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Connecting With West Africa’s Plant-Based Past

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When she returned to Lagos in 2010 after living and working abroad, Afyong Osochokwu noticed that much of the Nigerian food she cherished had become meat-centric. Although the essence of the dishes did not change, they looked more meaty.

“I’ve never remembered a pot of stew containing as much meat and fish as I see it today,” she said. “The running joke is ‘Where’s the soup in the soup?'” “Because all I see are animal parts. The soup is not there.”

Ms Osuchukwu runs the Vegetarian Food Consortium, a website focused on plant-based methods in Nigerian cuisine, and is one of many chefs in West Africa and the diaspora who are hopping on the experience of being vegetarian. In a culture approaching some ideas about food. She is also part of a growing number of people trying to counter the misconception that it is difficult – even limiting – to eat a meat-free diet using ingredients from West Africa.

On the contrary, Ms. Osochukwu, who is originally from Calabar in southern Nigeria, said that there are many ingredients available across the country that can be used to adapt traditional dishes to a vegetarian diet, such as ogba slices, a fermented bean seed oil, that goes into Eat dried and smoked fish in local rice and in abacha, a salad of grated cassava, red palm oil and fresh herbs.

“People always ask me how do I go about being vegetarian or vegan in Nigeria because they think we don’t have dietary diversity here,” she said, “and I always look at them like, ‘No, actually, we have more food variety locally, here, compared to many parts different from the world. “

West Africans are eager to adapt their dishes. New ways are called into question, and traditional ways of making beloved recipes are advocated. But plant ingredients don’t just replace meat in these recipes; They reveal new approaches to familiar flavours.

removing animal products from recipes such as moin moin, steamed bean cakes that may be packed with meat, fish, or eggs (sometimes all three), often served at holiday celebrations; gizdodo, chicken gizzards and plantain dish; And kontomire stew, a watermelon seed soup made with cocoyam leaves, didn’t create the culinary hiatus one might imagine.

A particular one, for example, does not need additives from the animal products that have become so ubiquitous across Lagos. (“The Nigerian Cookbook” by H.O. Anthonio and M. Isoun, published in 1982, features a vegetarian recipe.) Mushrooms can go into many dishes, and they reach the same notes you might find in a meat-based recipe. Native to many parts of West Africa, lemongrass, coconut, cassava and seasonal fruit shine through in lemon tapioca.

Afia Amwako, who posts on Instagram and TikTok as @thecanadianafrican, said something that resonated with the recipe developer in me: There is no standard recipe for many traditional dishes. There are only standard methods, methods for building and layering flavor, and techniques that produce a familiar result.

“We all know how incredibly protective their food is for West Africans, but sometimes we forget that everyone does it differently in their home,” she said.

When Ms. Amoako, a Ghanaian doctoral student who lives in Toronto, became a vegetarian about six years ago, her family and friends wondered how that would change their relationship to the food she grew up eating — the food her parents ate daily.

She says it helped her connect with a traditional way of eating.

“My mom has been very generous about helping me make a lot of my dishes vegan,” said Ms. Amoako. “You’ll say, ‘Okay, let’s pull off what we did in the village because that goes with the way you eat. “

Their social media platforms have become powerful forums for discussing what it means to adapt everyday Ghanaian dishes to fit a vegetarian diet.

“My work on my platform is a reminder to my fellow Ghanaians that being a vegetarian does not mean losing or giving up your culture,” said Ms. Amoako.

In fact, you see a harmony between exploring the history of the continent and adapting its cuisine.

“The ways we did it before, there was sustainability built into it,” she said.

Fatmata Pinta, a Ghana-based Fulani chef, found this harmony.

She studies the botanical foundations of Fulani cuisine through her dinner series, Fulani Kitchen, inspired by her visits to Fulani settlements throughout Ghana.

She says most people assume the cuisine is meat-centric, due to the Fulani’s association with livestock. But, she says, “cattle is a trade for the Fulani people” – most meat is sold in markets and is a central source of income for the community.

Although Ms. Pinta is not a vegetarian, she noticed that eating vegan Corresponds to the most traditional lifestyle.

“Our Bedouin lifestyle requires that we travel mostly with non-perishable and preserved foods,” she said. “Grains, legumes, potatoes, and sun-dried ingredients make up most of our diet.”

During the pandemic, not being able to travel easily, she began finding ingredients at the Nyma Market in Ghana, where Fulani and Hausa traders were selling ingredients, looking for food locally in and around Abury. “I’ve discovered a lot of local ingredients by foraging, and I’m able to work with ingredients when they are at their best,” she said. “It’s very inspiring and therapeutic.”

For some West African chefs in the diaspora, engaging in vegetarian interpretations of their cuisine has encouraged other types of self-reflection.

Salimatu Amabebe, who uses the pronouns he and illusion, is the director of Black Feast, a Bay Area dinner chain that incorporates the work of black artists and musicians, and focuses the experience of Black through a botanical lens. He also seeks to fuse two culinary identities: as a youth in the United States where his father’s Nigerian cooking was essential to daily life, and as a professional chef. Dinners are prepared on a rolling fee basis, ensuring that they are financially accessible. For Mr Amabebe, this was a move toward inclusivity – something he said he did not feel within the broader vegetarian community.

Mr. Amabibe has eaten a vegan diet for 13 years, but said identifying it as a vegetarian was disingenuous. He said the term “vegetarian” was “used to market food to people”.

“I have a lot of annoyance with using Western food terms to describe Nigerian cuisine, even when the dishes are traditional in this way,” he said, adding, “The West African food I know is more about sharing with family and community, rather than mass marketing.”

“Putting ‘vegetarian cuisine’ and ‘Nigerian cuisine’ together feels like I’m doing something conscious,” he said. “I like to find words or phrases that seem real or easier on my soul.”

In fact, all the people I spoke to said that the word “vegetarian” doesn’t easily apply to West African food ways, the way it is being discussed.

Ms. Osochukwu often relies on terms such as “vegetarian”, “vegetarian”, or sometimes even “vegetarian”. She says she’ll tell people she’s vegan “because they understand the word ‘vegan’.”

She added, “I actually don’t like using the word vegan to be honest, no matter where I am. I feel the term ‘vegetarian’ is the best description of our food.”

No matter what terms they use to describe their diets, these four West Africans tell a story in many chapters, discovering their place in the world.

“I root my diet in the culinary history of my family,” said Ms. Amoako. “I just live like my grandparents and my parents did.”

For Mr. Amabebe, it is more about his own journey. said Mr. Amabibe, who has found Nigerian home cooking really lets the cook’s style and ingredients shine.

“Food changes you. You can’t help but change your mind about how things are done. These ingredients speak to you.”

Recipes: Moin Moin (steamed bean cakes) | Roasted mushrooms in Atta El Din | Coconut and lemon tapioca with caramelized citruses

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