There might not be a Nigerian takeaway at the end of your street or a West African restaurant in your town, but if Lopé Ariyo has her way, it won't be long before this changes. The 24-year-old wants to show that there's more to West African food than plantain and pounded yams.
Ariyo is one of a many of British cooks and food writers of West African heritage bringing the cuisine to a wider audience. This week, she releases her first cookbook, Hibiscus, a collection of classic Nigerian recipes with a few personal twists.
"Nigerians love spicy food," Ariyo tells me from her home kitchen in South London. "When I go to Nando's, I always order it extra hot and then top it up with the black bottle of spicy sauce. And it's still not spicy enough. Well, my body tells me it's spicy—my nose might drip—but it's so good. My mood gets elevated and I start to feel excited."
RECIPE: Lopé Ariyo's Hibiscus Chicken
I'm joining Ariyo to learn how to make a dish from her new book, but we're not going all out for the heat. Instead we'll be making puff puffs, a doughnut-like Nigerian street snack that Ariyo likes to add ground hibiscus petals to.
Hibiscus, in case you hadn't noticed, is Ariyo's signature ingredient.
"In Nigeria, it's only used for one thing, traditionally in a drink called zobo which is a mix of pineapple, ginger, and some other things to make up a fruity cocktail," she tells me. "I wondered why it was only used that way and took inspiration from the way North Africans use rose in their food."
Hibiscus sabdariffa is native to West Africa. When the herb is dried, its petals take on a zesty, floral flavour similar to sumac, and add a fuchsia tinge to whatever they're mixed with. While hibiscus is often used in Nigerian drinks, it is rarely added to food—something Ariyo hopes to change.
"Nigerians are worse than Italians for being precious about how to cook the food. They don't want anyone touching it or changing it," she says. "But I'm British Nigerian so I decided I had a licence to play around with ingredients a little. I thought hibiscus had a lot of untapped potential, and then I got a little obsessed with it."
Ariyo starts by making a simple sweet dough for the puff puffs, combining flour, nutmeg, and yeast with rice milk. She also adds the ground hibiscus petals, which turn the mixture a pleasant pink colour. Once the dough has been rested, I help to roll it into small balls, which we then deep-fry in a pot of groundnut oil.
The puff puffs soon float to the surface and start to brown. When they're done on both sides, Ariyo fishes them out, sprinkles over a sugar and hibiscus petal powder, and drizzles with yet more hibiscus—this time in the form of a sweet syrup.
Hibiscus isn't the only Nigerian ingredient that Ariyo has improvised with. Hibiscus also features cayenne yam chips and grapefruit and guava cheesecake—less traditional recipes that would have her grandmother raising an eyebrow.
"In Nigerian cooking, we tend not to roast vegetables—we'll boil, steam, deep-fry, or fry. I roasted okra and my grandma was really wary of it," Ariyo laughs. "If I don't tell her it's meant to be Nigerian food then she's fine with it. But as soon as I say, 'This is Nigerian,' she'll look at it and say, 'That's not Nigerian. I'm not trying that.'"
As Ariyo points out, Nigeria is a country with multiple people groups, each of which has its own take on certain dishes. Jollof rice, for example.
"It's a completely West African thing," she says. "Growing up in London, you get to taste Ghanaian Jollof rice or a Sierra Leonean version. In West Africa, there are people who are fierce about their version who've probably never tasted the others."
Ariyo spent two years at boarding school in Nigeria and a lot of her recipes are inspired by that time.
"The women who cooked for us there were from all different regions of the country and they would cook each dish the way they knew best," she remembers. "I've tried to capture what I think are the best versions of the dishes from the largest tribes—Yoruba, Igbo, and Hausa."
When she returned to the UK, Ariyo began cooking; mastering the dishes she had eaten in Nigeria by following YouTube tutorials and practising over and over. Things changed for her two years ago when The Groundnut Cookbook came out. Written by three Londoners with West African heritage, the recipe book inspired Ariyo to see the cuisine as something that could be brought into the mainstream.
"I realised for the first time that I hadn't seen West African cookery in a bookshop. But these guys had recipes that were my style of cooking, that kind of combination of having experiences in West Africa and growing up in London."
Today, Ariyo has built on her childhood memories of food in Nigeria, her grandmother's cooking, and her experience of London's African food scene to create a cuisine that is unique to her.
"This is British Nigerian food," she says proudly, gesturing to the plate of puff puffs in front of us. "My experiences have had a big influence on me, but it's British in that I'm using ingredients that are easily available to buy here."
As I guiltily reach for a second (alright, a fourth) puff puff, Ariyo reassures me that I'm taking the Nigerian approach.
"Nigerians never focus on whether it's healthy or not," she says. "It's whether it's tasty or not that matters. We don't really do desserts, as such. You can eat puff puffs as a side to Jollof rice if you like. That's what I like about it—there are no rules."