by Bunmi Adeleye
RETURNING FROM a recent trip, my colleague and I discussed the declining appreciation of our culture and traditional food. We found ourselves talking about issues ranging from how the increasing number of television shows now present cooking programmes showcasing foreign chefs, cuisines, restaurants and ever-changing food norms to how the average Nigerian regards and values his own type of food.
With this comes the unmistakable foreign food culture that is fast evolving among the various segments of our society, especially the youths, members of the middle class and the nouveaux riche.
In today’s restaurants and hotels, our cuisines are rarely portrayed as anything more than what it is today. This is in sharp contrast with the milestone achieved by our Asian and European counterparts whose meals are considered one of the most sought after. Even the Americans have succeeded in selling their fast food tradition to us regardless of the notorious health implications.
So who do we place the blame on? The way I see it, we only have ourselves to blame. It is impossible to say that the West did not play a role in our present circumstance but these achievements can be traced to these countries appreciating and valuing their traditions and cultures as well as reacting to a transitioning society and creating different products.
While vacationing in Europe, a Dutch friend in the centre of Amsterdam was offered a plate of our nationally famous egusi soup with roasted chicken, and grilled organic beef. You should have seen how she licked her fingers with pride as I watched her devoured the meal. Oh my, did I mention that she is a vegetarian? If a Dutch woman could savour egusi soup, why is it so difficult to sell egusi to the outside world?
My interest in culinary art led me to do some research on Nigerian cuisines spanning nearly 10 years of radio, television, and print media archives. Even the most thorough investigator will be hard-pressed to find a realistic depiction of our authentic cuisines.
I remember growing up with ‘Maggi Kitchen’ by Madam Funmi Adeoye, a television presenter who showcased Nigerian cuisines. The concept behind that show was for Nigerians to learn, appreciate, and value our cuisines and I used to sit down with my pen and paper to learn.
In that era too, a plot line in New Masquerade, with Chief Zebrudaya “walloping” a huge bowl of eba with egusi soup using his hand was viewed as acceptable. However, in these times, a similar plot will be loudly protested against. For example, many today seem to believe that eating our local food with our bare hands will make us seem improper. Why? After all, the Chinese have continued to maintain their culture of eating with their chopsticks and today, there is a silent belief that you never actually enjoy noodles unless you use the chopsticks.
This phenomenon has also affected our restaurant industry; our cooks have no history of responding to changes in the profession. When I look at our magazines, newspapers, television and movies, the biggest problem I see: they’re so reliant on western cultures now that there is no more room for showcasing our authentic cuisines. A database of professional reviews of our local foods is extraordinarily hard to replicate. Food historians and cooks in our country should respond to this change.
So, what is the secret behind the success of these countries? I could only think of these words: creativity, guts, and determination. These factors are usually seen in everything from the preparation of their food to its presentation. It may also explain the changing roles of chefs in the restaurant and tourism industry of the world today. The fact that foreign food is easily available in cook books, television and print media, restaurants and hotels, makes it the choice of people who have gradually taken to these meals.
It is my desire that we become passionate about our authentic cuisines. Nigeria offers an abundance of healthy and nutritious meals. These meals are so diverse, and they cater for all health needs too. Our crops and plants are organic, and can serve vegetarian diets too. Our traditional food recipes are amazing, and good enough to constitute food sections in our local media and television content. These are the types of content the food sections in our local media should carry.
With the right professionals, I see our country taking its rightful place in the culinary world which will go a long way in boosting the tourism business, while projecting a good image for our country.
Maybe one day, while vacationing in Europe, I could walk into any 5-Star hotel or a Michelin restaurant and order an authentic Nigerian cuisine for my enjoyment and satisfaction.
Dreams do come true, you know. Y!
*This piece was published in Issue 7