Ozoz Sokoh: Establishing The New Nigerian Kitchen philosophy
“It’s the end of the world,” said the caterpillar. “It’s the beginning of the world,” said the butterfly. Like the butterfly, Ozoz Sokoh displays phenomenal hope that Nigeria’s and Africa’s culinary history, culture and practices will emerge from a mere cocoon and be transformed into butterfly potential. In the space of only a few weeks we have been awed not by beautiful words, but by action! First was a centre stage involvement at arguably the Food and Drinks fair of the year in Lagos, interspersed with an appetising trip to East Africa which we followed on her Instagram page and then finally she treated us to some rather imaginative culinary art creations at the Rele culinary art exhibition in Lagos, Nigeria.
Given all that, I was pretty confident I had a pretty good grasp of what makes Ozoz tick, but did I? Her passion for food policy in Nigeria and by extension Africa surprised me. She not only creates food to eat; she is equally keen on formulating the policies that gets the food to your table from the farm as well!
It is a privilege to have Ozoz Sokoh on and as you enjoy the interview below as much as I did, remember – You are also a butterfly waiting to happen!
Most people will know you as Ozoz Sokoh and will invariably associate you with the venerable blog, Kitchen Butterfly, what don’t people know about you that you wish they did?
I’m as normal as the next person…and human – a mixed bag of strengths and flaws and not at all the superhero some people think ☺.
As a trained geologist are there things you take from the processes and history of the earth into the way you view food?
Yes!!!! Everything ☺. I’m an Exploration geologist – tasked with finding deposits of valuable natural resources. Who I am, the approach to Exploration geology is who I am in life and so I draw many parallels. As an Explorer you have to be curious and creative in developing concepts. You have to use the past and what you know to predict what is now and what might be – going from known to unknown. There’s a step by step process to understanding the opportunity through to executing it. You test theories, document your findings and share to educate, and sometimes to receive challenge which helps you refine your theories. I go through all of these steps on my journey with food.
In addition, there are two things I’ve been exposed to as a geologist, in nature that teach me a lot about life and living:
The vastness of the earth. When I’m out in the field on study/ work trips, I’m stunned at the grandness of nature – mountains so tall, valleys so deep, the roar of the ocean; the world is huge. It reminds me that there’s room enough for everyone, so much possibility that I don’t need to fall into the ‘competition’ trap to flourish.
Braving new frontiers. One of the characteristics of a good Exploration geologist is the ability to envision future landscapes and opportunities. This is quite powerful in understanding what’s required ‘here and now’ but also what shapes the future. At the heart of this approach is creating awareness and building the foundation for the next phase. So I know what it is I’d like to accomplish with food – that knowledge guides me in my exploration and discovery of ingredients and techniques and ideas that are often ahead of their time.
Yam cake and beer pepper sauce as well as the Suya spiced garri crusted chicken Scotch eggs are two recipes that define the creativity you bring to traditional African recipes. Tell us about the inspiration behind your creations and the process of developing such recipes?
My approach to recipe development is often inspired, but quite measured and progressive – I tend to build on ideas. I’m never ever done with experimenting with one ingredient. Thankfully, food and its forgiving nature allows for this experimentation, making it possible for me to test and check. I think about colour, flavours, texture and presentation ☺.
What inspires me? Mostly, two things: one, memory – of things I’ve seen, remember tasting, read about, been told about… and two, what is available when cravings or inspiration strike☺.
My adventures with cooking with garri began from a memory of eating avocado with salt and dry garri as a child. Then a friend on Instagram mentioned using it in burgers instead of breadcrumbs which made me think of all the places where breadcrumbs were used…and seeking to ‘test’, verify this notion that garri could be an excellent replacement. And it does in such an awesome way.
When I made the yam cake, I was thinking about Spanish tortilla which both you (our version) and I (Ozoz’s version) have made before. But, I had only mashed yam. I thought it would be nice to have some crunch, to contrast with the soft, mashed…and so, I ended up crusting with garri and it was delish.
When I think of Michael Jackson I think “Thriller” and Chinua Achebe I think “Things fall apart”. When I think of Kitchen Butterfly I think Agbalumo! Tell us about this dance with Agbalumo as the rest of us, mere mortals, look on with envy as you two waltz away?
Ha ha. Agbalumo, the African (White) star apple is one of my favourite seasonal fruits, a variety of the star apple also common in South East Asia and South America. Our dance is a tribute to its amazingness and my belief that it should transcend just eating out of hand. It has so much flavour and character that most people hadn’t given much thought to drawing out till I began my weird and wonderful experiments.
I’m fascinated by ingredients and produce – understanding them, testing the range of possibilities and documenting the process and results.
I think Nigerian, and various African cuisines need to be properly catalogued – how tos, when tos and whys. This is the philosophy of The New Nigerian Kitchen.
With Agbalumo, I was taken and tried everything from drinks to dessert, not without backlash though.
Some people thought I was ‘reaching’ too far out of the box. At first, I was upset. ‘Couldn’t they see what I was trying to accomplish?’ but then I realized that not everyone will share your vision because not everyone has the understanding of who you are, where you’re coming from and why you’re doing the things you are. And you know what? That’s perfectly fine.
Truth is as long as I’m buying the fruit, investing my time and energy into doing the things I do – and the other person isn’t – I reserve the right to explore how I will.
The seasonal nature of the fruit also gives me focus and encourages me to try all sorts with it in the limited period it is available. My aim is about testing the boundaries, discovering the possibilities with the full realization that there will be successes and failures.
Interestingly, Agbalumo is also called cherry probably because its flavours are reminiscent of sour cherries. Using that as a trigger, I’ve studied sour cherries a bit more to see where I can draw parallels with Agbalumo.
I also think of products, developing some that capture the very essence of the fruit. I remember how I longed for Agbalumo when I lived in Liverpool in the late 90s. Each time I came home, I’d gorge myself on the fruit and bring a few back with me. They were never enough and that is strong motivation to preserved Agbalumo products, a taste of which might comfort a homesick Nigerian somewhere.
So yes, Agbalumo and I are destined to dance together, a little bit longer.
You were part of a select few to participate in an immensely successful food and drink festival in Lagos recently. Tell us about the event and to what extent does it change the food scene in Lagos and Nigeria?
The GT Bank Food and Drink Fair brought an eclectic mix of people together over two days that was part cooking class/ show, part superstore and part restaurant. It was grand and well executed.
There has always been a food scene in Nigeria. What I see that has changed is the understanding that food, Nigerian food is worthy of celebration, worthy of being showcased. For me, that has always been my approach so it’s nice to see this recognition come through on the scale it has.
Part of the celebration is sharing what I know and have learned, testing ideas, teaching techniques, trying new combinations and all the other varied expressions of food which encourage and inspire. A huge job well done for the GT Bank team – I was honoured to be a part of it.
The Culinary Arts aren’t often associated with the variety of African cuisines we have. Tell us about the trailblazing culinary art exhibition at the ReLe Gallery and how important culinary art is to you?
The ability to transform food and show it in novel ways is part of what intrigues and will forever intrigue me about it. Culinary arts as a way of expression, of telling food stories, of tracking our journey, how far we’ve come, where we’re headed is beautiful because historically, this hasn’t been our approach, this celebration of food.
I enjoy integration and collaboration so I found this coming together of Technology (powered by Samsung and the S7 Edge which was used to take all the photos in the exhibition), Photography, Food and Art interesting.
I’m so taken in with the fact that ‘food is more than eating’. It has such varied expressions that using the plate as a canvas, as a template to tell everyday stories, about life and living is as awesome as it gets. This is the heart of my ‘New Nigerian Kitchen’ philosophy – celebrating Nigerian cuisine in its entirety: history, culture, tradition and the transcendence of tradition (slave trade and the development of Afro-‘other’ cuisines lends credence to this), heritage, presentation and more.
If President Buhari were to knock on your door to ask you to contribute to food policy in Nigeria, what three areas would you talk to him about?
Oh. My. Word – my dream. First of, I would be incredibly honoured and would think he had made the right decision as this is something I’ve thought long and hard about. And while I know thinking is no match for reality, I’m prepared. So three areas? Here they are:
a) Establishing a Community of Practice to improve Research Capacity. I would love to build a network of practitioners, thought leaders, mentors and colleagues who elevate conversations around agriculture and further our Research Capacity to deliver a coordinated communication plan.
One of my biggest concerns is that Africa has the lowest research capacity in the world at 70 researchers/ million people, compared with North America’s 2600 researchers for the same population. Source Sara Menker.
— Sara Menker (@SaraMenker) October 28, 2013
Change is impossible without quality controlled and assured data because data allows you to define the scope, understand the issues and estimate the resources needed to develop solutions that drive socio-economic progress in all sectors.
African governments must come together to develop frameworks that strengthen the link between research and policy. We must begin with a coordinated plan – built with the involvement of the people, for the people and by the people – across the entire length of the value chain, from defining research priorities for the short-, medium- and long-term to execution and implementation. This will change the ‘current’ (and largely) reactive approach to one that’s more sustained.
The development of data repositories that provide an open, public platform for reference is crucial. Great work is being done in a few research institutes and study centres yet most of that information never makes its way into the public domain where the potential impact for educating and informing a populace is huge.
Having a clear communication plan from the start will be to our advantage. If our aim in establishing data repositories is to document, validate, regulate and integrate research, then our communications plan must be to share the results of these studies, effectively and efficiently. These plans are about creating awareness – simplifying complex scientific findings into nuggets of information that educate the masses. A good communications plan will also support public and private funding. The potential reach is huge, taking advantage of the ‘digital age’ and social media tools like blogging.
Education is key. I propose that ‘Research Skills’ are integrated, as a distinct subject in school curricula from primary through to tertiary levels. The focus here is on developing critical thinking & analytical skills starting in the early years to encourage curiosity and experimentation which can be harnessed and supported by practical, hands-on experience at higher levels. This will set a solid foundation for future efforts that integrate research, development and implementation.
My personal passion is to establish an African Food Repository that documents our culinary history, culture and practices; one that links our varied cuisines to agriculture, health & nutrition with the key aim of bridging the gap between theory and practice.
b) Contribute to food security through agricultural extension, advocacy and mentorship. I would love to work with farmers to improve crop yield with better quality/ non genetically modified seeds, natural fertilizers, planting techniques and technology. I am keen on progressing farmer & consumer education through radio programs and pilot projects – from planting, making the best of seasonal produce, preservation & storage; health & nutrition to business skills. It would be a great opportunity to apply my experience teaching Adult Education classes and passion for developing people.
I would also love to find coaches and mentors to grow my business skills in managing small and medium-sized enterprises. I would establish strong links with relevant Educational studies teams, Councils on African Studies and Sustainable Food Projects. My vision in the long-term is to encourage a sustainable, subsistence farming culture across Nigeria and sub-Saharan Africa, for progressive growth.
c) ‘Reducing Food Waste’, particularly post-harvest. My approach has two strands:
• developing community-supported-agriculture (CSA) programs. This is a great opportunity to reduce food waste in the growth region, grow local volunteering efforts, strengthen the local food economy and make a difference to an industry which nourishes and sustains us
• create awareness of importance and teach preservation – whether solar, oven dehydration or other methods. There are a few ways I’d like to address this across the value chain. Step 1 is education, of farmers, transporters and marketers and consumers who at various points suffer these losses.
A case in point – hot, yellow chilies are quite common in Nigeria where they are known as Cameroun peppers. They are available fresh, in season and dried all year round. In Nsukka, in the east of Nigeria, we also grow these peppers…yet, we don’t dry the excess produce.
I imagine markets with a cooperative solar dehydrator where excess produce is dried and sold alongside fresh. Sellers would understand the varied uses of these preserved products and would be able to teach consumers and buyers – it is already common practice for sellers to ‘school’ the public on what and how. I personally don’t know how many recipes I’ve learned from a market woman. Here too, a strong communications campaign across a variety of platforms is required. One additional personal research project would be focused on tropicalized equipment for preservation.
So there, Mr. President and Minister of Agriculture, this is my plan, my desire. And you know what, I’m going to try my best to share these ideas with you.
Part 2: Ozoz Sokoh: On Lagos and engaging with travel and food culture in East Africa