savoriness around the world, and I think that's surprising that West Africa is another cradle of understanding of savoriness and umami. It’s not just East Asia, it's not just Japan and Thailand and parts of China. It's an amazing Rosetta Stone.

SO: An ingredient that has one of the deepest depths of flavor to add to dish is the fermented locust bean, which grows around various parts of West Africa. They call it iru or they call it dawadawa in different countries. Just their aroma alone, it smells like somebody mixed chocolate with Marmite, from just locust beans fermented.

From Shola Olunloyo's Studiokitchen Instagram || Left: Mackeral. Barely touched with charcoal embers. A sauce of bitter leaves, hijiki, palm sugar, uziza, one-year peanut miso and charred jalapenos. | Right: Moi Moi. Steamed white bean cake lightened with brioche. Rehydrated dried Hokkaido scallop. Smoked turkey. Scallop roe "bottarga." Hokkaido sea urchin sauce. Photos: Shola Olunloyo

AB: I love talking to you because the first time we met you introduced me to some of these ideas inherent to Nigerian food in a way that usually takes people a long time to get to. Rather than, “Here are the five mother sauces of Nigeria and they must be used as prescribed, blah, blah, blah,” you immediately jumped into like, “Here's 10 different uses that I just thought of for peanut flour that we use as a thickener. Here's a marinade that similar to Mexican adobo.” You're incredibly forthcoming in giving immediate and very approachable context. Is that a Nigerian thing or just the Shola thing? Are Nigerians as protective as how things quote, unquote should be as Italians might be with their DOP pizzas?

SO: It is the same, and that's funny for you to say because I just had this conversation in Italy after roaming around for a month. Nigerians are both very nationalistic and want to preserve the native food as what it is – not too many changes, maybe a different vessel. However, people are now becoming aware that for the future of a cuisine to evolve you have to be subject to some variation and experimentation. People are now only becoming a bit more open to the use of Nigerian ingredients in less traditional forms. But you're still able to make delicious food that speaks to the soul of Nigeria. It happens to end up in a middle gray area where Nigerians are like, “This isn't really Nigerian” and then Westerners are like, “I've never had anything like this before.” So, it's not Nigerian. It's new to me. It's really new to us.

That gray area is a ripe landscape of creativity for me. I take ingredients as a line item list with various attributes, so I can still stay and weave within a certain cuisine something interesting that is not traditional. And in order for me to explain to outsiders – non-Nigerians, Westerners – how do I get this food, and removing their preconceived notions of the food of Black Africa. I just had to come up with some ideas where you have things like this, that the element of flavor, this is slightly different. Like jollof rice is basically a paella. Akara is basically a falafel. If I nixtamalized white beans in Nigeria – which I have done strangely enough and it's beautiful, it works great – it can end up being almost like something you fry into a latke. There are many ways to explain; it’s the words and the re-origin that’s intimidating. If I can find a familiar item that allows people to understand what I'm talking about, I think it works that way.

AB: You clearly have an amazing gift for thrumming on these threads that link countries and cultures and foodways. American chefs probably wasted the better part of a century thinking that fish sauce was only for putting in East Asian dishes. We finally got over that, and it's in marinara and it's in cheese dip. Now we know that it's Nigerian as well. Can you help us jump into these higher levels of thinking where we can start to incorporate Nigerian food and ideas into our daily lives quicker? Would you mind sharing maybe one or two gateways, books, restaurants, go-to techniques or ingredients that listeners could incorporate into their lives to get a like a Nigerian starter kit?

SO: One of the most common street snacks in Nigeria is suya. It’s basically grilled beef, mostly beef on a stick, almost like a kebab of some sort, and it's cooked on wood and charcoal. I'm sure you can go into any major American city – definitely Philadelphia, definitely New York, DC – where you can go into the West African stores and buy a bag of suya spice. It's just a powder. It's peanut-based – word of warning: if you are allergic to peanuts, you do not want to eat this. You cut meat into thin strips and dust heavily with the flour. If you want to give it a bit more luxury like I do, I spray it with a little bit of peanut oil. And just grill it directly on skewers on a rack over charcoal and wood. Even if you do it in your oven it will be quite delicious. The primal flavors of meat and natural fire makes it what it is. In Nigeria, it's street food. In the most basic shacks, it's always cooked on wood or charcoal because gas is a commodity, strangely for an OPEC producing country.

AB: It sounds like suya might be a perfect gateway drug for getting into Nigeria cooking for an avid home cook. Can you explain to us a little bit about what suya is and what the keys are to doing it right?

SO: Suya is all about the spice. It involves a process that's unique to Nigeria; nobody else does it in the wor­ld. The process is that peanuts are mashed with a mortar and pestle, always non-mechanically. They mash until they turn into a very thick paste. It takes quite a bit of effort. And then they're put in almost like muslin cloth and it is squeezed for a significant amount of time until as much of the oil comes out as possible. When that is done, the peanut meal that's left has little bit of water mixed into it. It is formed into little patties and fried, and then becomes crusty little flat pellets. That is something in Africa referred to as kuli kuli, and that is what forms the basis of the spice mix. So, to that other native peppers, chilies, garlic, onion are added and that becomes the basis of the suya spice. It has a very particular flavor. It's an interesting fermented peanut flavor, but it is still peanut nonetheless. And that is simply dusted on meat with a little salt and it is grilled. That's it. Most of the engineering and the work is in the production of the spice. Otherwise it's just deep meat in it and grill it.

AB: The actual home implementation of the suya spice is like cooking with miso, right? Where there's a process leading up to you opening the bag.

SO: Exactly. You cannot make kuli kuli at home, you just can’t. No Nigerians make it at home. You should go to a store and buy.

AB: Wonderful.