Wednesday Night Nigerian—part of Epi’s Wednesday Nights in America series—starts with this curated list of weeknight recipes, and continues with a visit to a home kitchen, where we witness Nigerian-American cooking in action.
In his memoir, Notes From a Young Black Chef, Kwame Onwuachi recounts the morning he woke up in his Bronx apartment at the age of 10, shuffled into the kitchen, greeted his mother, and was unceremoniously told that he would be spending the summer with his paternal grandfather in Nigeria—and that he would be leaving that afternoon.
Onwuachi had been to Nigeria once before (when he was around five or six years old) to visit his grandfather Patrick, an Igbo elder who lived in Nigeria’s southern, coastal Delta State. Patrick was born in northern Nigeria and moved to the United States to earn a doctorate in sociology and anthropology. As a professor at Howard University in the ’50s and ’60s, he played a role in the Pan-African movement and, Kwame writes, “advocated for reembracing the richness of African culture” lost due to European colonization.
In 1973, Patrick returned to Nigeria, eventually settling in his ancestral home of Ibusa, which is where Kwame would spend that fateful summer—and it turns out, even longer. As September approached, Onwuachi called his mother from an Internet cafe and was told that he would be staying in Nigeria indefinitely, until she felt it was time for him to come home. It ended up being a two-year sojourn.
In those two years, Onwuachi watched his grandfather’s wives—women he called Mother and Auntie Mi—as they stirred together spicy red jollof rice and even redder banga stew, made with fresh palm fruit that Auntie Mi would chop straight from the tree in their yard. For Onwuachi, these meals—and a host of others—took on new meaning and deeper flavors in the place where they’d originated.
I talked to Onwuachi recently to discuss our new series, Wednesday Night in America, and to find out how some of these dishes—the Nigerian recipes he still makes for himself and the ones he makes at his Washington, DC, restaurant Kith/Kin—might fit into a modern cook’s weeknight repertoire.
He was quick to respond that Nigerians eat “a lot of stews” (some of them fast, others not so much)—a sentiment echoed by the home cook I spoke to for this project. That means that a few of these recipes take a little bit longer to prepare than you might be willing to commit to on a weeknight, but that’s what Sunday prep-days are for. Plus, they reheat like a dream.
Here are five Nigerian meals Onwuachi would happily cook on a Wednesday—or, for that matter, any night of the week:
Onwuachi calls egusi stew “Nigeria’s most popular dish,” though he might be conflating its popularity with his own adoration, since he also notes that it’s the definitive favorite of everyone in his family. It’s a dish his mother (a Texas-born caterer with roots in Louisiana and Jamaica) learned to make from her then-husband’s cousin because it was a favorite of Onwuachi’s father’s; she continued to make it after their divorce because she liked the taste just as much as he did.
The stew is made with the large seeds of the egusi, a melon that looks like a watermelon on the outside and a giant cucumber on the inside. The flesh of the melon is bitter and inedible, but the seeds are toasted and ground, and they help thicken the stew, which is seasoned with pungent crayfish powder, bright ginger, spicy Scotch bonnet chiles, and iru (fermented locust beans that can be purchased fresh, dried, or ground into a powder). Onwuachi’s recipe contains goat, but other versions call for beef or seafood.
The overall taste of the stew is earthy (from the fermented beans) and nutty from the egusi seeds—which have a flavor reminiscent of pumpkin seeds—with those bright spots mentioned above. Traditionally it’s eaten with swallow (also known as fufu), a category of foods made from starchy ingredients like African yams, taro root, cassava, plantains, and cornmeal. The starch is cooked and then pounded into a stiff paste in a mortar and pestle. Eventually, the paste can be formed into a ball and treated like a utensil (pieces of the paste are pinched off and used to sandwich a piece of stew meat, eliminating the need for a fork or spoon).
You’ll find as many versions of jollof rice—the national dish of Nigeria—across West Africa as you’ll find households making it. Onwuachi says “there is a battle between countries” about whose version is best, but most start with red stew, or obe ata, which Onwuachi calls a mother sauce.
Like the sofrito of Spain, the mirepoix of France, and the holy trinity of Louisiana, obe ata is a mix of aromatics that forms the base flavor of many dishes. Obe ata starts with onions, tomatoes, and garlic, which can be puréed or chopped, and gets a boost of sweetness from red bell peppers, a pop of heat from Scotch bonnet chiles, and various other additions depending on who’s making it.
While this jollof rice recipe from the cookbook Foods From Across Africa calls for basmati (and fewer chiles than the average Nigerian might use), Onwuachi prefers short-grain rice for his own jollof, which he likes to serve with fried goat or stewed chicken and plantains.
As you might have deduced by the name of this dish, the red stew used to make jollof rice is also the base for Obe Ata Dindin. This braise could be made with “chicken, mackerel, goat, and even snails,” says Onwuachi. He says it’s typically enjoyed over white rice or with pounded yam.
This version from our friends at Bon Appétit comes from Yemisi Awosan, founder of Egunsi Foods, a line of West African grab-and-go soups. The bright red sauce is fiery from habanero chiles (though Scotch bonnets work too) and tempered by the addition of sliced Japanese sweet potatoes. The potatoes aren’t strictly traditional, but they’re a welcome addition, especially for palates unaccustomed to the bold chile heat used in much of West African cooking.
Get the recipe for Obe Ata Stew With Chicken and Spinach at Bon Appétit.
When made with beef, these skewers are the go-to street food in Nigeria, where they’re served simply with shaved onions and sliced tomatoes. The same method can be applied to shrimp, chicken, eggplant, or anything else you like to grill. The secret is in the spice mix, which includes ground peanuts, powdered ginger, cayenne, and bouillon cubes. The mix is used twice: first as a rub applied before grilling (feel free to leave it overnight), then again after grilling, when it is dusted over the skewers as a condiment.
Onwuachi offers his version with a tomato soubise for dipping—the French-inspired sauce, made with cooked tomatoes blended with sautéed onions and cream, mellows the heat of the fiery skewers. At Brooklyn Suya, a fast-casual restaurant in Brooklyn, the skewers are served over jollof rice with plantains and assorted toppings like avocado and kale. You do you, but seriously: Make these skewers as soon as you get your grill going this spring.
This soup is “known to clear your sinuses,” says Onwuachi. In his ideal version, “the spicy broth gets its flavor from calabash nutmeg, a warm, floral spice indigenous to West Africa.” But different African ethnic groups—and different individual home cooks—have a vast array of spices to pull from, and not all recipes are exactly alike.
In her seminal work The Africa Cookbook, Jessica B. Harris notes six other spices that distinguish peppersoup: atariko, uda, gbafilo, ginger, uyayak, and rigije. The point is, peppersoup is loaded with fragrant, floral, and hot spices, whatever they may be. Sadly, many of these native spices are hard to find online, though you can usually spot them in African markets. You can also buy peppersoup seasoning all mixed up and ready to power through your nasal passages.
Harris also offers an alternative spice mix in The Africa Cookbook which we’ve reprinted here. She writes that this version was “invented by homesick Nigerians” to mimic the flavors found in more traditional Nigerian recipes.
A Note on an Essential Nigerian Ingredient:
Red palm oil, a staple cooking fat and flavoring in West Africa, is extracted from the fruit of a type of palm tree indigenous to West Africa. It should not be confused with palm kernel oil, which is extracted from the seed of the same (or similar) plants. While it’s important to source sustainable, fair-trade, unrefined red palm oil (Onwuachi’s preferred brand is Nutiva), it’s the farming of palm kernel oil, seen in many packaged foods, that’s largely responsible for deforestation, habitat destruction, and human rights violations.