Nigerian cuisine with Iquo Ukoh
and her recipe for masa

Peppers and tomatoes on a Nigerian market

Nigeria

With over 200 million inhabitants, Nigeria is Africa’s most populous country. More than 250 tribes make for an incredibly diverse culinary landscape, united by the common use of palm oil and scotch bonnet peppers, which run like a red thread through its many cuisines. Iquo Ukoh, a popular food blogger and talented photographer, introduces us to fluffy cakes made with fermented rice. Traditionally, they’re eaten plain with soup but when filled with cheese, meat and butter they’re as good a breakfast as you can wish for.

What food did you grow up eating?
“The food I ate growing up was to a large extent detribalised, because my mother would cook dishes that weren’t specific to our tribe. One of the staples was rice and what we call Nigerian stew: a tomato-based sauce with scotch bonnet peppers, onion fried in oil and proteins/meats of your choice. So rice and stews were prominent in the diet, but also a lot of soups.

“The soups were different in terms of texture and taste than most European soups. In Europe, soups are often a starter, but in Nigeria they are a meal. Common ingredients are beef, smoked fish, fermented stockfish, crayfish, vegetables, palm oil, seasonings, and a lot of peppers. We eat soup with swallows, which is a Nigerian term for balls made out of powdered yam or cassava (which we call gari or fufu). These morsels are then swallowed whole.

“Not all soups are mains though. We have a very light pepper soup, like a minestrone. It’s packed with a lot of chilli peppers, with scotch bonnets and many spices. You’re tearing up, start sweating… but it’s delicious.”

Were your parents cooks as well?
“My mum was a nurse, but everything I learned about cooking I learned from her. Incidentally, she’s from Calabar, the part of Nigeria where they’re known for their culinary expertise and cooking skills. There’s a joke in Nigeria that if the husband goes to work in Calabar, the wife should just go with him – or else he might not come back home because the women there are such great cooks.

“So, that love for cooking came through my mum. I just love the creativity of it - the ability to take simple ingredients and make something really interesting out of them. And of course, the smile on peoples’ faces when they eat my food.”

I can relate to that! So what Nigerian ingredients do you hold dearest?
“There’s a variety of chilli pepper called Ose Nsukka. It’s yellow and very specific to Nigeria. It’s very hot but has a lot of fragrance. I really like my peppers.

African star apple

Instagram.com/1qfoodplatter

"Seasonal fruits come with challenges for me, because I eat too much of them!"

Iquo Ukoh

“As for seasonal ingredients, we’re in mango season right now [March]. I’m always counting down towards mango season, but we also have the African star apple agbalumo right now [pictured above]. After that, we get the corn and African pears. I’m always looking forward to seasonal fruits; those are my exciting moments. They do come with challenges for me, however, because I eat too much of them!

“Some ingredients we have are incredibly local, like vegetables that you’ll find in one region but not in another, and only dried in African stores outside of Nigeria. Spices, on the other hand, often run from Nigeria or even Cameroon to Ghana, along the coast of West Africa. These days it’s much easier to find those spices outside of West Africa too.”

How does today’s situation in Nigeria compare to what we see on the news?
“Well, you see me; you’re talking to me. I’m pretty much relaxed, but we’re not comfortable in the sense of security. What you see on the news is not far from the truth. We continue to hope that things settle down and we can move freely again.”

Lagos, Nigeria

Kehinde Temitope Odutayo / Shutterstock.com

Where will you go once that is possible?
“I’ve had travelling to the north on my bucket list for two years now. In my previous job I’ve had the opportunity to work with women from the north a lot, but I want to go back with the eye of a food blogger, as opposed to the eye of a marketing executive [for Nestlé Nigeria]. Unfortunately, with the security situation, I’m not comfortable doing that.”

Nigeria is a country of many tribes – is there something that unites the cuisines of all the people of Nigeria?
“I think there are about 250 tribes so there are many differences. The north is more arid, whereas the south is more tropical; there’s a lot of variety, but palm oil and chillies are common everywhere.

“In terms of the meals themselves, they are largely carbohydrate-based, but the carbs in the north are mostly cereals, whereas the south has more tubers like cassava and yam. The south - being close to the sea - uses fish a lot more, of course.”

Has Nigerian cuisine been influenced a lot by foreign cuisines?
“Absolutely. I think that social media has had a big influence in the last six or seven years. It’s become easy for people to know about the dishes in other countries. Many Nigerians know a lot more about Ghanaian food now, and the same goes for Ghanaians about Nigerian food. I know a lot more about dishes from Côte d'Ivoire, Senegal and other African countries.

Nigerian afang Soup

Afang soup

“Many professional chefs use local ingredients to make non-traditional dishes. For instance, when they were trained in France and bring those techniques back to Nigeria. Also, in general, people travel way more than before. I’ve asked my 18-year-old niece what her and her friends’ favourite dishes are, and they lean way more towards rice, potato or yam fries, noodles. They’re not interested in cooking traditional things like soups anymore. There’s absolutely an evolution going on. I often ask myself: which Nigerian dishes will remain? We keep our fingers crossed.”

Before we talk about the dish – is there anything else you’d like to share?
“Wait for my book! I’ve barely scratched the surface when it comes to Nigerian food. But it’s a journey. I want the people of this world to see Nigeria!”

Masa

© Instagram.com/1qfoodplatter

The Dish

Masa; what is it?
“They’re fermented rice cakes, often eaten with a soup called miyan taushe, a pumpkin soup from northern Nigeria. Masa comes from the north as well and I think it’s an Arabic influenced dish. Arabic influences are quite common in that part of the country. Masa also goes by the name waina.”

It’s made in a rather specific pan. Can this also be made in a regular pan?
“The texture will not be the same. When you use a puffed pancake pan or masa pan, you get these fluffy spongy cakes. If you make them flat they’re usually called sinasir.”

Fermented rice paste is an interesting ingredient!
“It’s such a beautiful canvas to paint on. I love the filling with Parmesan cheese and meat, but you can choose any filling you want. Traditionally they’re not filled at all, because they were eaten with the miyan taushe soup, but for me this is breakfast! There’s cheese, there’s butter, there’s meat; it’s as good a breakfast as it gets!”

The Ingredients

450 g
broken rice
1 tsp
yeast
2 tbsp
sugar
3 tbsp
butter, divided
2 tbsp
Parmesan cheese, grated
2 tbsp
chopped cold meat (cooked turkey, chicken or bacon, for example)
235 ml
water
2.5 cups
broken rice
1 tsp
yeast
2 tbsp
sugar
3 tbsp
butter, divided
2 tbsp
Parmesan cheese, grated
2 tbsp
chopped cold meat (cooked turkey, chicken or bacon, for example)
1 cup
water

The Recipe

Total preparation time: unknown | Yield: unknown | Category: unknown

  1. Wash and soak 2 cups of rice for about 10 hours or overnight in a warm place. Make sure you see bubbles in the water, which indicate that the mixture is fermenting.
  2. Take out 110g / ¼ cup of rice from the fermented rice and cook until soft. Allow to cool.
  3. Blend the fermented rice with 120ml / ½ cup of water from the fermented water to a smooth paste.
  4. Add the cooked rice and blend, leaving tiny bits for texture.
  5. Pour the paste into a bowl, add sugar and yeast, cover with cling film and allow to rise for about 3 to 4 hours, in a warm place.
  6. Mix in 2 tbsp melted butter, the cheese and meats.
  7. Heat up the pancake puff pan or masa pan.
  8. Put very little butter in the holes and drop the batter in the holes. When the sides set and are brown, turn the over using a wooden skewer.
  9. Serve the masa warm.
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