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Ozoz Sokoh: I make sense of the world through food

Ozoz Sokoh is the brain behind the Kitchenbutterfly brand. In this online conversation with Pelu Awofeso, she talks about the inspiration for her current exhibition on Nigerian food at the Alliance Francaise (open until 13 August). She also names potential contenders for the position Jollof Rice in Nigeria’s 

Pelu Awofeso: You describe yourself somewhere as a food explorer. On your website, the phrase you use is “I’m a traveller, by plate”. Being a traveller myself, I find that quite interesting. Just exactly what do you mean?

Ozoz Sokoh: I make sense of the world through food, finding all the ways we’re similar in spite of our obvious differences. So many aspects of eating and food culture are fundamental to human beings, not just Nigerians or South Americans. Take ‘bottom-pot’ (the sweet, toasty, smoky layer lining many pots). It’s treasured in countries from Nigeria to Korea. Understanding these connections helps me navigate the world a bit better 

PA: I visited your current exhibition focused on Nigerian food. Very impressive — what was the inspiration and what did you plan to achieve with it?

OS: I am inspired by the abundance and diversity in Nigerian produce and products. I wanted Nigerians to see that we have a lot, and that though we often focus on a few things, there’s a whole lot to explore

PA: Obviously, you have had to do a lot of research to put up the exhibition. Could you let us in on the process of that and how long reading and digging you and your partners on the project had to do?

OS: To be honest, it took a few days. This is what we live and breathe and we’re constantly working on different showcases so it didn’t take a lot of time.

PA: I couldn’t help noticing that there is a literary aspect to the exhibition. I saw cookbooks and recipes sheets perfectly complementing the main exhibits. And there is even a Chimamanda Adichie novel, where the word ‘jollof rice’ is highlighted. Why did you think it was necessary to connect literature and food? 

OS: Books are amazing in not only what they do for culinary heritage and what gets preserved, they’re also paths to discovery for people not familiar with the culture. I have learnt so much about foods of the world and food culture because of the words that have been shared with me. Food is important to Nigerians and it gives me joy to see much that’s familiar rooted in our stories. I also hope that some of the changes that are happening in Nigerian cuisine find  space in new stories, and map the course of change. 

PA: The title to the exhibition’s introduction is “Food is more than eating”: I found that striking — what’s your point here? 

OS: ‘Food is more than eating’ – it’s history, culture, agriculture, politics, economics. It’s emotional. It’s how we socialise, make peace, cause wars, it’s belly and soul. Everything that is on the plate is a key to a bigger system of things whether that’s cassava and ‘exchange’ through slave trade and return of the enslaved who brought back knowledge of processing techniques or Samosa in Nigerian small chops because how does an Indian delicacy find a loving home in Nigeria if not from early alliances and military coalitions. Does this make sense? 

PA: I guess it does. A section of the exhibition is devoted to jollof rice and its ingredients. In the introduction, you say no Nigerian celebration is complete without it. Seeing that there is plenty of variety in Nigeria with regards to food — as the exhibition clearly shows– If you were to propose a replacement (or an alternative, if you please) to jollof rice, what would it be? 

OS: Ha ha, white rice and stew, and that could be Abakaliki rice and tomato stew or fermented Ofada rice and it’s signature accompaniment of designer stew or Masa (rice pancakes) and Miyan taushe or white rice and Ofe Akwu, or palm nut sauce. Shall I go on? White rice and correct fish pepper soup.

PA: It’s rare to have Nigerians pour into exhibitions. But everyone who has seen your current food exhibition at the Alliance Francaise is going loving it. How does that make you feel?

OS: It feels me with joy. Because we get it – that our food is amazing, that there’s a lot we have and still don’t know, that yes, there are challenges but still there are opportunities. We get it and that’s the best thing ever. To create something and let it speak for itself. 

PA: There is a whole section of the room devoted to the oils of Nigeria. I didn’t realise the country had that much variety in cooking oils. How many did you identify altogether?

OS: We have so many! (Organic) Palm oil, ororo (vegetable oil) , 2 types of coconut oil, palm kernel oil, epo gbigba (bleached palm oil),  ogbono, soya, groundnut, Kuli Kuli (spiced groundnut), Robo (melon seed), Maishanu (cow butter), Atili (African Black olive), Ube(African butter pear), sesame – that’s 15 in the exhibition. And that’s not all. I’ve recently added two to my collection that aren’t up: tigernut and baobab, both cold pressed and processed in the north of Nigeria. And I know of a few more like black walnut and cotton seed.

PA: One of the most telling parts of the exhibition is the food map, if I can call it that: where you have samples of different food and cash crops (coffee, tea, millet, corn, soya beans, etc) pinned to the states where they are mostly grown. Would you say the states are making the most of these produce unique to their corner of the country?

OS: I honestly don’t know since I haven’t visited all of them. As a whole across the country, I’d say we still need to develop more use cases for these crops whether that’s through cooking or through processing for various needs. 

PA: As a country, what should we be doing with Nigerian cuisine that we are not yet doing? 

OS: Establishing standards that govern food production and processing. Working on a culinary gastronomy program that supports expansion of Nigerian cuisine across the world. Developing food programs across a range of sectors including content creation

PA: I consider the art of travel as a force for unifying humanity. Do you think food can play the same role? How, if yes?

OS: Oh yes, food is perhaps one of the easiest mediums for exploring the world. Re question #1. It’s because of this I know myself as a traveller, by plate. Because of puff puff, I know about Dutch oliebollen which is similar though commonly sold at Christmas and during fairs, unlike puff puff which is available all year round. If we find these commonalities and set them as denominators, we already have foundations to build on, things that make us open to learning more. I read up on a place and its food before I go there, whether it’s next door or across the world. It’s my foot in the door and it tends to make a huge difference. People know you care and often respond in kind.

PA: Tell me more about your partners on this exhibition and the Abori collective? 

OS: The Abori collective is a group of chefs, researchers, growers, communication and media experts, design experts who have come together to create a platform from multifaceted perspectives to address issues surrounding sustainability in our food system.

PA: I’m curious to know: you could have had this exhibition anywhere. WHat informed the choice of the Alliance Francaise as venue?  

OS: Alliance Française is big on gastronomy, they had a perfect space and were willing to work with us to make this happen. 

PA: After August 13, when the exhibition closes, what’s next? Any plans to host it in other states, or the FCT for that matter?

OS: We would love to host it across Nigeria and the world. We’re open to support to make this happen.

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