By Ade Ronke
Those of us who are lucky enough to afford three meals a day possess shared memories of food and meal times. At celebratory occasions, your preference may be gorging on a plate of small chops or drowning in a bowl of soft ‘swallow’ and hot soup. There are also the classic selections of dishes such as jollof rice, fried rice with a side of plantain, maybe beans and some beef. These are some of the dishes that represent our shared culinary experience and memories. Ozoz Sokoh is the talented individual who is trying to create new memories; her stage name is ‘Kitchen Butterfly’. Her approach honours our culinary history but Ms Butterfly takes a step further to build on them. She examines the foundations of our beloved traditional dishes, which are the ingredients, and pushes them to unfamiliar but mostly delicious territory. One of her favourite ingredients is scent leaf, which is traditionally used to make pepper soup. Ms Butterfly rejects such limitations; she uses this ingredient to make exotic cocktails and rich curries. Her website is a repository of her various explorations of local Nigerian ingredients. As with all experiments there are several outcomes, which result in mostly innovative and tasty results. She never positions herself as an expert but an explorer and an artist. She makes no claim to perfection and is brave enough to share her epicurean journey but also who she is. It is through this journey that she heralds the ‘New Nigerian Kitchen’ and the many ways she is creating this new chapter in Nigerian culture
How would you characterise the food scene in Lagos?
The food landscape in Lagos is changing fast- there are creative cooks. There is also a larger emphasis on natural and organic food but most importantly, a new focus on Nigerian cuisine, expressed in ‘The New Nigerian Kitchen’
What is the ‘New Nigerian Kitchen’?
It is a phrase I coined to describe the celebration of Nigerian cuisine – a movement from the traditional eating for sustenance, to a deep appreciation of colours, flavours, nutritive value and textures. Using ‘old’ ingredients like garri in new ways – to crust fish or chicken instead of breadcrumbs, to documenting and sharing these finds.
In the last year in Lagos, I’ve experienced by participation, pop up restaurants, food fairs, lunch clubs and more – a pleasant surprise for me who’s had all these things in mind but never envisaged them.
Even though the economy is a bit tough, there are a lot of international food chains coming into Nigeria. Is our food scene becoming westernised? Are there food practices/techniques that we have lost?
I think International food chains add to the wealth of options diners have. I don’t think they can be entirely blamed for lost practices and techniques. I think we’d begun to lose them long before they arrived. Why? Because documentation wasn’t what it should have been. For any food culture to persist, remain relevant even if to a small group, some sort of collective memory must exist, on paper, and outlive the stories around the mortar full of hot, stretchy pounded yam from the best Edo yams.
I would love to establish a Nigerian Food Repository that documents our culinary history, culture and practices; one that links our varied cuisines to agriculture, health and nutrition. I’m really glad to see so many Nigerian food writers making a difference, even if in new and interesting ways. Unearthing recipes, showing easier techniques to accomplishing traditional dishes (like pounded yam in a food processor versus a mortar and pestle) and writing these ‘on paper’ for the future.
In your My Africa podcast interview you said your father was a big inspiration for you in cooking. You also said he never used seasoning cubes. What are your thoughts on how seasoning cubes have become central to contemporary Nigerian cooking?
Yes, my dad never used seasoning cubes. He taught me that tasty food was about understanding the ingredients and working with them to coax the most flavour. Like onions and bell peppers – cook them low and slow, with a pinch of salt and you have the beginnings of sweet, delicious flavours but this may take some time. For majority of people, cooking is about efficiency – preparing good food in a limited amount of time with fixed resources. Seasoning cubes thus present a very short cut to what might traditionally be seen as a long process of making real stock – cooking meat and bones, etc. Not to mention that stock cubes take up little space.
You are friends with other food enthusiasts (Chef Fregz, Heels in the Kitchen) how did that come about?
Instagram and my blog, kitchenbutterfly.com. Social media has a way of helping people with similar interests discover each other, whether that’s food, celebration of culture, fashion and the like. Funny thing too is the ‘friends of friends’ phenomenon. My friend, Ramon – an amazing chef who I met through my food blog introduced me to Chef Imoteda of Heels in the Kitchen. So yes, social media mostly is how a lot of my new connections are fostered.
There is Ozoz the cook, writer, photographer and professional? Where do you find the time? How did these interests develop?
I don’t think it has ever been a question of finding time but one of just doing. ‘The art of finding, making time is the mother of procrastination’, methinks. Food, writing, photography, family, friends, and work – they are important to me so I do them. A lot of people think you need huge blocks of time to accomplish things but you don’t. My philosophy is ‘five minutes here, five minutes there’. Small chunks of time don’t overwhelm you – they keep you focused on your main goal in doing that thing. Yes sometimes, they make you nervous about ‘not finishing’ but truth is, I accomplish more with this approach than I ever did waiting for 2 hours to write a story.
I do a host of things on the journey to work. I take photos, reply emails, write, make phone calls, sleep and do a host of other things. I let Lagos Traffic work in my favour.
When things surround you, you soak them up, whether or not you realise it. I grew up playing outside a great deal. It wasn’t till I went out for a hike as an adult and a leader of a Girls Scouts troop that I realized how much I knew about nature. Things I’d absorbed from childhood play. These interests developed before I recognized them as interests. My mum was an English teacher who had her own schools so we grew up reading and writing everything. Photography was one of my dad’s passions and we had tons of negatives and photographs growing up, as well as cameras. From a young age, I knew what Polaroids, for instance were.
Food is great but cooking is not everyone’s forte, any tips for people who want to start cooking?
Not everyone is as smitten with cooking as I am, I often forget sometimes. Start with the things you like to eat, then find someone you can trust or a recipe you believe in. ‘Don’t give up, no matter what’ would be my second piece of advice. Look, you’ll make mistakes, learn from them, make notes, experiment, and most importantly, forgive yourself if you fail. Don’t be afraid to try again.
As a food blogger and writer, you let people see a bit of your soul and personal thoughts. Essentially, you are putting yourself out there, were you scared that people would reject you or it wouldn’t really take off?
I’ve always been an emotional and an emotionally-aware person. There are bits of myself I keep private but overall, I think being open whether I’m home, at work or with friends makes my life easier.
Food blogging and writing has always been about me, for me and I would do it if no one read me (like it was in the very beginning). Rejection didn’t scare me; I started my blog at a time when I was confused about what I wanted to do with my life. The process of writing, almost wrestling with myself happened on the page. It was both a personal struggle and an overcoming and I emerged mostly confident and determined to live the life that I have chosen for myself.
You talk about food, ingredients, the spices, the tastes and smells. Are you aware of any psychological effects linked to Nigerian food?
I’m not aware of research papers published on the benefits of Nigerian ingredients and produce but I can’t deny the feeling of wellness when I drink pepper soup, especially when made with a stunning combination of aromatic spices. Or when I chomp on pepper fruit and feel my spirits lift with the almost menthol taste and scent. Truth is, some things are felt, not told.