What the Food We Cook Reveals About Us

There was a time, just a couple of years ago, when I would invite two dozen strangers over to my apartment for dinner. Twice a month, I would cook and serve dishes like fish pepper soup, seasoned with up to 10 different spices; fork-tender goat, braised for hours in a fiery red obe ata; baobab granitas; and lemongrass coconut soup over springy tapioca pearls — all in an effort to connect with the food I grew up eating in Lagos, Nigeria.

I have revisited those memories in the last few months, amused at what I once thought were the necessary logistics of serving four courses to a group of lively diners — timing the dishes, finding places for coats, getting the bar ready, to say nothing of today’s face shields, temperature checks and social distancing. And, although I was consumed with those details at the time, they were far from the whole picture. Beyond the meal and the hosting duties, the dinners were helping me answer a question I only now realize I was asking: What happens to us when we share our cuisine, and what story does our food reveal?

My career has always been shaped by my love of food. My years as a professional cook and recipe developer have taught me that the dishes we create hold a narrative, and that recipes speak to the harmonious way ingredients come together. Recipes tell of a place, of a culture and the humans behind it.

Just before the pandemic, I began writing a cookbook about the food I’ve always known and loved and longed for: the many cuisines of Lagos, Nigeria’s largest city and a cultural nexus. Its food embodies the contributions of those who have lived within it for centuries and those who have migrated to it. The memories I had of these cuisines, I knew, were like the recollections we have of a favorite childhood haunt or a film watched when our hearts were full (or freshly broken) — almost dreamlike with the passing of time.

Diasporas — some recent, others culminating over hundreds or thousands of years — make up much of American cuisine. The African continent’s imprint on it has inspired almost as much engaging scholarship as it has irresistible dishes. The broader region I come from, West Africa, has influenced so much of what we consider essential to the American palate, that its contributions almost feel like a foregone conclusion. Ingredients, cooking methods and preservation techniques I know from home are all present in American cuisine.

But I don’t experience the continent’s foodways in the past tense. To me, they are all part of the story I’ve been telling with the food I love to make, and part of the story that I will be unraveling as I write this monthly column. In essence, my work in this space will strive to continue what I set out to explore and understand with my dinners — how ingredients, food and cooking can shape and determine our idea of home.

In many ways, the pandemic has kept us closer to home than ever. It has also brought for so many of us a kind of great downsizing (briefly, I hope) of the number of people with whom we share a meal. And, for those of us who love to cook, it has sent us deeper into our pantries. There, in some ways, we find the stories we all tell with our food, sharpen the ideas we hold about where we come from and realize what has influenced us along the way.

Where once I would have slapped two wide cast-iron griddles over my entire range to sear off pounds of beef suya for newly arrived guests, I now draw from the quickest and easiest methods of connecting with ingredients I love.

Yaji, an essential pantry spice for many West Africans, is something that should be in every kitchen. This recipe, a simple side of roast carrots with yaji-spiced relish, is the result of my rummaging through my cabinets for a taste of home and grabbing an agreeable vessel. Sweet, caramelized carrots roasted on a sheet pan never fail, but you could use this on meats or any other seasonal vegetables. If instead of yaji, you have a spice that reminds you of home, it will work just as well.

Recipe: Roasted Carrots With Yaji Spice Relish