By Ozoz Sokoh
To this day, wherever I am, Nigeria or anywhere else in the world, I have a specific Saturday morning taste memory of bread, ogi and Akara lodged in my head, and heart I daresay. I spent many Saturday mornings as a teenager soaking black-eyed beans till the skins softened, then rubbing them between my palms to strip the creamy halves of their cloaks before turning that into a thick enough puree, seasoned with red onions and scotch bonnet peppers, one with enough integrity to hold it together as it ‘fritters’ in hot oil
Saturday mornings make me think of home more than any other day of the week. And I’ve been away from home a lot. So what do you do when you’re far away and discover the street food delicacy that’s Nigerian Akara is also Brazilian Acarajé? You feel all the emotions – from kinship to homesickness and saudade – and little of the comfort you desire. Instead, you find yourself deep in reflection as you eat an Akara sandwich, thinking about comfort food and what it means. I love the concept as an anchor of the soul but when I think of my Akara – born free, a dish I make to comfort myself – and put that next to Brazilian Acarajé, borne of the transatlantic slave trade, I wonder if comfort fully captures the range.
Memory as Resistance
Across the world from Brazil to New Orleans, Georgia to the Caribbean, there are edible markers of West African culinary heritage, trails of deliciousness that span multiple ingredients and centuries, from farm or plantation – rice, coffee, pecans, vanilla – to table – calas, gumbo, sweetmeats, bean fritters, myriad cassava dishes and more. Enslaved women, men, and children remembered and transplanted knowledge-systems of wetland farming from the Grain Coast to the American South, birthing Carolina Gold. They folded knowledge into fritters and bakes, sweetened the bitter truth of humanity, and seasoned pots of soups and stews with wisdom. There’s something so powerful about leaving your mark, in spite of, despite it all. And there are wars fought and won over bubbling pots and roaring fires – battlefields of the heart and mind. Yes, there are many treasures gifted by enslaved West Africans, but no war leaves its victims unscathed.
Memory as Freedom
It takes might to transform some type of bitter to sweet, and enslaved West African women did it on the streets. They set up stands and stalls, seats by the side of the road paying homage to their homelands, feeding the masses and purchasing freedom. Today, centuries later, Acarajé remains sacred on the streets of Bahia. Its recipes – initially preserved, treasured and sustained by word of mouth – now live in words and taste buds across the world, proof that food and eating create the strongest memory banks which we draw from, time and time and time again.
And so it is that when yet another Saturday comes by, you might find me, Akara sandwich in hand, fritters deep fried till golden and layered into Canadian Agege bread or challah buns (and on the best days, pieces torn by hand, uncorrupted by the silver of a knife). Is it Agege bread if it isn’t made under the sweltering hot Lagos sun? My taste bank is never confused. My memories draw on snatches of Saturday after Saturday, each contributing to the kaleidoscopic patchwork that’s yet another Saturday: the same yet different, tasting home, old and new.
Ozoz Sokoh is a food explorer and geologist. A ‘Traveller by plate’, she believes that ‘Food is more than eating’. Central to her work is the celebration and preservation of Nigerian/West African cuisine, challenging myths and assumptions about its culinary legacy over 400+ years old and its impact on the world from the American South, through the Caribbean to Europe and Latin America.
Her 12-year old blog, Kitchen Butterfly, is her creative space. In 2013, she articulated her philosophy and practice in The New Nigerian Kitchen, focused on celebration and documentation: like the first-ever seasonal produce guide for Nigeria – only one of a handful on the continent. She recently launched Feast Afrique, a platform celebrating West African culinary heritage. One major aspect is a digital library of 240+ books, more than half of which document West African and Diasporic culinary heritage which she’s created as part of this.
Her work has been featured on CNN African Voices and Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown. She makes her home in Ontario, Canada and wakes up to sun-streaked mornings on the couch, good book in hand with a pot of tea. She is a #FutureNewYorker.