Vegan Foods

Connect with West Africa’s plant past

When she returned to Lagos in 2010 after living and working abroad, Affiong Osuchukwu noticed that much of the Nigerian food she cherished had become meat-centric. Although the essence of the dishes had not changed, they seemed more plump to her.

“I have never remembered a pot of soup containing so much meat and fish as I see today,” she said. “My common joke is, ‘Where’s the soup in the soup? Because I only see animal parts. The soup is not there.

Ms Osuchukwu runs the Plant Food Federation, a website focused on plant-based approaches to Nigerian cuisine, and she is one of many cooks in West Africa and the Diaspora to experience the veganism. in a culture that has certain ideas about food nearby. She is also among a growing body of people trying to come to grips with the misconception that it is difficult – and even limiting – to eat a meatless diet made with West African ingredients.

On the contrary, Ms Osuchukwu, from Calabar in southern Nigeria, said that there are many ingredients available all over the country that can be used to adapt traditional dishes to a plant-based diet, such as sliced ​​ugba, a fermented oil. bean seed, which replaces dried and smoked fish in native rice and abacha, a salad of grated cassava, red palm oil and fresh herbs.

“People always ask me how I deal with being vegan or plant-based in Nigeria because they think we don’t have dietary diversity here,” she said, “and I them. always looks like, ‘No, in fact, we have more dietary diversity locally, right here, than in many parts of the world.’ “

West Africans are passionate about adapting their dishes. New approaches are challenged and traditional methods of preparing beloved recipes are defended. But plant-based ingredients don’t just replace meat in these recipes; they reveal new paths to familiar flavors.

Remove animal products from recipes like moin moin, steamed bean cakes that can be wrapped with meat, fish, or eggs (sometimes all three), and often served at holiday celebrations ; gizdodo, a dish of chicken gizzard and plantain; and the kontomire stew, a melon seed soup made from taro leaves, didn’t create the kind of culinary divide one might imagine.

Moin moin, for example, does not need the additions of animal products that have become ubiquitous in Lagos. (“The Nigerian Cookbook” by HO Anthonio and M. Isoun, published in 1982, features a herbal recipe.) Mushrooms can go into many dishes, hitting all the same notes you would find in a recipe. meat based. Lemongrass, coconut, cassava, and seasonal fruits are ingredients native to many parts of West Africa, and they shine in a lemongrass tapioca.

Afia Amoako, who posts on Instagram and TikTok as @thecanadianafrican, said something that resonated with the recipe developer in me: There is no standard recipe for many traditional dishes. There are only standard methods, ways of creating and layering flavor, techniques that produce a familiar result.

“We all know how incredibly West Africans are protective of their food, but sometimes we forget that everyone does it differently in their own homes,” she said.

When Ms Amoako, a Ghanaian doctoral student living in Toronto, went vegan about six years ago, her family and friends wondered how that would change her relationship to the food she grew up eating – the food that her parents did. ate daily.

She says it has helped her connect to a more traditional way of eating.

“My mom has been so gracious to help me vegetate a lot of my meals,” Ms. Amoako said. “She’ll say, ‘OK, let’s take back what we did in the village because it fits the way you eat. “”

Its social media platforms have become strong forums to discuss what it means for everyday Ghanaian dishes to be fit for a plant-based diet.

“My work on my platforms reminds my fellow Ghanaian people that being vegan does not mean losing or giving up your culture,” Ms. Amoako said.

In fact, she sees a harmony between exploring the history of the continent and adapting her cuisine.

“The way we used to do it,” she said, “sustainability was built into it. “

Fatmata Binta, a Fulani chief based in Ghana, has also found this harmony.

She examines the plant-based foundations of Fulani cuisine through her dinner series, Fulani Kitchen, which is inspired by her visits to the Fulani settlements in Ghana.

She says most people assume cooking is meat-centric, due to the Fulani people’s connection to cattle. But, she says, “the cattle are a business for the Fulani” – the meat is mainly sold in markets and is a central source of income for the community.

Although Ms. Binta is not vegan, she notes that the plant-based diet aligns with a more traditional way of life.

“Our nomadic lifestyle requires that we travel primarily on non-perishable and preserved foods,” she said. “Grains, pulses, potatoes and sun-dried ingredients make up the bulk of our diet. “

During the pandemic, unable to travel easily, she began to find ingredients at Nima Market in Ghana, where Fulani and Hausa traders sold ingredients and searched locally in and around. Aburi. “I have discovered so many local ingredients while researching food and I am able to work with the ingredients when they are at their best,” she said. “It’s so inspiring and therapeutic.”

For some West African chefs in the diaspora, engaging in vegetarian interpretations of their cuisines has sparked other types of self-reflection.

Salimatu Amabebe, who uses the pronouns him and them, is the director of Black Feast, a bay area dinner series that incorporates the work of black artists and musicians and centers the black experience through a lens to herbal. He also seeks to merge two culinary identities: as a youngster in the United States where his Nigerian father’s cuisine was central to everyday life, and as a professional cook. Dinners are organized on a sliding scale, guaranteeing their financial accessibility. For Mr Amabebe, this was a move towards inclusiveness – something he said he didn’t feel within the wider vegan community.

Mr Amabebe has been on a vegan diet for 13 years, but said identifying himself as vegan seemed spurious. The term ‘vegan’, he said, is ‘used to sell food to people’.

“I find it very difficult to use Western cuisine terms to describe Nigerian cuisine, even when the dishes are traditionally so,” he said, adding, “The West African food I know consists of a lot. to share with family and community, rather than mass marketing.

“Putting together ‘vegan’ and ‘Nigerian cuisine’, it’s kind of like I’m doing something conscious,” he said. “I would like to find words or phrases that seem true to me or easier on my soul.”

In fact, everyone I spoke to said that the word ‘vegan’ does not easily apply to West African eating habits and the way they are discussed.

Ms. Osuchukwu often relies on terms like “plant-based”, “plant-based vegan” or sometimes even “vegetarian”. She says she will tell people that she is vegetarian “because they understand ‘vegetarian'”.

She added: “I don’t really like using the word ‘vegan’ to be honest no matter where I am. I think ‘plant-based’ is a better descriptor of our food.”

Whatever terms they use to describe their diet, these four West Africans tell a story with many chapters and wonder what their place in the world is.

“I root my food in the history of my family’s cooking,” Ms. Amoako said. “I live like my grandparents and my parents. “

For Mr. Amabebe, it is more about his own journey. “Having worked in kitchens run by white chefs, where there is a specific style of consistency around fine dining, the process of cooking Nigerian food takes me home,” said Amabebe, who finds that Nigerian home cooking really lets the style and ingredients of the cook shine.

“Food changes you. You can’t help but change your mind about the way you do things. These ingredients speak to you.

Receipts: Moin Moin (Steamed Bean Cakes) | Roasted Mushrooms in Ata Din Din | Coconut-lemongrass tapioca with caramelized citrus fruits