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Nigerian Food Is Evolving In America—So Am I

Whether one calls it “adaptation” or “assimilation” is a matter of one’s personal politics. But I—like the food I love—am undoubtedly changing, Damilola Oyedele

Cover Photo: a tablescape of beautifully prepared Nigerian food

Photograph via Adùn



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Damilola Oyedele

Jan 24, 2023

Whether one calls it “adaptation” or “assimilation” is a matter of one’s personal politics. But I—like the food I love—am undoubtedly changing.

In a Top Chef: Houston episode that aired last spring, contestants were challenged to create a stew that paired perfectly with a traditional Nigerian starch made from cassava, yam, or plantain flour. These starchy staples are known in Yoruba as òkèlè, for the small mounds you pull when eating them with your fingers, and in pidgin as swallow, as the pulled mounds are meant to be dipped in stew and gobbled up with little chewing. I watched clips of the show with skepticism; displays of ignorance in #FuFuChallenge videos on TikTok from the year before had left a bad taste in my mouth.

Two chefs presented stews with chunks of chicken and whole crab, reflecting our love for meat and our Nigerian tendency to surf-and-turf on steroids. A jute-leaf stew topped with shito and a bitter-leaf dish cooked in crayfish broth—as well as other chefs’ additions of nonnative herbs like arugula and cilantro—riffed off of the abundance of greens in our local stews. The judges consistently complimented the bold heat of each dish, confirming what Nigerian cooks have known for millennia: Spicy peppers are always a good idea. In the end, I felt relief at what appeared to be a rare, good-faith attempt to showcase African cuisine on US television.

For my part, my inner cook is a fusion of my two grandmothers and grounded in their Yoruba roots. Both had different ways of making okra soup, and though their recipes are undocumented, I know the differences by heart: Grandma Ringroad’s okra soup was marked by the deep umami of the irú she added for flavor. Grandma Lagos’s okra soup was simple, finely chopped, and had lots of water; it tasted earthy and viscous, soupy and refreshing. She also cooked everything in bulk; her house was where I made peace with the sharp scent of thinly sliced red onions bubbling over boiling cauldrons of everything—from long-grain white rice to layer hens that had been butchered mere hours before. Whereas Grandma Ringroad, to this day, prefers fresh, small-batch cooking; she prepares dishes with large quantities of Scotch bonnet pepper, served piping hot.

Black people across the African diaspora know a version of the lighthearted quip “I don’t need cookbooks and measuring cups because my ancestors tell me when to stop adding ingredients.” And watching Top Chef, I was reminded of a ski trip to Telluride in 2016, where I had to call on the ancestral spirits as I conjured a tasty pot of jollof rice for four classmates using—in the words of my friend Ameerah—“just one tomato and one piece of chicken” scrounged from an understocked grocery store. To see that intuitive expression of Nigerian culinary logic displayed on Top Chef, demonstrated by people with little context of the culture, was exciting.

At the same time, I couldn’t help but see myself on the show in another way: as a human-sized fusion of okra, spinach, palm oil, meat, and spices flown over thousands of miles and deposited into America’s kitchens and mouths and bellies, being transformed at every turn. What type of stew am I now? I wondered. What type will I be in my final form? Will I add arugula to okra, or suya spice to banga, or keep things classic—the ways my ancestors made their food?

In the fall of 2014, I came to Chicago for graduate school with all the confidence and worldliness of a twenty-something, middle-class Nigerian: I had decades of international cable television under my belt; I had attended international schools where local Nigerian dialects were forbidden and English elocution classes were taught. I had read Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah, and so I believed that I knew what it would be like to feel Black for the first time in the United States.

Within my first few weeks in the country, I developed quips and quick history lessons for people who expressed awe at my fluency in English, and I was determined to hold on to Celsius, kilograms, and kilometers as my preferred units of measurement. I wielded these to affirm my identity in my new country: I was in the US as a fully formed adult with a bachelor’s degree and life experience; I was not an impressionable college-age student; I was nobody’s American Johnny Just Come.

While watching the Top Chef episode featuring swallow, the culinary anthropologist Ozoz Sokoh had one wry thought: About time. “I’m happy to finally see diversity of expression in the food space; chefs, farmers, writers, the media, working together to advance our cause,” Sokoh said to me during a video interview. As a professor of food tourism and food media, Sokoh has extensively studied Nigerian and West African food systems and their connections to American food systems. She notes that native West African foods like palm oil can be found all over the United States in soap, chocolate, and margarine, among other common household products, though in a form devoid of its natural color and properties; it is hardly recognizable from its West African roots.

Palm oil’s journey and destination show that America’s powerful and encompassing culture—the unmatched scale of its capitalism and consumerism—is adept at bludgeoning the core of a thing, stripping its cultural context, diluting its original form, and ultimately changing its nature. Whether one calls it “adaptation” or “assimilation” is a matter of one’s personal politics. In my first years in the United States, however, I was naïve, smug, and defensive; I believed my Nigerianness would remain unchanged. I did not notice my edges begin to chip away, my skin begin to shed.

Many Nigerians make fun of “abroad uncles and aunties”—the family and friends who migrate overseas and return to Nigeria for brief stays bearing Dollar Store gifts, stilted accents, and incessant complaints about how uninhabitable Nigeria has become. They tend to be out of touch with the current realities of living in Nigeria, expecting to be treated like royalty on account of their migration status and the dubious accents jokingly called foneh. I cannot remember exactly how my pseudo-American accent evolved, but about a year into my first corporate job, I noticed a consistent curve in my r’s, a softness in my t’s, and the increasingly higher octaves that my voice reached for when speaking in meetings.

It’s what I need to do to be understood, I told myself. My husband, also a Nigerian immigrant, recently pointed out, laughing: “Your foneh increases when you’re bullshiting.”

In my first years in the United States, I was naïve, smug, and defensive; I believed my Nigerianness would remain unchanged.

Two years into my time in Chicago, I attended the graduation party of a friend who was a year ahead of me in business school. His father, a Nigerian immigrant who came to the US in the early ’90s—presenting with all the makings of an abroad uncle—asked if I planned to ever return home to Nigeria. I may have answered too confidently in the affirmative, because he responded with a knowing smile: “Once you settle and integrate properly here, you will see how hard it is to go back.”

His words deposited unease in my belly because I was already being sucked in, adapting to the ease and freedom available to me in the belly of the US. I had tasted the independence of being five thousand miles away from judgment about my choices to travel and party and pursue two additional degrees instead of settling into marriage. And when I went home to Nigeria for a few weeks the year before, I had looked forward to returning to my life in Chicago, where I could go to sleep without the screeching of power generators, sleep in on a Sunday morning, go running outdoors without fear of being hit or taunted by a commercial motorbike rider.

Seven years later, I examine myself in the light of my friend’s father’s admonition: My American life feels more familiar and safe; I earn a dollar-denominated income while the naira has depreciated over 100 percent in the years since I moved, and I have a strong network of friends and colleagues—locals and immigrants alike—in the three US cities I’ve lived in. Yet I mourn the growing feeling of being out of touch, my loss of proximity to the arts and business scenes in Lagos and Abuja and Ibadan. I follow news of my friends’ thriving start-ups and creative ventures, and I feel the Nigerian side of my identity—so lovingly tended in my university years and early career—increasingly fading. How many immigrant years am I from becoming an abroad auntie myself? I shudder at the thought.

I am also more insular than before, less amenable to the very African way that friends and family show up at each other’s homes unannounced. I am more frugal—almost stingy—because in the US, bills are a constant, nothing is free, and every shared expense can be split down to the last cent and charged on Venmo. I am now more sympathetic to the abroad people I mocked in my younger years for their cheap gifts and penny-pinching.

While I grapple with my shedding skin—the evolution from Nigerian raw material to Americanized finished product—my comparatively less existential longing for the food of my childhood is filled while I am stateside. Basics like garri, honey beans, and chin chin come from the local African grocery store, I get specialty items like oburunbebe from Etsy, and frozen prepared foods come from a crop of fast-growing, US-based retail food companies founded by Africans and first-generation immigrants.

Last year, I was walking around a Whole Foods in East Austin when boxes of cassava-leaf soup and jollof rice in the frozen entrées section caught my eye. The Ayo Foods boxes were brightly colored, and each featured a small pepper icon depicting spice levels—one bar was shaded into the pepper’s bottom, like a smartphone battery on its final hours of life, to indicate that it was mildly spicy; two bars were shaded for medium; and hot was a fully powered pepper battery. This tickled me. I’d never considered the spiciness of Nigerian food on a scale.

Ayo Foods and Adùn, another food company that I have patronized for years, primarily target immigrants and locals of African descent who are missing home—or wanting a taste of a home they have never been to. Adùn advertises the products it sells in the US as “real African flavors made accessible” and recently evolved their marketing and production in favor of a wider and increasingly mainstream American customer base: Where frozen meals were once packaged in vacuum-sealed plastic bags labeled with plain white paper, they now come clad in brightly colored, boldly patterned cardboard boxes overlaid with tasteful photographs and simple descriptions of the food meant to entice unfamiliar consumers. Ofada stew is “a party in your mouth,” and egusi soup “sings all the notes your taste buds want to hear.” The backs of the packages hold ingredient and nutrition information much like you would see from more-mainstream American food companies.

In light of this shift in marketing, I ask Adùn cofounder Tobi Smith about his thoughts on Nigerian food and his experience being an immigrant in the US (via WhatsApp, of course). As part of the product-development process, the Adùn team sets up regular focus groups and tasting panels comprised of Nigerians and Africans from various demographic groups to ensure that Adùn meals taste “authentic.” At the same time, Smith says, “We exist in a culture with its own systems and ways of doing things. The only way to get our cuisines and flavors out is to mass-produce them, make them as accessible as possible.” Smith muses on cooking for mass consumption at Panda Express, where he was once an employee and witnessed big-batch ingredient and condiment preparation, noting that he sets a higher bar for his company: “Adùn strives to strike a balance between mass production, maintaining a widely accepted taste, and retaining an authentic flavor profile.”

Sokoh speaks to the same ideal. “The success of our culture and cuisine should exist in the space of duality,” she says. “We should be preserving and unearthing and documenting the past and exploring the possibilities of ingredients and dishes for the future.”

Here is my almost-decade-long journey in the US, embodied by the contents of a four-quart saucepan.

But this is easier said than done. Back in my kitchen, I’m making èfó rírò, spinach soup. The US variety of spinach is less hardy than Nigeria’s, so I’m trying kale for this dish. I heat up some palm oil in a pot, then add red onions, irú, and dried prawns—all from the African grocery store. The greens will go in last, but my mind is already preparing permutations. I need the chopped vegetables to wilt only slightly, while the dried prawns must soften completely. However, kale is more fibrous than the spinach variety I’m used to, so it will require a different formula. I add blended red bell peppers and habaneros to the mix, lower the heat, and stir, taking in the steam from the sizzling mix that wafts upward and envelopes me in the smell of home. How much time and heat are just enough? I wonder, before I make a guess, pour the kale in, and stir again.

The final outcome is a mild disappointment: The vegetables are well cooked, but the prawns are not tender enough. Here is my almost-decade-long journey in the US, embodied by the contents of a four-quart saucepan; here is my striving for an existence that honors my birth home in my new home, coming up short. Yet I cling to Celsius and kilograms; travel to Ibadan and Lagos for a few weeks every year; keep in touch with family, friends, and the news. I remind myself that duality is difficult and that balance is elusive. But it’s worth it to try.

This article was first published by CATAPULT

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Damilola Oyedele

Damilola Oyedele is a Nigerian writer. Her essays and poetry have been published in Brittle Paper, The Republic, The Bangalore Review, and elsewhere. In 2022 she received a Hedgebrook residency and a Writers’ League of Texas fellowship. She lives in Austin, Texas.

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