The flavours of Nigerian cuisine with author Lerato Umah-Shaylor

Fresh fruit, spicy soups and yams in many guises all play a part in Nigerian food culture.

Egusi, a sweet and spicy Nigerian soup.

Photograph by Tara Fisher
By Lerato Umah-Shaylor
Published 8 Sept 2022, 18:00 BST

In Lagos, where I spent many of my childhood years, the streets are filled with the sweet aromas of roasted corn, African pear and roasted plantain, sold by vendors surrounded by crowds of hungry customers. Many Nigerians are reliant on ‘mama puts’ for a dose of comfort cooking, and these women-run food stalls can be found all over the country.

With the largest population in Africa and more than 250 ethnic groups, Nigeria brings together cultures, people and history through its food. Many dishes, while enjoyed nationwide, started out as regional specialities, such as efo — braised greens (traditionally amaranth leaves) in a spicy, rich pepper stew — which originated with the Yoruba people of southwest Nigeria. Or edikaikong — a rich soup made with water leaves and pumpkin leaves — which began with the Akwa Ibom and Cross River people of the south.

Lerato Umah-Shaylor is a food writer, presenter and the author of new cookbook Africana.

Lerato Umah-Shaylor is a food writer, presenter and the author of new cookbook Africana.

Photograph by Tara Fisher

In his bestselling novel, Things Fall Apart, Nigerian author Chinua Achebe described yam as the ‘king of crops’. With white flesh and dark bark, it can be fried as chips, roasted, boiled or pounded into a soft cloud to accompany sumptuous dishes like the mucilaginous okra soup. The New Yam Festival is a revered celebration by the Igbo tribe of southeastern Nigeria, and many others across the country, taking place after the rainy season (depending on the location) and before the start of plantain season. During the festivities, yam is roasted and served with palm oil as part of an expression of gratitude to the gods, before being shared among the community as they usher in a new season of abundance and prosperity.

A party is an excellent opportunity to sample the flavours of Nigeria. You’ll likely be greeted by the aroma of smoky, sweet jollof rice and fried plantain, before being offered platters of small bites to try, including puff puff — moreish doughnut balls — or meat skewers. Fragrant pepper soup, with its cocktail of spices, will leave you sweating while you lick your lips.

Three must-try dishes

Egusi soup
This sweet and spicy soup transcends cultures in Nigeria. Melon seeds are dried and ground to thicken a rich stock, to which crayfish and an assortment of meat and chopped pumpkin leaves are added.

Beans and plantain
For a dish you’ll find at most street stalls, black-eyed beans or honey beans are cooked, sometimes with a mix of blended chillies or tomatoes, with ground crayfish and palm oil. Yam or plantain can be added.

Also known as tsire in northern Nigeria where it originates, this peanut-spiced, skewered meat is a national favourite. Roasted peanuts ground with ginger, chilli and spices are coated onto slivers of chicken or beef before grilling.

The ingredient

African blue basil, also known as scent leaf, is added to a variety of soups and stews for its sweet, savoury, camphor- and cinnamon-like flavour and fragrance.

Lerato Umah-Shaylor is a food writer, presenter and the author of new cookbook Africanapublished by HQ, £22.

Published in the October 2022 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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