Welcome to Ozoz Sokoh's (aka Kitchen Butterfly) Pantry! In each installment of this series, a recipe developer will share with us the pantry items essential to their cooking. This month, we're exploring seven staples stocking Ozoz's new Nigerian kitchen.
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Seven staple ingredients have followed my seven moves, across four countries, over 23 years, forming the bedrock of my Nigerian pantry. Equipped with these core items, I am confident that a satisfying meal is mere moments away — whether I'm cooking at my mum's in Warri, on the southern coast of Nigeria; or in my Canadian kitchen with my children; or in my future not-sure-when NYC home.
Conversely, when I'm running low on any of these, you'll see me in a mad scramble — ordering online, ringing home, calling Nigerian friends who live in Mississauga — even if only for the comfort of having them close by, united by memories of similar pantries. Quite often, they'll come through with some of my missing items; other times, they'll offer their best sources or clues on where to find them.
Red palm oil acts as the smoky foundation to all of my soups and stews, sautéed greens and proteins. No other ingredient — with its slightly vegetal flavor and incredibly buttery texture — so perfectly captures the essence of Nigerian cooking, for me.
Upon that base, across my cooking, I add salinity with crumbly akaun (a multipurpose alkaline salt), funk and depth with dried crayfish. I'll fine-tune a dish with warming dry pepper and my Niger Delta pepper soup spice blend, which teases out floral, woodsy, and minty notes all at once.
Tropical, starchy root vegetable cassava — whether grated, dried, then fermented, or just milled into a fine flour — plays a host of roles in the Nigerian kitchen. It manifests on the dinner table as a soft, spongy dough begging to be pinched and dunked into stews; and on a hot summer afternoon as a creamy, cooling, drinkable cereal. When craving something sweet, I reach for hibiscus, an edible flower that adds tart flavor and a stunning red hue to drinks and fruit-poaching liquid.
These seven staple ingredients, from which I've built — and continue to dream up — meals for myself and my loved ones for decades are outlined below and readily available online. My favorite Nigerian grocers online are MyChopChop and OsiAfrik.
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My 7 Nigerian pantry essentials
1. Pepper Soup Spice Blend
In the southern Niger Delta, where I was born and raised, pepper soup is not pepper soup without a mix of spices — erhe (calabash nutmeg), urheri (grains of Selim), alligator pepper (grains of paradise), umilo (coco plum), and gbafilo (rough-skinned plum). Growing up, my grandma, mum, and I would toast, grind, and blend these spices from scratch, yielding a powder that's at once bitter, sweet, herby, and astringent. Now that I'm older, I buy a premade blend from a company in Warri that very closely resembles the one my grandmother used to make (and this, readers, is how I adult).
Pepper soup is the only traditional "drinking" soup in Nigeria, and though it is called pepper soup, its name hearkens more to its spiciness, for which "pepper" is the closest word in traditional Nigerian languages. Always welcome hot, I sometimes make a cold version, served in a mug, laced with honey and heady with fresh lime juice, perfect for hot weather. This spice blend is not only used for pepper soup but also for ukodo, a pottage based on pepper soup, thickened with yams, plantains, or other tubers.
I also love to fold it into softened salted butter for a spiced compound butter — perfect for slathering on toast, adding to vinaigrettes, or working into cookie, biscuit, and scone doughs. A pinch dashed into creamy desserts and caramels adds a touch of mystery and magic.
2. Unrefined Red Palm Oil
The oil expressed from the fleshy fruit of Elaeis guineensis (a native African palm) is slightly fermented, earthy, and subtly smoky in flavor, with a high smoke point and a strikingly bright orange color due to its high beta-carotene content. At room temperature, it is thick, like softened butter, turning molten with heat.
It is the base oil for most of my cooking and grounds most of my Nigerian soups and stews. I use it to toast nuts and seeds, sauté meats and greens, and perfume luscious vinaigrettes (especially with coconut milk). One of my favorite applications for this vibrant oil is in an enriched bread dough, like brioche, where it lends a saffron color and the flavors of soft smoke, paprika, and vegetal sweetness — think carrots, butternut squash, pumpkin. In Warri in the early 80s, there was a bakery called Mosheshe that offered loaves in this color; I don't think they used palm oil, but this is my tribute to that memory.
Look for organic unrefined red palm oil — I favor Nigerian or West African brands, particularly those from the east of Nigeria, where the finest palm oil comes from. Avoid refined versions, which are fractionated, stripped of the beta-carotene, and deodorized.
I'm not entirely sure how these came to be known as "crayfish," as they are not at all the same as the lobster's little cousin we call crayfish in North America. They are, in fact, brown and pink shrimp. Atlantic-caught, sun-dried, and sometimes seasoned and smoked, these little crustaceous creatures pack a big umami punch. As with many other dried, fermented seafood products, Nigerian crayfish are sold whole or ground and are bought as needed, for optimal freshness. They play a pivotal role in almost every Nigerian soup, from egusi and banga to "native Jollof rice" — think of it as a Nigerian paella, where these crayfish join red palm oil and dry fish, perfuming rice in an absolutely heavenly way.
One of my favorite (and one of the simplest) ways of satisfying a crayfish craving is to toast whole, dried crayfish in a dry pan until smoky, then add a pinch of salt, dry pepper, a splash of palm oil, and scent leaf (African basil). Steaming hunks of boiled yam or just-ripe plantain dipped into this oil is divine.
4. Dry Pepper
When Nigerian recipes call for dry pepper, they don't mean chili powder (which is often a blend of chile peppers plus cumin, oregano, and garlic, among other spices) or black or white peppercorns. Dry pepper is a finely ground blend of dried red chiles (often cayenne, but also bird's eye or other slim, red varieties). While it isn't the star of the show, its perky presence is required in almost everything Nigerian that I cook, from stewed beans to grills.
I like to sprinkle a touch over gently fried eggs in the morning — the pristine white becomes beautifully speckled. I welcome the hit of heat when dashed over instant noodles; I'll often combine it with equal parts Nigerian curry powder, dried thyme, and salt for a spice rub that's perfect for fish (especially tilapia).
5. Cassava: Garri & Abacha
Garri (also gari) is a cream-yellow, milled, and fermented flour of the starchy root vegetable cassava. It is available in most West African and Brazilian grocers, and appears in many different variations: of flavor (from regular to super fermented and sour), of texture (from super-fine to coarse), and of color (the intensity of yellow varying with the degree of palm oil added). If you've ever had Brazilian farofa, garri is simply an untoasted version.
Garri's applications are endless. I'll use the flour to crumb and crust proteins, much like cornmeal. Garri can also be gelatinized in boiled water and worked into eba — a soft dough that gets pinch, balled, spooned, and dipped into soups and stews. Or, simply mixed with water, sweetened or salted (or both, if you like), and topped with roasted groundnuts, kulikuli (peanut crackers), or fresh coconut. With a small handful of ice cubes, this is one of my favorite, most refreshing summery treats. Sometimes, I pack small zip-top bags of it in my holiday case, so a taste of home is kept close at all times.
Abacha is the other cassava product that I love — it's both an ingredient and a dish of the same name. To prepare the ingredient, fresh cassava is peeled, cooked, grated, fermented overnight, then sun-dried.
To make the dish, the abacha is rehydrated and tossed in a dressing called ncha — a sauce of emulsified palm oil, stockfish (dried salt cod), pomo (cow skin; think chicharrón but boiled, not fried), and scent leaf. Think of it as a delightful, multi-textured Nigerian slaw.
African salad is a dish where abacha meets ugba, a shredded fermented oil bean, also with a crunchy-chewy texture, along with garden eggs (similar to Thai eggplant), also tossed in ncha. I often rehydrate abacha in broths and soups, where it can lend body and texture.
One of the best things I ever created is an abacha and coconut salad, inspired by the vibrant flavors and colors of Nigerian street food. It features rehydrated abacha with grated coconut, sweet and hot peppers, herbs, lime juice, and zest, finished with toasted seeds and nuts.
6. Akaun (Potash)
Akaun is perhaps the most versatile pantry item on this list. It is one of several native and traditional alkaline salts used in Nigeria to season, tenderize, emulsify, thicken, preserve vibrancy in greens, as well as add nutritional value to food.
To prep the salt for use, pound it in a mortar, put the powder in a jar, and top it with water. Shake to combine well, then let the sediments fall. I'll then use this liquid — which functions very much like tenderizing, preserving lye water — in my cooking. These days, many people prefer to use baking soda, but I find nothing delivers the earthy flavors of ukodo like akaun.
Found in West African grocers or online, I keep this naturally occurring sodium- and potassium-rich salt around for making a dry fish condiment, like sardine pâté but with palm oil, pepper soup spice, dry pepper, and boiling water. I'll also stir a splash into red palm oil to make ncha, the emulsified sauce that gets tossed with abacha; to season my ukodo; and to increase the viscosity in ewedu, or jute leaves.
Hibiscus sabdariffa, or zobo, is an intensely hued, tart, edible flower that you can find in white, rose, and a deep purple-red hue. Sold dry in Nigeria, it's what I reach for when I'm craving a sweet drink. I toss a handful of rinsed flowers into a pot — along with water, a few coins of dried ginger, whole cloves, and a splash of vanilla. I bring this to a boil, then turn it off and let it steep. The resulting infusion poured over ice, cut with some ginger simple syrup, and topped with herbs (especially scent leaf) is my kind of sweet, aromatic, herby, and refreshingly tart treat. A zobo infusion also makes a mean base for sangria.
The infusion can also be used for poaching fruit — cherries, summer berries, rhubarb, apples, and pears are among my favorites — or reduce it down to a syrup, with your choice of sweetener, to drizzle over pancakes, waffles, or porridge. Don't discard the flowers after steeping: They are excellent torn into salads, or blended into both savory and sweet sauces.
And while my pantry is full of much more, these are the things that embody my taste of home — the buttery, floral, spicy, essence-of-the-sea ingredients I couldn't live without, whether cooking in Lagos or Mississauga. I hope you can see parallels between my pantry and yours, and that this inspires you to try Nigerian cuisine. Start with simple things — like making zobo, and trying pepper soup. Get some abacha and you'll be wowed by the deliciousness of the salad — I promise!
Like I do when I encounter new cuisines, I recommend reading about it — Yemisi Aribisala's book, "Longthroat Memoirs: Soups, Sex and Nigerian Taste Buds" is a gem! I also love Lopè Ariyo's Hibiscus for a contemporary take.
So much information is available online, but here are a few links to favorites of mine— beginning with my own 11-year-old blog, Kitchen Butterfly, where I map the intersections between Nigerian cuisine and foods of the world; document all aspects of Nigerian cuisines, particularly history and culture; explore ingredients; and reimagine recipes in the #NewNigerianKitchen.
Uzo of Uzo's Food Labs has an exceptional green thumb and is the queen of urban back gardens, encouraging everyone to "grow one thing." 9jaFoodie by Ronke and All Nigerian Recipes by Flo are a few essential Nigerian recipe sites that I refer to often. I also love Atim of Afrolems—she's an explorer, as is her mum, Iquo, of 1QFoodPlatter — an excellent repository of culinary knowledge. Nigerian cuisine is very plant-forward, and Affi does an excellent job of showcasing it on Plant Food Federation.
And that, my friends, is it.
In Nigeria, we welcome you to the table with the words "come and eat" — or in Igarra, my language, "va ri sa" — an invitation to exchange and fellowship.