My Family Recipe

A Nigerian Dish, Pieced Together From Our Bronx Pantry

Kwame Onwuachi on egusi stew, a labor of love.

June  4, 2019
Photo by Ty Mecham. Food Stylist: Anna Billingskog. Prop Stylist: Brooke Deonarine.

Good food is worth a thousand words—sometimes more. In My Family Recipe, a writer shares the story of a single dish that's meaningful to them and their loved ones. This week, an excerpt from James Beard Award–winning chef's stunning new memoir, Notes from a Young Black Chef.

My mom has roots that wrap around America. My father, on the other hand, is from a no-man’s-land, caught between being Nigerian and Nigerian American. His father, an academic named Patrick Chike Onwuachi, had emigrated to the United States from Nigeria in the 1950s. The son of a prominent Igbo family, my grandfather was born in Zaria, in northern Nigeria, and had attended university in Lagos before leaving to continue his studies in Paris, then in London, then—improbably—in Fargo, North Dakota, and finally in St. Louis, Missouri, where he earned a PhD in sociology and anthropology. Granddad was a major player in the Pan-Africanism and African Liberation movements for many years. As a professor at Howard University, he taught that the influence of Europeans on African culture was deeply destructive, a sort of colonialization not just of land but of minds too, and he advocated for reembracing the richness of African culture. It was during these years that my father, the only son among six children, was born in 1961.

In 1973, my grandfather decided to move back to Nigeria, first settling in Lagos and then moving six hours east to his ancestral village, Ibusa, where he planned to build a Pan African Center on a huge parcel of land he’d bought. My father, also named Patrick Onwuachi, then twelve years old, went back with him. He grew up partly in the diaspora and partly in the motherland. As a boy, he had been raised in the United States during the tumultuous throes of the civil rights movement, in which his dad played a small but important part. And he came of age in Africa, during the heat of the African Liberation movement. Eventually, my father left Africa behind for good, moving to the States just like his father had, in order to study architecture, where he met my mom.

Our Bronx pantry when I was a boy was filled with neat packages of fufu powder, ground crayfish, and egusi seeds we bought from the Nigerian market on Arthur Avenue. Though my father seldom cooked, he had enough family in the area— and later my mother—to turn these ingredients into fragrant stews that could appear any time during the day. There were the Crayola-red onion-studded stews he preferred for breakfast but which for me were no match for Frosted Flakes. There were stews with tinned banga (palm fruit), beef, and castor seed seasoning from the Delta State, and spicy ones thick with peppers and tripe from the Yoruban people in northern Nigeria.

But my father’s favorite was egusi stew. Making the stew was a labor of love, a multihour process that included rendering the hard dried stockfish soft, then thickening the stock with ground-up egusi seeds, adding onion, chili, bitter leaf, crayfish powder, and palm oil. That my mother made it at all shows me that she was at least trying to make my dad happy. She hadn’t learned the recipe from him but from his cousin, a doctor named Ozu-bike living in Harlem.

My mom has roots that wrap around America. My father, on the other hand, is from a no-man’s-land, caught between being Nigerian and Nigerian American.

The kitchen was perhaps the only place where my mom could make my dad love her. My mother, for whom experimenting in the kitchen was as natural as walking, learned to re ne her own jambalaya recipe until it resembled more closely its ancestral jollof rice. She added peanut and ginger powder to her spice rubs, marrying the ribs of her grandfather with the suya spices of her in-laws.

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Excerpted from Notes from a Young Black Chef: A Memoir by Kwame Onwuachi with Joshua David Stein. Copyright © 2019 by Kwame Onwuachi. Excerpted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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Kwame Onwuachi

Written by: Kwame Onwuachi

By the time he was 27, Kwame Onwuachi had competed on Top Chef, cooked at the White House, and opened and closed one of the most talked-about restaurants in America. His new DC restaurant Kith and Kin opened to critical acclaim last fall, and he has been named a Forbes and Zagat “30 under 30” honoree. With his new book, Notes from a Young Black Chef: A Memoir, he shares the remarkable story of his culinary coming-of-age—while addressing the intersection of race, fame, and food.

1 Comment

Amanda T. July 2, 2019
Please don't encourage people to use palm oil. Farming of palm oil is a major cause of deforestation and the resulting destruction of the habitat of Sumatran tigers, rhinos and orangutans. These animals have been driven to near extinction by the farming of palm oil.