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Changing Nigerian cuisine


IT IS a hot day, and Lopè Ariyo has just finished a book signing, before enjoying a Starbucks Frappuccino near the Hayward Market in London Bridge.

Unknown to most of the British public, the mathematics master’s degree student, self-taught cook and imminent chef has helped place Nigerian cuisine on the map. She has even been named the Rising Star of Food by The Observer this year.

When British Nigerian Ariyo returned home to west Croydon, at the age of 13 after two years of boarding school in Nigeria, she began to crave her native cuisine, something that London could not quite provide in all its glory. Turning to the kitchen, she soon discovered her love for cooking and began to recreate the delicacies she had experienced while in Nigeria.

Surprisingly, even in her earliest endeavours, Ariyo, now 24, displayed meticulous attention to detail with all things food, which led her to become the house chef in her home, taking over from her mum. Ariyo knew exactly what she wanted, and how she wanted it made.

“I don’t think I would have had the same inspiration if I had not gone to Nigeria,” she says.

“I am the kind of person that get very bored eating the same dish. At maximum, I can only have the same thing twice.”

This led Ariyo to expand her palate and at age 16, she began writing her own recipes.

“I would look up recipes online and see how I could adjust them,” she said.

“At that time I wouldn’t call it recipe writing – I was making things into my own.”

That was the time she began to fuse cuisines – putting British spins on Nigerian foods, drawing also from the people around her, who hailed from various parts of the globe. Little did she know these early recipe developments would become the foundation of her debut cookbook, Hibiscus, in which she infuses her Nigerian heritage with British foods, which she calls being a modern Nigerian cook.

“I want my cookbook to be a gateway to west African food,” she says.

“For people who are not brave enough to experiment different cuisines, once they see ingredients they are familiar with they are more likely to taste. And I am happy to be that stepping stone.”

She experiments by adding different funky flavours to the traditional cuisine, which she believes will encourage people to be open to it.

A LOT ON HER PLATE: Lopè Ariyo with a freshly-cooked meal (image credit: Sonja HorsmanThe Observer)

“Once people taste it they are sold. I have had a few people who have never had Nigerian cuisine before and have attended my supper club,” Ariyo says.

“When they taste it they’re like, ‘Oh my god, this is amazing.”

Food and cooking helped her through completing her master’s degree at Loughborough University. As her love for food grew, so did her creativity – and her dissatisfaction with maths. Ariyo began looking outside the world of numbers and started her own food blog, perfecting her recipe writing and creating YouTube videos of her unique fusion recipes. As she edged closer towards the end of her degree, she wondered what to do next.

Seeing a competition advertised in Red Magazine that offered budding food writers and cooks the chance to have their own cookbook published, she jumped at the opportunity, not believing anything would come of it. Not surprisingly, she absolutely blew the judges away – and won. She is now excitedly waiting for its imminent release. She believes this competition has led her further and further into the world of food. The humble author describes the experience as “surreal”.

Since winning the competition, she has hosted a Red-sponsored supper club and has spoken about Nigerian cuisine and her published book at several events.

HOME BODY: Lopè Ariyo cooking in her kitchen (image credit: Munchies)

“I’m like, ‘Wow, am I really in this position? Am I really, making a name for myself and making a name for Nigerian cuisine?’,” she says.

Ariyo is keen on highlighting Nigerian spices and flavours, which is illustrated in her cookbook. She is not only bringing them into the spotlight, but giving them the recognition she thinks they deserve, and in the long run, hopefully encouraging their usage. She believes typical Nigerian spices such as hibiscus, egusi seeds and uda do not get enough recognition or usage in Nigeria, let alone here in the UK. Uda, a particular spice, is only used in two main dishes in Nigerian cuisine.

As she intricately describes its taste, how it works well if combined with fatty ingredients, and the fact she believes this spice should be on the same exalted level as the precious spice saffron, her passion for food is very clear.

“I want typical spices that are not seen as ‘Nigerian’ to be used in Nigerian food and create something with even more va-va-voom,” she says.

Nigerian food does not particularly specialise in baked goods, but Ariyo incorporates traditional ingredients into baked goods as well. Egusi seeds are usually used in stew components, but Ariyo breaks all rules and uses them in a cake.

“I like to call them the slimmer cousin of almonds. I created a hibiscus and coconut cake with the egusi seeds,” she explains.

While creating interesting twists on traditional cuisine, she aims to take this online with a series of online videos. But despite her defined palate and desire to manipulate ingredients, she describes herself as a simple person. Her favourite dishes include pounded yam and egusi stew.

She says that in her opinion, a close second to Nigerian food is Thai cuisine.

“I’m a sucker for a Thai green curry cooked in coconut milk, with rice – specifically Jasmine rice,” she said.

In the end, she decided to go for junk food as her third favourite dish.

“I love food and love learning about ingredients, but I’m a very simple person at heart.”

Hibiscus is published by Harper Collins and is available now on Amazon.

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