We sat down with Ozoz Sokoh, Nigerian food explorer, culinary anthropologist, food historian, and founder of the blog Kitchen Butterfly, to discuss the history of West African culinary traditions and how they influenced the American dinner table. We also explored how to forge new, more sustainable, more connected traditions this holiday season. Read on for our key takeaways or catch the full conversation on YouTube.
What inspired you to start your blog, Kitchen Butterfly, on the anthropology of food?
I started the blog purely as a space to write recipes and stories about things I was discovering. It was like a journal, but as I progressed, it became something bigger. I wanted to document lesser known Nigerian recipes, for which I couldn’t find many online references or media coverage. I started documenting even the basic common elements of Nigerian cuisine because I wanted my children to know their heritage.
I named the blog Kitchen Butterfly because I had always hated food. I've gone on this metamorphic journey with food and grown to love it.
Can you share a few dishes that are quintessentially American but have connections to West Africa?
Black eyed beans come to mind. In Nigeria, we use black eyed peas for fritters called Akara, a dish similar to falafel. A similar fritter made with rice has its roots in the transatlantic slave trade. Now in the US, you have plain beans cooked and stewed.
Other specific foods like jambalaya and red rice, both eaten in the American South, find their culinary roots in Nigeria.
Why do you think Nigerian food is so misunderstood?
In one word: racism. There are very clear links between the US and the contributions of West Africa. America’s table was made from culinary knowledge and systems that traveled through the transatlantic slave trade over 400 years ago. Foods like rice, black eyed beans, sugar, even palm oil (which I know is vilified across the world), come from West Africa.
West African cuisine is rarely given recognition. For example, people talk about French chefs in such glowing terms, but if you go to a market in Nigeria, you'll find a woman who probably has secondary school education, slicing greens with the technique that rivals a Michelin-starred chef. But she'll never be given the recognition or the accolades that a French chef is given.
Many people view African cuisine as solely meat based, but this isn’t the case. Can you speak to the false narrative people have with regards to West African food?
The media plays a huge role in shaping the narrative of what should be popular and what’s enjoyable. This narrative attacks the essence of the West African culinary history and legacy.
To push back, I help people recognize the regional roots of foods that cross cultures and in the process, I showcase West African recipes. For example, last year I hosted a food summit focused on Nigerian food systems. I invited major stakeholders to begin to build a network to connect people across various segments of the value chain so that together, we could change the narrative.
I didn’t realize how much diversity there was in Nigerian until everyone was in the same space. I learned that we grow coffee and dozens of types of beans. Together, we made plans for change, from the small garden empires in our backyards, we knew we could affect people’s food choices and habits.
What advice do you have for people who want to bring more plants to the holiday table?
Pick up different spices with which you’re less familiar and substitute out the meat in your favorite dish with a vegetable. I like to use mushrooms for recipes that call for meat. For instance, there's a dish in Nigeria called Suya - skewers of beef coated in a peanut spice rub. It’s commonly grilled and sold as a street food in northern Nigeria.
I made Suya with mushrooms a few years ago, and it was so meaty that the first time my son ate it, he thought I had mixed beef in with the mushrooms. He didn't realize it was all mushrooms. Make something you’re comfortable with like a spice blend or a sauce and swap out the main ingredient.
If you don’t want to substitute meat for plants, use different spices on a vegetable based dish you already know. Plant based dishes even out the richer holiday dishes.
It’s also wonderful to try something new with an open mind. There're so many recipes I've been nervous about creating, but fell in love with. Be open!
When planning your holiday meals, keep these high level takeaways in mind to spice up your kitchen and start a sustainable tradition:
Choose new spices and add them to vegetarian and vegan dishes.
Look for a diversity of ingredients and focus on ingredients you haven’t used before. Diversity on your plate supports biodiversity and your health, not to mention, more color on your plate.
Think local about what’s native to your region and incorporate into your meal planning.
Think global and look beyond your culture for inspiration from other cuisines, like West African.
Make a plan for your leftovers to reduce your waste and discover creative new uses for your old food products, like pickling.
After our conversation, Ozoz shared some of her favorite recipes, we’re happy to pass those recipes along to you!