When she returned to Lagos in 2010 after living and working abroad, Affiong Osuchukwu noticed that much of the Nigerian food she cherished had become meat-centric. Although the essence of the dishes hadn’t changed, they seemed to be her meatier.
“I never remembered a pot of soup containing as much meat and fish as I see today,” she said. “My running joke is ‘Where’s the soup in the soup?’ Because I only see animal parts. The soup is not there.”
Ms. Osuchukwu runs Plant Food Federation, a website focused on plant-based approaches to Nigerian cuisine, and she is one of several chefs in West Africa and the diaspora exploring the vegan experience in a culture that adheres to certain ideas about food. She’s also part of a growing number of people trying to face the misconception that it’s difficult — and even limiting — to follow a meatless diet with West African ingredients.
On the contrary, Ms Osuchukwu, who is originally from Calabar, in southern Nigeria, said there are many ingredients available across the country that can be used to adapt traditional dishes to a plant-based diet, such as sliced ugba, a fermented oil. bean seed, which intervenes for dried and smoked fish in native rice and in abacha, a salad of grated cassava, red palm oil and fresh herbs.
“People always ask me how I deal with being vegan or plant-based in Nigeria because they think we don’t have food diversity here,” she said, “and I always look at them like, ‘No, actually we have more food diversity locally, here , than in many different parts of the world.’ ”
West Africans are passionate about making adjustments to their dishes. New approaches are questioned and traditional ways of making beloved recipes are championed. But in these recipes, plant-based ingredients don’t just replace meat; they reveal new paths to familiar flavors.
Removing animal products from recipes such as moin moin, steamed bean cakes that can be packed with meat, fish, or eggs (sometimes all three), and often served during holiday celebrations; gizdodo, a dish of chicken stomach and plantain; and kontomire stew, a melon seed soup made with coconut leaves, hasn’t created the kind of culinary gorge you could imagine.
Moin moin, for example, does not require the addition of animal products that have become ubiquitous in Lagos. (“The Nigerian Cookbook” by HO Anthonio and M. Isoun, published in 1982, includes a plant-based recipe.) Mushrooms can go into many dishes, hitting the same notes you’d find in a meat-based recipe. Lemongrass, coconut, cassava and seasonal fruits are native ingredients in many parts of West Africa, and they shine in a lemongrass tapioca.
Afia Amoako, who posts on Instagram and TikTok as @thecanadianafrican, said something that resonated with the recipe developer in me: There is no one-size-fits-all recipe for many traditional dishes. There are only standard methods, ways of building and layering flavor, techniques that produce a familiar result.
“We all know how incredibly protective their food is for West African people, but we sometimes forget that everyone does it differently in their own household,” she said.
When Ms. Amoako, a Ghanaian PhD student living in Toronto, went vegan about six years ago, her family and friends wondered how this would change her relationship with the foods she grew up in — foods her parents ate daily.
She says it has helped her get in touch with a more traditional way of eating.
“My mom has been kind enough to help me make many of my dishes vegan,” said Ms. Amoako. “She’ll say, ‘Okay, let’s take out what we did in the village, because that’s how you eat.'”
Her social media platforms have become robust forums to discuss what it means to adapt everyday Ghanaian dishes to a plant-based diet.
“My work on my platforms is a reminder to fellow Ghanaians that being vegan doesn’t mean losing or giving up on your culture,” Ms Amoako said.
She even sees a harmony between exploring the continent’s history and customizing her cuisine.
“The ways we did it before,” she said, “sustainability was built in.”
Fatmata Binta, a Fulani chef from Ghana, has also found that harmony.
She explores the plant-based foundation of Fulani cuisine through her dinner series, Fulani Kitchen, which was inspired by her visits to Fulani settlements across Ghana.
She says most people assume the cuisine is meat-centric, because of the Fulani people’s relationship with livestock. But, she says, “livestock is a matter for the Fulani people” — the meat is usually sold in markets and is a central source of income for the community.
Although Ms. Binta is not vegan, she notes that plant-based foods suits a more traditional way of life.
“Our nomadic lifestyle requires that we mostly travel with non-perishable and preserved foods,” she said. “Grains, legumes, potatoes and sun-dried ingredients make up the bulk of our diet.”
During the pandemic, unable to travel easily, she started finding ingredients at the Nima Market in Ghana, where Fulani and Hausa traders would sell ingredients, and foraged locally in and around Aburi. “I discovered so many local ingredients through foraging and I can work with the ingredients when they are at their best,” she said. “It’s so inspiring and therapeutic.”
For some West African chefs in the diaspora, adopting vegetarian interpretations of their cuisine has led to other forms of self-reflection.
Using the pronouns he and she, Salimatu Amabebe directs Black Feast, a Bay Area dinner series that incorporates the work of black artists and musicians, and centers the black experience through a vegetal lens. He also wants to merge two culinary identities: as a young man in the United States, where his Nigerian father’s cooking was central to everyday life, and as a professional chef. The dinners are set up at a sliding rate, making them financially accessible. For Mr Amabebe it was a step towards inclusivity – something he says he didn’t feel within the wider vegan community.
mr. Amabebe ate vegan for 13 years, but said identifying as vegan felt unfair. The term “vegan,” he said, is “used to market people food.”
“I have a hard time using Western food terms to describe Nigerian cuisine, even if the dishes are traditional like that,” he said, adding, “The West African food I know is very much about sharing with family. and community, rather than mass marketing.”
“Putting ‘vegan’ and ‘Nigerian cuisine’ together feels a bit like I’m doing something consciously,” he said. “I would like to find words or phrases that feel true, or easier on my soul.”
In fact, all the people I spoke to said that the word ‘vegan’ doesn’t easily apply to West African foodways, and the way they are discussed.
Ms. Osuchukwu often uses terms like ‘vegetable’, ‘vegetable vegan’ or sometimes even ‘vegetarian’. She says she will tell people she is a vegetarian “because they understand ‘vegetarian’.”
She added: “I don’t really like to use the word ‘vegan’ to be honest no matter where I am. I feel that ‘vegetable’ is a better description of our food.”
Regardless of the terms they use to describe their diet, these four West Africans tell a story with many chapters and figure out their place in the world.
“I base my diet on the history of cooking in my family,” said Ms. Amoako. “I just live the way my grandparents and my parents lived.”
For Mr. Amabebe it is more about his own journey. “With a background of working in kitchens run by white chefs, where there is a specific style of consistency around fine dining, the process of cooking Nigerian dishes brings me back home,” said Mr. Amabebe, who believes that Nigerian home cooking style and ingredients shine.
“The food changes you. You can’t help but change your mind about how you do things. Those ingredients talk to you.”
Recipes: Moin Moin (Steamed Bean Cakes) | Roasted Mushrooms in Ata Din Din | Coconut lemongrass tapioca with caramelized citrus