Someone said that Western countries have snacks while Nigeria has meals. It sounds cheeky, but from the Nigerian perspective of what constitutes food, the person may not be far from the truth. To the Nigerian, victuals such as pizza, hamburger, pie, shawarma, steak, lobster, etc, are not seen as “food” but snacks or food complements. A Nigerian who has eaten a kilo of steak, lobster or hamburger will not claim to have eaten food.
In my recent tour of North America (Canada and the United States of America) and the Caribbean, I was wowed by the huge popularity of Nigerian pop music (nicknamed Afrobeats or Afropop). Restaurants, shopping complexes, barbershops, coffee shops, radio stations, taxis, DJs, etc, play Nigerian music back-to-back. It is my belief that this musical success can also be replicated in the culinary sector if more Nigerians abroad show more interest in the food business.
Cooking is not one of my passions, but given the passion I have for spreading the “the Nigerian gospel,” I have dreamed about setting up a Nigerian restaurant in the Western world. And my idea of it is that it won’t be a restaurant that will sell burgers and pizzas, but one that will sell purely traditional Nigerian delicacies like jollof rice, white rice with ofe akwu, fried rice, pounded yam/akpu/amala/eba with soups like edikaikong, egusi, okro, onugbu, etc, yam porridge, yam and beans porridge, boli (roasted plantain), moi-moi, nkwobi, ngwo-ngwo/isi-ewu, suya, spiced meat, pepper soup (beef, chicken, goat meat, fish) with agidi, etc.
Some of the ingredients may not be readily available in Western countries, but there are local alternatives or they can be shipped from Nigeria. Many of the Nigerian families I have interacted with in the UK, Canada and the US regularly buy foodstuff in large quantities from Nigeria and ship to their base.
No doubt, there are Nigerian restaurants in Western countries, but they are too few compared with the population of Nigerians. Countries like China and India have more presence when it comes to restaurants. However, if some people argue that these countries should not be compared with Nigeria because of their population, what about countries like Jamaica (3 million), Malaysia (33 million), Vietnam (103 million), which have culinary presence in different countries?
Because of the paucity of Nigerian restaurants abroad, Nigerian meals are usually expensive. Even in cities where there are Nigerian restaurants, one has to commute long distances to dine there, unlike Indian or Chinese or Italian restaurants that are readily available.
Because of the high population of Nigerians abroad, getting Nigerian restaurants to spring up in different cities of the world should not be too difficult for Nigerians. The fact that most Nigerians who relocate to other countries initially feel disorientated because of the non-availability of meals they can identify with makes setting up Nigerian restaurants attractive.
Ordinarily, it should be a project the Nigerian government should institute and fund, but everything that has projected the Nigerian name positively was achieved by individuals. The most reliable way to execute this is for more Nigerians to take up the challenge.
Non-Nigerians who have eaten Nigerian meals usually commend them. They always ask for more. The only time they complain is when the meal is peppery. That is a pointer that non-Nigerians will also patronise Nigerian restaurants if they become available and popular.
Talking about pepper, I have never tasted any of the meals called “soups” by the English that can compete with Nigerian pepper soup. It is in a class of its own. Interestingly, it can be prepared with different types of protein: beef, chicken, chevon (goat) and fish. And unlike some of the other meals that may contain items one may not easily explain to non-Nigerians, the Nigerian pepper soup simply contains spices and the stated meat or fish. People around the world know beef, chicken, chevon or fish. Unlike other soups from other countries, the Nigerian pepper soup can serve as a meal, especially to those who don’t want to eat anything heavy. And it goes amazingly well with drinks.
However, when it comes to what Nigerians call soups, even though egusi may be the most popular, there is no Nigerian soup that is richer, healthier and more appealing than edikaikong. It is made from virtually only vegetables. It’s not difficult to explain vegetables to anybody from any part of the world. And even if such a person is not keen on using it to eat any of the Nigerian meals that are pounded and swallowed, it can be used to eat boiled rice or yam. It can be added to jollof rice or eaten with fried plantain or French fries. Nigerian stew also combines with many meals and renders a better service to the palate than ketchup.
The only thing Nigerians need to look at when targeting non-Nigerians is to tailor their dishes to meet some foreign preferences. For example, Westerners don’t like hard meat like Nigerians do. Their meat also usually has no bone or even tendon like Nigerians prefer. They also don’t like their meals to have a surfeit of pepper.
Importantly, in setting up Nigerian restaurants abroad, one thing those doing that must avoid is calling it “African restaurant.” The usual Nigerian thinking is that giving it such a broad name would attract more customers, especially from Africa. But “African cuisine” does not exist as far as the African is concerned. Narrowing it down to Nigeria will give it more punch, more direction and more appeal. When people want to eat out in an Italian or French restaurant, they don’t go looking for a European restaurant. Similarly, when people want to visit a Chinese restaurant, they don’t go to an Asian restaurant.
Another mistake will be to give such a restaurant an English name (like Licking Fingers) with no reference to Nigeria. That will deny the restaurant the immediate patronage of its primary target. Even if one gives such a restaurant an English name like Licking Fingers, efforts should be made to add something like “Nigerian restaurant/kitchen/dishes” underneath the name for easy identification.
Adding “Nigerian” to the name of the restaurant will not stop a Ghanaian or Kenyan from coming to dine there. When I was in Toronto two months ago and needed to eat something different from burgers and pizzas, I was directed to a Jamaican restaurant where I saw meals close to what we have in Nigeria, like rice and plantain.
One of the things that re-enforce the fact that Africa is not counted among the continents of the world is the usual absence of an African section at the dining hall of global events. You see sections for Continental or Western, Asian or Oriental, Caribbean, International (where dishes from the West and Asia are still displayed), etc. It is rare to see any section tagged African.
The reason for this is that Africa does not have a strong financial presence in the world. But another reason is that African countries don’t have strong restaurant brands outside the continent. Nigerians should take up the challenge of breaking this jinx by systemically establishing restaurants across the globe.
Countries spread their culture globally through music, films, literature, clothing, technology, language, cuisine, etc. Nigeria is blessed with superb dishes that need to be popularised globally. When more chefs across the globe know about Nigerian dishes, Nigerian meals will start featuring at global events. Just as the world can no longer ignore Nigerian music, in the near future, Nigerian cuisine will be respected and demanded across the globe.
– Twitter: @BrandAzuka ,
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