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An Ode to Heritage Through Food with Afro Vegan

An Ode to Heritage Through Food with Afro Vegan

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Zoe Alakija is a British-Nigerian cookery writer and art director, and she is the author of the brand new cookbook Afro Vegan: Family recipes from a British-Nigerian kitchen. As co-founder of Roundtable Journal: an annual print magazine and community for women, she is passionate about sharing authentic and diverse cuisines with a global audience and draws heavily on her heritage and upbringing.

We spoke exclusively to Zoe about her new book, Afro Vegan, the inspiration behind writing the cookbook, her favourite recipes and lessons she has learned while celebrating her unique culture.

How important do you see Afro Vegan, the cookbook, in the broader community of vegan cooking and showing off cuisines from other countries?

It is essential that we give space in the food industry to cuisines from all countries and that the cuisine shared is authentic and connected to the author. It was so important to me to share not only these dishes but my personal connection to them. There’s genuinely such a great diversity of styles within the Nigerian cuisine, and I’m so thankful to have had the opportunity to share my British-Nigerian family’s take on these. I know it has meant a lot to my family and friends in Ibadan to see the food we grew up with presented in this way.

Books like this need to exist to show the cuisines’ adaptability to vegan dishes and show the great diversity and depth of Nigerian cooking.

Nigeria is such a large and diverse country, and like many others, its cuisine sways, influenced by its specific regions. Fresh red palm oil floods into the cuisine of the southern states, from Akwa Ibom to Edo. In Kano and the other Northern states, traditional food surrounds millet, corn and other grains. This region is also known for its cattle, which the nomadic Folani people herd, and in turn, naturally, the Northern cuisine tends to feature beef. These dishes range from Miyan Kuka (a spicy draw-soup, otherwise known as Baobab Leaf Soup) to Tuwon Dawa, a side dish with a texture almost reminiscent of potato gnocchi, formed from cassava and guinea-corn. Scattered across Nigeria’s coastal regions (such as Delta, Cross-river, or Lagos), the dishes feature fresh fish, more than the standard sprinkle of ground crayfish, which features quite heavily in most vegetarian-appearing Nigerian dishes. However, the hard work of the cooking, or the “magic” as we call it in the book, is rarely wholly due to meat or dairy.

We hope this book gives those home in Nigeria or abroad a taste of home whilst making it easier to cook good vegan food. You shouldn’t have to choose between your beliefs as a vegan and the food of your home.

Some other divine foodies that also share vegan West African recipes are @thecanadianafrican, @vegannigerian, @zoeadjonyoh, @yewande_komolafeItan (Nigerian), @michael__elegbede, and @kitchenbutterfly. I adored creating this book and showing the different ways to incorporate Nigerian ingredients, tastes and recipes into more modern vegan dishes.

Courtesy of Zoe Alakija

It’s so wonderful to read about your fond memories of smelling the plantains on the BBQ and your aunties laughing at your European mother getting her tight cornrows. How important was it for you to include these anecdotes?

This book was originally a much larger text that we had to, quite difficulty, trim down to fit into the book. It wasn’t easy to write as that was such a special time for me. For me, this is one of the most important pages. It sets the scene and introduces the reader to the world that created this book. This book does not necessarily belong to any distinct cuisine; it is a brief peek into the culturally diverse community in Ibadan. It was quite difficult for me to put into words what made my home feel like home. Sharing these anecdotes helped do just that. Moments closest to my heart took place underneath our thatched-roof cabana, in our bushy garden, around a large poolside table with our extended family and friends. I live in London, far away from home, with my cheeky bulldog, Nala.

Naturally, and especially during this last year, I’ve missed home abundantly. These recipes are the perfect antidote to that homesickness. When you feel shakily disconnected from your family, culture, and home, the gist of it is to immerse yourself in food. Writing this book was almost like writing a love letter to Ibadan, my home, and my cherished upbringing. Sharing quite intimate family photos and stories was a way to give context to my experience of life at home in Ibadan and show where this food comes from.

*(I should probably note, though, that I think you may be referring to my sisters and I getting cornrows- my extremely British mom wouldn’t get these! However, she used to take us there, where we would get ‘the cockroach’ style, which looks quite a lot better than it sounds!)

You say that your time in London influenced your cooking, too. Can you give us an example of this?

In the book, I refer to this as an ‘ultra modern’ cooking style compared to the more ancient, traditional food of Nigerian cuisine. Dishes that are slightly faster to whip up, trendy or abundant in a way. Another influence that stemmed from living in London has been just being around a different combination of cultures.

In London, we are at the heart of an extensive cultural exchange, and you’re meeting multicultural people and eating multicultural food every single day.

I remember being quite confused when reaching university, as there was only one British student in my entire class, and the rest were from almost every far-flung corner of the globe. Lastly, of course, access to new vegan ingredients like oat milk or vegan chocolate chips has also been a game-changer. I have never seen a vegan branded product in Ibadan, but Lagos is slightly better at stocking these.

From a culture that boasts lots of meat-heavy dishes, how did your family meet your newfound veganism?

My twin brother, Carl, has a farm in the South West called Durante, which amongst other things, produces poultry. He loves his meat and is a die-hard Nigerian foodie. To him, a plate of Jollof is not complete without heavy chunks of meat, and the veggie suya was just a non-starter. I managed to get him hooked on my suya roasted chickpeas as a bar snack but getting him to try the rest is still a work in progress!

My younger sister pretty much eats the same way I do, and my mom isn’t really a huge meat eater, so she loves the food I cook too. Whilst calling myself a vegan is relatively new, I’ve been vegetarian for most of my life, so it hasn’t been too hard of a shift. Although most of the food shared in the book is naturally vegan, like the puff puff or dodo, so it wasn’t a huge strain.

What has been your favourite childhood dish that you’ve veganised?

Hands down, the groundnut stew (page 36 of Afro Vegan). We had this so often growing up, but my mom would prepare it with chicken, which, in all fairness, does taste really, really great (I should probably not be saying that!). I did (to my parent’s dismay) use to kick up a fit because I used to flitter between liking and hating meat as a kid. And in true fuss-pot fashion, I did not like meat touching my food; god forbid actually having it stewed in.

However, I loved this stew so much; the exuberance, spice, flavour, and texture are so hearty and packed with so much flavour. So I Zoe’d it up a bit by incorporating chunky sweet potatoes, removing the meat, swapping out the chicken stock for vegetable stock, and adding loads of crispy toppings, so nothing is lacking in the texture department. It is one of my favourite dishes, and I make it almost every time it rains, and I need some cheering up.

Courtesy of Zoe Alakija

How did you find the process of writing the Afro Vegan cookbook?

I work on Roundtable Journal, which I co-founded back in 2017, and I thought the process would be similar, but it was completely different, especially as I was creating the content instead of helping curate it. I’ve never studied recipe development or photography, so it was a new experience for me.

I had worked on this book as a concept during my final year at UCL and ended up writing, shooting and designing a draft which I then got printed and bound. I sent Hoxton Mini Press a 30-page introductory file, closed my laptop and went on holiday to Lagos. I didn’t approach other publishers as, although they had never done a recipe book, I thought they would be the best fit. However, a few months later, they reached out, so I met up with their team at their book-adorned office, along with my draft copy, and we went from there. After that, COVID hit, so we developed the idea over Zoom for Afro Vegan, which was tricky too.

What are your three best pieces of advice for anyone looking to write and publish their cookbook?

Firstly I would say just go for it and be willing to allow aspects of your book to change. I learnt a lot on the go and worked closely with so many people, from Dani, the designer at Hoxton Mini Press to Emily, the recipe tester and Harry, the editor. So the book I started with and the book we published are entirely different but different for the better.

Secondly, imposter syndrome can be very real; it can sometimes be quite an intimidating experience, but have faith in your work, and the rest will follow.

Thirdly, it really does take a village. You’re only as good as the team you work with, so make sure you’ve found the best publishing team for you that don’t just understand your vision for the book but are excited about seeing it come to fruition, that will support and encourage you along the way.

How has social media impacted your relationship with food, how you share it with the world and how you’ve been able to celebrate Afro Vegan, the book?

Social media is a fantastic tool for sharing new foods, projects and ideas. I get slightly emotional every time a new reader tags me in a story or shows me a photo of a recipe they cooked from the book. As the book launched, whilst there were still harsh COVID restrictions in place, we relied on social media as it allowed us to share and celebrate the book in a way that otherwise, we just wouldn’t have been able to.

It’s an easy way to instantly test ideas and share with like-minded people, which is vital, and I’ve been overwhelmed by the support and lovely messages I’ve received in the last few weeks following the book launch in the UK. I’m slowly getting better at sharing more of the food I create online, so definitely stay tuned for more goodies coming your way!

Courtesy of Zoe Alakija

Favourite Afro Vegan ingredients

  1. Maggie Seasoning cubes – Sadly, the best things in life are rarely good for you. But these cubes are so flavourful. I add them into almost anything savoury, from rice dishes to stews or soups, and have a mammoth-sized jar full of them at home.
  2. Scotch Bonnets (Rodo) – I can’t always find these around me in London, so I often buy these in bulk, chop them up finely and keep them fresh by scooping them into ice cube trays (1 or ½ a pepper in each to keep the measurements for later on), fill them up with any oil of choice and freeze them. Then, whenever a recipe calls for a pepper, and I’m out of luck (or too lazy to find them fresh), I tip 1-2 cubes into my pan or pot. If you’re not able to track them down, you can use habanero chillies instead. I would recommend wearing gloves when preparing Scotch bonnets and definitely avoiding touching your eyes or mouth (I’ve been a victim of making this mistake).
  3. Plantain – I have these green for chips or crisps, yellow for dodo, salads or stews, or black baking, or whenever you need them quite sweet and caramelly; plantains are probably my most used ingredient and a definite staple in West African cooking. Also, do not substitute with bananas, they may look similar, but they are entirely different. And if you’re like me and you hate bananas, you can still love plantain.
  4. Coconut – I use coconuts in all their many forms, in both sweet and savoury cooking. I love toasting desiccated coconut or coconut flakes and scattering over ice cream or cakes, using coconut oil to flavour my dodo, or following my aunt Keffi’s recipe by slicing it up and roasting to make spicy, fresh coconut chips. Or even just cracking open and prying out the flesh to eat straight up.

If you had to pick just three recipes from the book to cook for friends and family, what would they be?

As it is summer, I’m making a lot of salads and snacks. So, I would make the plantain salad Imoyo, cheesy Kokoro, and then substitute plantains with bananas; definitely, I could not resist that urge for cinnamon puff-puff for something sweet.

Take a look at 3 of Zoe’s favourite recipes from Afro Vegan (the plantain salad Imoyo, cheesy kokoro, and the cinnamon puff-puff) in the July-August issue of the Creative Impact Digital Magazine.

You can find out more about Zoe Alakija on her website and her social media accounts.

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