Food is so deeply intertwined with Nigerian (and African) culture. And each traditional Nigerian meal has its own history and symbolism, for which reason it continues to contribute to the survival of that culture. We will venture to briefly explore the diverse food culture of Nigeria, from the North to the South, in this article.
Furthermore, we will examine how the preparation and eating of these native Nigerian delicacies have preserved and promoted cultural values. Yet again, we will see how they have established connectivity between various tribes and communities – in spite of the diversity. The ability to establish cross-cultural connections through food is a key factor contributing to bringing the diverse tribes of Nigeria together in mutual understanding.
The History Behind Special Foods that Comprise the Diverse Food Culture of Nigeria
Palm Oil: West Africa’s Red Gold
The oil palm, popularly tagged West Africa’s ‘red gold’, is the king of oils. Along with the nutrient-rich palm oil; and the tasty, yeasty palm wine that comes from it, originated from West Africa. Palm oil became a vital component of African foods as far back as 5,000 years ago. In the following centuries, palm oil became available in places as far as Egypt.
When European traders and later the British colonial forces arrived at the West African coast, palm oil became widely recognized. That palm oil is a nutrient-rich food, cosmetic and drug ingredient has been a well-known fact for centuries. Thus, the British colonial government eagerly encouraged the cultivation of large oil palm plantations in Nigeria.
The vast majority (if not all) of traditional Nigerian foods are cooked in palm oil. It is a highly-valued and flavorful food ingredient amongst the southeast, southwest, and South-South tribes of Nigeria in particular. A critical reason being that the vast oil palm plantations are cultivated in the forest zones of southern Nigeria. If we omit to mention palm oil as a key member of the food culture in Nigeria, it will constitute a disservice.
Palm oil is the oil base for tasty traditional foods native to southwest Nigeria, such as Efo Riro (spinach soup), Egusi soup, and Ila Asepo (Variety Okro Soup). Moin-moin (bean pudding), Obe Ata (pepper/tomato stew), Adalu (maize and beans porridge), Asaro (Yam/Plantain/Cocoyam porridge), and Aadun (roasted and ground Maize) are included. These rich foods are listed amongst the most popular ones cooked with palm oil by the Yorubas in that region. They are combined with plenty of Ata Rodo (Scotch bonnet peppers) for that hot, spicy flavor; and Iru (locust bean) for seasoning.
As we progress into the southeast and South-South regions of Nigeria, one would encounter exciting traditional dishes highly steeped in palm oil and spices. They include the several varieties of soups (‘Ofe’) in Igbo land – such as Ofe Onugbu, Ofe Oha, Ofe Akwu, Ofe Egusi, Ofe Okazi, Ogbono soup and Okra soup. We will not forget to mention other typical Igbo foods rich in spices, animal protein, vegetables and palm oil. They include Isi Ewu (Goat head), Nkwobi (Spicy Cow foot), Ugba (African oil bean seed), Abacha (African salad), Ukwa (Breadfruit porridge) and Okpa (Bambara seed pudding).
To the South-South, palm oil is used as a base for delightful Nigerian dishes that are often full of spices, many vegetables, and seafood. Seafood is another typical ingredient in foods in this region. Aside from spicy and tasty dishes such as Pepper soup and Ukodo which do not need palm oil, several other foods require the valuable red oil. They include Edikang-Ikong, Fisherman’s soup, Banga soup, and Owo soup. Often paired with these is the irresistible palm wine – an enjoyable drink, especially when freshly tapped.
Food Culture in Nigeria is a Harvest of Flavors (Spices, Vegetables, Herbs and Seasoning)
Far and wide across the nation’s many indigenous tribes, the food culture of Nigeria stands out more for its celebration of numerous spices, vegetables, herbs and seasoning. There are many of them – some indigenous, some imported from other lands. And some of them are by far more well-known in some regions of Nigeria than others. These spices, herbs, vegetables and seasoning add peculiar depth and exciting flavors to many traditional Nigerian dishes.
Typical Nigerian vegetables, spices and herbs that have become a standard feature of the food culture in Nigeria nationwide include:
- Vegetables and Herbs: Pumpkin leaves (Ugwu), Bitter leaf (Ewuro/Onugbu/shakwa shuwaka), Waterleaf, Scent leaf/Basil (Nchuawun/Efirin/Daidoya), Ogbono (African wild Mango seed), Jute leaves (Ewedu), and Lemongrass.
- Seasoning: Locust bean (Iru/Dawadawa/Ogiri),
- Spices: Ginger, Garlic, Onions, several varieties of Peppers, Spring onions, Cloves, Yaji/Suya mix (a combination of spices), Nutmeg, Turmeric, Thyme, Black Pepper, Cinnamon, Mint and Rosemary (amongst others).
While there are flavorful spices, herbs and vegetables indigenous to certain regions. They include Baobab leaves (Hausa), Afang/Okazi ((Ibibio & Igbo), Eggplant leaf (Yoruba: ‘Igbo’) and Utazi (igbo) amongst others.
The Flag Carriers of Food Culture of Nigeria: Modern National Dishes
We have a host of traditional dishes indigenous to West Africa, that have acquired the Nigerian identity. The reason is no other than the fact that they have become popular foods served nationwide – especially during festivities and parties. Thus, they have become symbols and instruments of unity and communal sharing in the midst of diversity. We choose to tag them ‘flag carriers’ of food culture in Nigeria.
Notable amongst such tasty Nigerian dishes are:
- Nigerian Jollof Rice
- Akara (bean cakes)
- Moin-Moin (Bean pudding)
- Bean stew
- Pounded Yam
- Egusi soup
- Suya (Spicy skewered meat)
- Edikang-Ikong (super-rich vegetable soup)
- Garri (Cassava flakes)
- Variety Okra soup
- Bole (Roasted Plantain)
- Tuwo & Eko/Agidi (cornmeal dishes)
- Potato dishes
- Wheatmeal/Wheat foods (especially bread), and
These foods are meals prepared from the standard staples grown and eaten in Nigeria. These staples are namely Rice, Wheat, Yam, Cassava, Potato, Beans, Maize, Plantains, and Groundnuts. You will find Guinea corn, Millet and Sorghum grown and eaten more often in northern Nigeria. Cocoyam and Plantains are more common in the southern region. Added to these are nationally popular vegetables which are Pumpkin leaves, Waterleaf, Bitter leaf, varieties of Spinach, Okra, Peppers, varieties of Onion, and Tomatoes.
So many nourishing fruits and vegetables (both indigenous and imported) have long been added to the hefty mix of food culture in Nigeria. And thankfully, many of these fruits and vegetables are available both in season and off-season.
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