Saturday, August 27, 2016

Nigerian Food in Peckham

Last week's exploration of okra inspired me to do a series on West African cooking.  I decided to start with Africa's most populous country: Nigeria.  Culturally it is home to over 180 million people, more than 250 ethnic groups (the largest and politically influential are the Igbo, Yoruba and Hausa), and a varied, rich cuisine.   One of the best-known dishes from Nigeria -- and particularly the Lagos region -- is jollof rice.  It has become identified with West Africa in general, with different countries putting their own twist on it. I decided to start the series with this famous dish.

It was clear to me that I needed to try Nigerian food before attempting to make jollof rice. In preparation for my adventure, I did a Google search: "Nigerian neighborhoods London."  The first entry was a website,, that featured an article entitled "Top Ten Nigerian Neighborhoods in London," with Peckham listed as the first one. In my enthusiasm, I forgot to use the "plan your journey"  feature on the Transport for London website. I could've looked it up on my cell phone but I didn't. That was ok, though; at my train station I spotted a rail employee whom I just knew was of African descent (based on her accent).  I asked her how to get to Peckham and she said, "Take the train to Clapham junction and change for the overground to Peckham Rye." She touched my arm and gently pushed me in the direction of Platform 1. I smiled, not offended by her incursion into my personal space.

My son and I arrived in Peckham, curious about what the neighborhood would be like.  Like Brixton, gentrification was in evidence, though not nearly as advanced. 

I walked down the main street, passing black hair care stores, supermarkets selling the foods of West Africa (lots of okra, Scotch bonnet peppers, ground fish, stockfish, palm oil, etc.) and the Caribbean, and other shops. My eye was first caught by Cafe Spice, a cafeteria-style eatery selling Nigerian food.  I had committed to eating at Lolak, but took the opportunity to ask the owner at Cafe Spice whether I could come back and do an interview with the cook about jollof rice.  With a positive response in hand, Brooks and I went to Lolak, located at 38 Choumert Rd, London SE15 4SE.

Lolak feels less like a restaurant than an extension of someone's home kitchen. There is not much space, the tables are close together, and the lighting isn't great. We ignored all of that!  We weren't there for atmosphere, but to taste home-cooked Nigerian food.  I asked the waiter whether I could do a bit of filming and he referred me to Said, who would return after making prayer at the nearby mosque.  Upon his return, I explained to him what I wanted to do and he was amenable. He told us about various items on the extensive menu. I chose ego riro (stew made with spinach, tomatoes, onion, and some kind of smoked fish), fried fish and rice, while Brooks chose Egusi soup (made with pumpkin seeds, tomatoes, hot peppers, onion, vegetables, peanut oil, and seasonings) with beef.

Brooks commented that he had never eaten fufu when we lived in Liberia, so he opted for this mound of pounded cassava, best eaten with one's fingers.

Between discussions about various dishes, we talked about where we were from.  Said was from northern Nigeria.  When he asked us about our African ancestry, Brooks told him with pride that a family member had traced our heritage to the area now known as Ghana.  My son also let Said know about our Virginia, New York and in his case, Boston heritage. Said was amused.

It didn't take long for the food to arrive. Brooks initially seemed to enjoy eating the fufu. 

After a few bites, Brooks decided that he didn't actually like it and asked for some of my rice.   I had enough to easily feed three people, so sharing wasn't an issue. He was pretty excited about the finger bowls that accompanied the food and made a point of cleaning his hands numerous times.

His Egusi stew was very flavorful and hot from the pepper. After a few minutes of fighting the burning sensation in his mouth, Brooks gave up! He enjoyed the stew, but just couldn't manage the heat. My efo riro was a a tad bit on the salty side but was delicious and very hot, which I quite liked. 

It was a nice complement to the red bream, which was fried to perfection before being smothered in a tomato (and, I suspect, palm oil) sauce that was spiced with chili pepper. My guess is that Scotch bonnet pepper was used, as this seems to be the most common hot pepper sold in the area.  (I'm certain that it is no coincidence that Jamaican and Haitian cuisines feature Scotch bonnet pepper, given the movement of slaves from West Africa to the Caribbean.) 

We thanked Said for his time and tutorial, paid the bill, and then found our way back to Cafe Spice.  As we walked to the main street, I noticed that next to Lolak there was a hipster cafe that looked out of place with the rest of the mom and pop shops selling goods catering to the area's African population.  I told Brooks, "This place will look like Brixton in about five years." He responded with a question: "Where will the Africans go?" (Remember his question a few weeks ago about the fate of the okra?) I had the same question. My social scientist's training would not allow me to not see the signs of gentrification, as well as other inter-ethnic dynamics that seemed to characterize the neighborhood.

We walked back to Cafe Spice

and asked about all the dishes in the warming trays, even though my focus was jollof rice. 

Jennifer explained that Nigerians near the coast add fish to their jollof rice, while those inland add meat or poultry.  Our conversation caught the attention of Elizabeth, a woman who made her contribution to the discussion by informing me that Nigeria is the originator of jollof rice. She said that she was the daughter of a former Nigerian ambassador and was accustomed to putting on programs about Nigeria's various foods and cultures.  

We left Peckham less ignorant about Nigerian cuisine than we were when we boarded the overground. I know that I haven't even scratched the surface.  I will return to Peckham to eat more of this West African nation's rich, highly seasoned food.  I was impressed not just by the food but by the rightful pride that Nigerians take in it.

No comments:

Post a Comment