Let's Talk Nigerian Street Food and Flavors with Ozoz!
Written by: Bethany
Ozoz Sokoh is a food explorer. She sees herself as “someone who navigates themes, spaces, connections and community through food. Whether that is writing, photography, making films, cooking, eating, going to markets, making new friends, or traveling the world. Food is the lens by which [she] finds strength, healing, builds community, learns, gives back and just makes space for [herself] in the world.”
For as long as I’ve been serious about learning food in depth, Ozoz is one foodie that I’ve looked up to and drawn a wealth of inspiration from. Her curiosity is exciting and it pushes me to always dig further. She was the perfect person to have this conversation with because I believe when it comes to directly interacting with foods in our surroundings, she’s one person that doesn’t shy away from it.
Street Food, simply put, is ready to eat food and beverages stationed and made available outside of the traditional restaurant setting. Street food can be hawked by vendors, or they can have small stalls/trucks set up roadside. The whole idea is that you can eat good food almost immediately and at a very affordable rate.
Before we delved into our conversation, I wanted to get a better sense of her background and how her connection with food started.
Ozoz Sokoh: My food journey has a couple of strands. The first was growing up in a home where everyone cooked where my father was really at the forefront of experimentation. My dad was a marine engineer. He worked in oil and gas my whole life, so his dedication and commitment to food were amazing. We had every gadget that you could think of that was related to food. My dad had all sorts of convection ovens and grills, and we had a soda stream when I was eight or nine. My dad was obsessed. Popcorn Maker, ice cream maker, all sorts of things, and he really approached food in a very open way. He was also obsessed with learning to make things from scratch so we would make our own amala from scratch. He also cooked without stock cubes, and the food he created was amazing. It's interesting because as a child, I hated food and I didn't eat till I was nine so I'm happy that my beginnings were almost antifood because it shows that there's hope. You can totally not like a thing and then come to know it in a full way and embrace it.
So that was my first thing, I had that home framework of embracing food, and everyone in my house cooked. Home was the first thing, and I think the next thing was me discovering food as comfort. I went to university in the UK and I was really homesick, I turned to food as a way to find comfort and healing, and my friends and I would cook together and food from Nigeria has this meaning for me. I think that third point that took me from food as eating to food as more than eating was when I lived and worked in the Netherlands as a geologist. The team I worked with in the Netherlands was a very multicultural team, and one night, we were out, and I'm talking to my colleague Santiago, who is Brazilian, and he starts talking about a fritter right? And the more he talked about it, you could see my face kind of go from shock to wonder. If anyone was looking at my face, they could see there was something I was connecting with and before he could even say the name of the dish, I was like “Oh that sounds very much like Nigerian Akara” And he was like, “Oh yes, in Brazil, we call it Acarajé and the enslaved brought it” and I was blown away.
I was in my thirties and I'm like, excuse me, how come I don't know about this? Why don't I know that there is a transatlantic connection? I mean, I've watched Roots, Amistad. I grew up watching those things, but I never thought of them as being instrumental in cultural diffusion in the fact that all these edible trails existed. It completely broke wide open a whole world for me that I didn't know existed before. So I was like, no, I need to learn more about this. And as God would have it at the same time, there was a lady who had a blog, Joan of Foodalogue. At the time, her blog was called Foodalogue, and she was doing this journey of exploring countries. She had a month where she selected 10 countries, and each month, she encouraged people to do three things - cook traditional, cook contemporary, or do a reinterpretation. All the countries she chose were in South and Latin America and I joined this challenge and my focus was going to be on finding these connections and I found that everywhere I went; El Salvador, Mexico, Cuba, Haiti.
There were all of these Afro-food connections coupled with the discussion with Santiago, my own personal journey and exploration at the time, and then this kind of culinary journey that she took us on. I was like, wait, wait, wait, this isn't just a one-off. There are whole culinary cultures and food cultures that are built on the knowledge, traditions, and food cultures of West Africans. I was in this new space of exploration and of understanding how history and heritage of food journeys have impacted my identity as a Nigerian, as a black woman, as a partner, and as a parent. That was mind-blowing, and I don't think I've looked back since.
Bethany Oyefeso: Thank you so much for sharing. I agree, it’s very deep and it’s very serious when you start to look beyond just the eating of food. I've spoken to a couple of food lovers and food enthusiasts and this same theme of going beyond the eating keeps coming up. There’s a lot of learning of how other cultures deposit bits and pieces here and there to make what certain regions' food cultures become over time.
We chatted a bit more about food trails and history, then some more about her work and blog, documenting and providing resources and platforms for baby foodies like myself to be able to access and learn then we got to the main topic of discussion. If you follow Ozoz’s work, you’ll know just how much she engages with street food.
Ozoz Sokoh: I feel like street food is the window into the soul of a cuisine and I don't know that those are my original words but I really believe that when we see how every day, normal people eat, how the majority of people eat which is a blend of home cooking and street food and all of those things, then we begin to really understand food culture. When I first started trying to understand what Nigerian food was, I wanted to understand what our daily routines and food rituals were. What are those things we eat and we rely on? What are those things that sustain us and strengthen us? The drinks, the snacks, the fruit, and street food played a huge role in understanding that.
Bethany Oyefeso: Sometimes, people try to bash street food and question hygiene and sanitation practices, for instance. Some people try to go further and make a classist thing out of it, almost looking down on those that eat street food. Except for maybe when it comes to suya, people really love to hide behind “health concerns” which I’m in no way dismissing, but I’d like to know your thoughts around that.
Ozoz Sokoh: It's really important to see what people are eating, whether they're school children or workers or people just out and about. Street food, particularly Nigerian street food, has a way of bringing everyone to the same place. Regardless of who you are, where you're from, how tall you are, you know? You'll find everyone at the same suya spot; money is no object. I've been to a Mai Shayi (person that makes tea in Hausa language) place, sat down and watched him fry eggs with bread or noodles, and I've seen cars pull up. And when I say cars, I mean, like glitzy headlamps, shiny black cars, all sorts of things. And in a row you’ll have a cross-section of different echelons of society. So, for me, street food has the power to connect across diverse lines and just nourish us in many ways.
The thing about stereotypes is that there's some truth to them. Conditions on the streets are not the same as conditions at home, right? So yes, hygiene practices are important. That's where education also plays a huge role so for me it's not a case of dismissing, It's a case of if the majority of people subsist on these foods, how do we make it safe for them? How do we make it safe for everyone to do that? The truth is also that heat kills a lot of things, right? but if I've gone to restaurants and gotten sick, as well. Yes, maybe the proportions are different. I tend not to be as dismissive of some things because there's the reality of life. We can talk about what should be, but we actually have to do it, right? We actually have to set up systems and standards.
And if you look at countries where street food is successful, like Malaysia and Singapore, they have frameworks within which they exist, they have governments that support them, governments that understand the importance of certain kinds of behaviors, that take care of everyone. It starts from the top all the way down to us as the consumers, and I feel like it when we start pushing for systems and structures, then everyone benefits. Street food feeds so many people and sustains so much of the community that we rely on to do very many things.
If you take my Nigeria, all of the people who are service providers around us, whether they're logistics and delivery people or whether they're drivers or whether they're craftsmen, almost everyone and their families has some vested interest in street food.
Bethany Oyefeso: Yup, I like that. It's everyone's responsibility and it starts from the top. There we go. What are your favorite street foods when you're out and about?
Ozoz Sokoh: Suya! Suya is number one. When I think of street food, I think of it in a variety of categories, so I think of Fresh, so fruits. I think of stationary and mobile - people you meet at a pot or people walking up and down the street. And I think that Suya is there. For one, it's delicious, then the options, the fact that every Mai Suya has their own blend of spices and that you can get a variety of meats.
And, I'm always fascinated by everything they do. From how they cook the meat, and then they'll heat it up and that twice grilling of the beef gives it a taste that is unmatched. But also, when you look at the artistry of the tools that they use, whether it's the board of the knives, you look at the way they cut the meat itself, you know, there's an inherent understanding of the food, then the way they slice the vegetables, and the way they wrap, for me, there's so much artistry from start to finish, Suya fascinates me.
Puff-Puff fascinates me as well. Typically, you'll see men frying the puff-puff. Akara is another thing that fascinates me and then the women and people who sell Ewa Agoyin. The beans and the pepper sauce. But for me they have a deep understanding of marketing because quite often you'll see two people walking - the ewa agoyin lady with her sauce and the lady selling agege bread. Sometimes, they're not related. Sometimes, they're just business partners, and they understand that there's this exchange they can do. One woman sells her beans, and some people buy bread to go with it from the other, and it’s that sense of support and collaboration that I find really, really inspiring in many ways.
This conversation was so delicious, and when we transitioned into what she calls “Lagos Island Snacks”, I knew this woman knows her stuff. She’s truly about this life. Chin-chin, gurudi, kokoro, and daakwa, to name a few. To her, these snacks “Help you fill in the in-betweens. In between lunch and dinner”. Although all these can be found beyond Lagos Island, I love that this is how she categorizes this level of enjoyment.
Bethany Oyefeso: Can you share about street food you’ve explored in cities outside Lagos?
Ozoz Sokoh: I grew up in Warri, and I also spent a lot of time in Port Harcourt as a child, a teenager, a young adult, and an old adult. So yes, Bole and Fish, which is roasted plantain and fish, is a meal, very different from how roasted plantains and groundnuts are in Warri or in Lagos. Bole and fish are amazing, and actually, that is also one of my favorite things. So you have the roasted plantains and some people also add roasted yams and sweet potatoes and it’ll be served with fish tossed in a palm oil marinade, grilled till cooked through and there are a variety of options you can add like bitter herbs, utazi, ugba and then the palm oil sauce.
Bethany Oyefeso: You've mentioned a few cities that you've been to and lived in. Is there a city you tend to look forward to visiting because of the quality and variety of street food?
Ozoz Sokoh: Equal opportunity lover here. That's me.
Bethany Oyefeso: I love this.
Ozoz Sokoh: Each city has things that I eat and enjoy about them. I could never pick one over the other. I remember going to Kaduna a few years ago to spend some time with a couple of friends and we had suya and Masa and balungu. Delicious food, and there's no way that I could choose if I was forced to choose. No one should force me. I can't choose.
Bethany Oyefeso: ah!
Ozoz Sokoh: Each place has its own offerings and I'm a willing celebrator of all of them.
Bethany Oyefeso: All of them. That's so nice. Balungu is actually my favorite meat. I can never forget the taste and how it melts in your mouth. I’ve only ever had it in Jos and Abuja. For some reason I’ve not had it or seen it in Lagos. Anyway, if you had to introduce only one street food to someone, what would it be?
Ozoz Sokoh: Suya with a side of masa and the vegetables and an extra side of yaji.
Bethany Oyefeso: Awesome. I noticed you make a lot of these dishes at home. What drives that? Is it your curiosity as a chef or due to the fact that they’re not accessible to you?
Ozoz Sokoh: it's both, but the underpinning thing is a desire to understand how these things work and a desire to document them for the future. That's something. I want us, not just to remember in our heads and in our mouths and through shared stories of how these things were, but for there to be written proof of some of the thinking. So just exploring it at home, trying to understand that this works like this and this is similar to this technique and is it possible that this is what we're thinking when we came up with this dish, you know, just try to get under the hood and understand what the Food culture elements are. And then there's also the thing of being away from home and just wanting to find that comfort as well. It's mixed.
Bethany Oyefeso: Okay. Where are you heading right now with documentation
Ozoz Sokoh: Two dreams. Or maybe three. One is really learning and education. That’s definitely one thing that motivates me. How do I share what I know in a structured way that lots of people can access it and find it useful for their own journeys. What tools, what bits of knowledge, and what structures can I set up? Who can I support? Who can I coach? Who can I mentor? Who can I be mentored by? All of those things will build a knowledge economy for us at some point.
The second part is celebrating. How can I celebrate the beauty of Nigerian culture and cuisine? How can I celebrate the culinary connections that exist across West Africa? And how do I map and share the edible trails that connect the continent with the Diaspora and the rest of the world. So, really tracing those moves and connections. Seeing where the touch points are, understanding how things have changed through time. What the future might be like, because with all of this where are we heading, are we giving people a sense of identity or sense of place, a sense of belonging. A sense of possibility.
My thing with food is that it's this endless wealth of possibility. There is love. There's healing. There's forgiveness. I've been trying to develop a masa recipe for years, and recently, I finally got to a point where I was kind of happy with when I developed. but it took me three or four weeks and twelve rounds of back and forth, back and forth. So yeah, I just hope that more people want to get into the space of exploring food, whatever that is, whether it's through art, music, science, storytelling, crafting, whatever it is.There's a past, present and future to this journey and all three are kind of in this space of being intertwined, but also continuously moving.
Bethany Oyefeso: Awesome. Thank you. Before you go, please share a memory that ignites or sparks some sort of joy when you think about it and what that food is.
Ozoz Sokoh: I have so many. I think one of the most transformational times of my life was in my early thirties. My youngest child was about one, and we lived in the Netherlands. I was going through a quarter life crisis - Who am I? What am I here for? Hated my job as a geologist. Very unhappy. Everything around me was great. My family life was great. I had friends but I was not okay. I had gotten to this point of just utter despair, and that's when I transitioned, and I found this space of food, an entryway into understanding more about who I was.
I remember one night, we had a friend come over, Danielle, and she was dating a Nigerian, and she came over to dinner, and she was like, “Ozoz why are you cooking four different things? Why are you cooking for your baby, cooking two different things for your daughters, and then a different thing for us? Why aren’t we all sitting and eating together?” And it just triggered this memory of growing up. I can't think of a day when growing up we didn't sit down to family meals. Dinner before six. In fact, no one in my house is allowed to be out by six because we all had dinner by six. If my dad came back and you weren’t home. God help you. But it was this memory of sitting together at the same table, a spread of food before us, and everyone just kind of downloading and having family time. Even though my parents worked full-time, I grew up with a sense of being in a very loving, very committed, both parents being present, kind of family because we ate together.
And so move over to 2008, when Danielle makes this comment, and I had forgotten the power of being surrounded by everyone sitting around the table. My kids were very young at that time, and my middle daughter was very particular about what she ate, and the next day, I made breakfast, and I made pancakes. Everyone in my house loves pancakes, but everyone likes different fruits. So I had bowls, I had blueberries, oranges, and bananas. I had lots of syrups and just different things which is the way that I love to eat and my middle daughter, who had before then only could eat oranges and bananas, ate blueberries for the first time and that is something that will forever be a core memory for me. It’s that I like to gather. I like to have people around me. I like to be seated at a table with a spread of food, of colors and textures and flavors and people discovering new combinations because there, there's the community, there's the sharing, there's the sameness, but there's also the possibility for discovering new things, new ideas, new combinations. It's just a space of possibility, and I think that's the thing that I've missed the most in the last three years, not living in Lagos and not living at home.
This is the same community I also miss dearly. We didn’t exactly have grounded traditions or routines around meal times when growing up, except maybe when we visited our maternal grandmother who’s a little on the stricter side but when it came to street food in my parents house, particularly suya, balangu, and masa, we somehow always gathered. No one was left behind. Every single person in the house would all come together to share, eat and gist.
Follow Ozoz’s Work