If this sounds territorial and possessive, it should—consider the force and cogency of Aribisala’s ensuing argument: Aribisala makes a damning case, over the course of an essay collection that spans 300 pages and travels from Lagos to London, against the unerring bastardization of Nigerian cuisine in the Western imagination. Nigerian food has been, from her vantage point, ensnared in the catch-all umbrella of “African food," analogous to the lazy cultural trend to speak of a continent that is incalculably enormous as if it were a monolithic suburban town.
The moniker of "African food" lacks requisite sophistication and texture. The Congolese man on the street, she writes, most likely doesn’t know Nigerian food in its variances. Would the British and French, she proposes, be complacent with the understanding their national cuisines as “European food”? Of course not. Yet this has happened to Nigeria's food, and it is her torch to bear—and, ultimately, her gulf to bridge.
And so her book is her own reclamation of Nigerian food through the incontestable vividness of memoir—an effort to bring the rather inchoate notion of “Nigerian food” into focus for onlookers who only know if it through Jollof rice.
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Aribisala is speaking for herself, on her own terms. Her writing gains its stride when she writes of eating particular foods that she is expected to eat as a Nigerian woman. Consider dog meat, a dish that gives rise to a mix of anxiety and utter contempt on her part; she cites her grave distaste for an animal that “smells like a dank rug" and "eats his own faecal matter." Aribisala cannot stomach the dish—served as a side but with the charisma of a main course—even though it's elemental to a shared Nigerian culinary identity. This aversion makes her something of a castaway in her larger circle of Nigerian family and friends, who possess a straightforward and nonjudgmental gastronomic relationship to animals: dishes with bases of monkeys, horses, camels, deers, goats, and snakes. She acknowledges that her antagonistic relationship to eating dog makes her a minority within Nigeria, and she navigates this insecurity thoughtfully, situating it within the deep affection most others have for it.
Aribisala's writing remains cogent and lush throughout without collapsing into the sentimentality that can mar hybrid food- and memoir-writing. She gains our trust forcefully, through the calm charge of her voice: The stories operate as essays that are self-contained yet simultaneously operate within the continuum of her experiences as a Nigerian woman who grows older, marries, and bears children.
Her work deserves a wider audience than it’s gotten so far. I haven’t read a single review of this book, because it has seemingly landed on few people’s radars. Reaching the end of the book, one is reminded, again, of her introduction, wherein she observes that though Nigerian food is misunderstood and often poorly photographed, it is “gastronomically illustrious, not yet given its due.” But she suspects that there is a chance, still, with the right voices who curtain-lift, that it might rule the world.
Mayukh Sen is a James Beard Award-winning food and culture writer in New York. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, the New Yorker, Bon Appetit, and elsewhere. He won a 2018 James Beard Award in Journalism for his profile of Princess Pamela published on Food52.