In Nigeria, we don’t have pantries. What one calls a pantry in Europe and North America, we call a “store,” and no two are the same. Each home store is a melange of local, regional, and global ingredients. Some ingredients—palm oil, crayfish, fermented seasonings—speak volumes about all the ways Nigerians are similar despite our many different languages and cultures.
The store is where we house and preserve many of the ingredients that give us flavor and sustenance, and it’s where you’ll see a mix of influences, from local and regional exchanges to the deep-seated legacies of colonialism and the transatlantic slave trade. It is also where you’ll find forms of personal expression, both large and small, like preserves, ferments, dried herbs, and more.
Nigerian meals tend to be made up of mixed plates of starches, soups/sauces, and proteins, and the store reflects that. There will likely be an abundance of starches in the form of grains, legumes, and flours; there are oils and fats like unrefined red palm oil, groundnut oil, and shea butter; there’s a stunning array of greens used in meals—leafy, herby, in a range of colors, both fresh and dried; there’s a plethora of spices, like grains of selim, calabash nutmeg, and alligator pepper, as well as a range of spice blends; there are dried seafood products like “crayfish” and smoked fish, oysters, and periwinkles; and there are fermented seasonings and condiments, nuts, seeds, and gums.
There’s a lot to explore and enjoy.
While the store is typically stocked with shelf-stable goods ready to be turned into a meal or a snack at a moment’s notice, a good store would be incomplete without a variety of fresh, seasonal vegetables and fruit, many of which should be familiar to cooks all over the world.
Roots, Tubers, and Rhizomes
Tubers and rhizomes like yams, sweet potatoes, regular potatoes, cocoyam (taro), ginger, garlic, and turmeric are frequently used in a wide variety of dishes.
Fresh fruits are eaten all year round, and there are a few fruits, like baobab, tamarind, dates, which are often used in their dried forms as well.
Bananas, pineapple, sugar cane, pawpaw, and mangoes are some of the most commonly eaten fruits. They are eaten out of hand and are rarely cooked. Fruits like tomatoes and plantains are, on the other hand, quite frequently cooked and essentially treated as vegetables.
Tomatoes, (red) onions, and peppers—sweet and hot—are some of the most ubiquitous ingredients in our stores. Leafy vegetables, greens, and herbs like amaranth (callaloo), pumpkin greens, sweet potato greens, water leaf, and spinach are common, and are used fresh or dried.
The store will also typically have a wide array of dried ingredients, everything from dried seafood and meat to dried grains and legumes, meals and flours, nuts, fruit and vegetables, as well as spices.
There are many kinds of dried fish used in Nigerian cuisine: (Scandinavian) stockfish; dried fish, called “dry fish” (catfish is popular); dried oysters; dried periwinkles and whelks; and last but certainly not the least, dried “crayfish.” While we call them crayfish, they are actually pink and brown prawns completely unrelated to the North American crawfish—how that name emerged is still something of a mystery. Crayfish come in various sizes; they are often sun-dried, although sometimes they’re smoked. The large ones are often used whole or broken, and the smaller ones are typically ground. I never cook Nigerian soups without ground crayfish—never ever. Crayfish is to Nigerian cuisine what fish sauce is to Thai: it brings that sweet fermented funk and seafood essence that many Nigerian pots would be lost without, from slow-cooked dishes like egusi soup to traditional rice dishes like native Jollof rice.
Other dried fish products, like large crayfish heads, catfish heads and bonga/shawa fish (bony freshwater shad, also eaten as a snack), are ground and used as a seasoning, much as we use crayfish.
There are a number of dried meats, including kilishi, tinko, dried kpomo (a fresh version exists), that have long shelf lives and are eaten as snacks, and some of them are used in cooking. Although dried meats are mostly made from beef, you’ll also find smoked and dried game from animals like antelope and grasscutters.
Kilishi is a beef jerky snack from the north, but it’s popular across the country. Thin sheets of lean beef, sliced by hand, are dunked in a wet spice paste made with nuts and sun- or oven-dried, after which they’re finished by passing over open fire. They are sold in small and large sheets, individually wrapped in paper or transparent bags and they can keep for six months or longer.
Tinko (chunks of beef) and dried kpomo (cow skin) are cooked, dried, and smoked. They are rehydrated in water or stock and used in soups and stews, like egusi.
Grains, Cereals, and Legumes
Grains, cereals, and legumes are the bedrock of the Nigerian store. Mostly dried, you’ll find them whole, cracked, ground, or milled into powder and flour. Rice, beans, corn, cassava, millet, guinea corn (sorghum) are steamed, made into doughs, fritters, and stirred into soups and sauces.
Nigerians love rice, from the homegrown Oryza glaberrima species often named after their growing locations—Abakaliki, Ekpoma, and Ofada rice (which is fermented during the processing)—to imported Oryza sativa species, particularly long-grain (converted) rice, as well as basmati and Thai jasmine. Rice and stew (a rice dish made with a specific tomato-based sauce), jollof rice, coconut rice, and Nigerian fried rice are pillars in Nigerian cuisine.
There are so many varieties of beans in Nigeria, with black-eyed beans and other cowpeas being the most common. You’ll find them simply cooked, stewed in red sauces, puréed into soups, and turned into pottage with corn, yams, plantains, and/or sweet potatoes.
There are many flours and meals made from cassava and garri is one of the most popular. This gluten-free flour comes in a range of colors, from cream to sunny yellow, and a variety of textures, just like cornmeal. I love its flexibility—dry and crunchy, you can sprinkle it over stewed beans or fill the hollow of a ripe avocado. The flavor? Sweet and sour—from mild to strong. “Soaked” with cold water, it makes a cereal-like snack which we enjoy in a variety of ways and with add-ins, like coconut (fresh or flaked), roasted peanuts, peanut crackers, and more. Some like it with salt, others with sugar, and still more with both. Hot, it gelatinizes to form a soft, sticky dough called eba, which is a classic complement to thick “soups” (stews). I love it as a replacement for breadcrumbs as it delivers unparalleled crunch.
Various types of millet, fonio, guinea corn, and corn are popular. The dried grains and kernels are steamed, boiled, popped, and cooked in soups and pottages. They are also processed into fermented starches that are sold as firm blocks or as powder, which are used to make breakfast gruels and porridges that are called pap, ogi, koko, or akamu (they’re similar to Mexican atole). Served with milk and sugar, they are common accompaniments to akara, a kind of bean fritter, and moinmoin, a steamed “pudding” made from beans.
Zobo (hibiscus sabdariffa), which is also known as agua de Jamaica and red sorrel, among other names, is one of the most popular edible flowers in Nigeria. It comes in a variety of colors, from off-white, cream, and light brown to deep red-purple, and it’s sold dried and used in a couple of ways.
The off-white, creamy, brown version is rehydrated and used in obe ishapa, a soup popular in the southwest that also features egusi seeds. The dark red version forms the base of a drink, often combined with dried ginger slices and whole cloves. To sweeten it naturally, some people cook it with pineapple juice and/or the fruit’s flesh and skin, others add tamarind and sweeten it with sugar or honey. It’s served both hot and cold.
Nuts and Seeds
Nuts and seeds serve many purposes in Nigerian cuisine. They’re eaten alone as snacks, like boiled groundnuts (peanuts) and candied sesame seeds, but also incorporated into a variety of dishes.
Many soups are thickened with pastes from sesame seeds and groundnuts and with nut or seed powders, like the ground meal made from egusi, the seeds of the bitter melon. Egusi is sold in several different forms: whole, with their brittle, mustard-colored shells; shelled; and ground. Ground egusi is distinguished further in many markets as being ‘hand-’ or ‘machine-’ processed, where the ‘hand’ varieties are more expensive, a testament to the craft of shelling. Egusi is incorporated into seasoned stocks to make egusi soup, which is often finished with greens, both leafy and herby.
Fermented nuts and seeds are used as an umami-rich seasoning, similar to miso paste or Chinese black beans. They bring an intense savoriness along with distinctive flavors and aromas. Iru is a small-batch ferment of locust beans, used to season soups, stews, and other dishes. Available in markets, it comes as a soft paste, which readily dissolves in sauces, or as firm, distinct split beans. Other fermented seeds made from castor seeds, sesame seeds, soybeans, melon seeds, and more are common across the country.
Spices and Seasonings
There is a huge variety of herbs, spices, spice blends, alkaline salts, and stock/seasoning cubes used in Nigerian cooking. They fall into two key categories: traditional Nigerian seasoning, which includes yajin kuli, pepper soup spice, and banga spice, and imported seasonings, like “curry powder” and dried thyme. They deliver a whole spectrum of flavor from peppery to woodsy, floral, bitter, nutty, warm, and more. Used individually, or in specific blends, they are mostly incorporated into savory dishes, used as rubs for meats and fish, and added to rice dishes, soups and stews.
Ground dry pepper is one of the most popular ingredients. Fine and coarse blends are ground from slim, dried red chiles with single or multiple varieties of hot red peppers, including cayenne, bird’s eye, as well as others. Think of it as our equivalent to black pepper: It brings heat to everything, and is used all the time, added to taste when seasoning eggs or broth. Even when fresh chiles are used in a dish, you’ll find us sprinkling a pinch of dry pepper over it. The closest substitute for it is cayenne pepper not “chili powder” which is composed of an assortment of spices.
The definitive taste of pepper soup spice is tribute to the genius of the Niger-Deltans in the south of Nigeria who combine whole, toasted spices in specific ratios to tease out a complex blend that lends its name to Nigeria’s most popular broth. Some of the most common spices used are calabash nutmeg, uda (grains of selim), alligator pepper (grains of paradise), and uziza (African cubeb pepper). This soup works well with seafood, meat, vegetables and is commonly served as a starter at Nigerian parties and on special occasions, although it’s also often made at home.
Fats and Oils
The Nigerian kitchen is full of plant and animal fats and oils, which are use for cooking but they’re also incorporated into dips and spreads. Plant-based fats and oils come from palms, seeds, and nuts and include unrefined red palm oil, coconut oil, groundnut (peanut) oil, shea butter, atili (the African olive) oil, sesame oil, soybean oil, and a host of others. Palm oil is one of the most popular ones and there’s nothing like the rich, thick oil from the red-orange palm fruit of Elaeis guineensis, a native African palm—not to be confused with the highly industrialized palm (kernel) oil listed in practically every product across supermarket shelves and aisles in North America. Though you can approximate the color by steeping annatto seeds in vegetable oil, the smoky, vegetal, slightly fermented flavor is hard to replicate. This is the base of many pots of soup and stew eaten daily across Nigeria and in Nigerian homes across the diaspora.
Animal fats like man shanu and tallow are particularly popular in the pastoral north, where spoonfuls are commonly added to pots while cooking roots, tubers, and rice, from steamed white rice to Jollof. Man shanu, a creamy-light yellow fat, is a fermented and unchurned spread made from fresh cow milk with the consistency of soft butter. Tallow from beef and lamb are also commonly used.
Canned and Bagged Ingredients
Many preserved items are available in a variety of sizes and packaging, from tins and cans to sachets and cartons. It’s very common to find tomato paste and a range of canned vegetables like sweetcorn, green peas, and baked beans in a store.
Though fresh milk and dairy products are common in the north, they aren’t as common down south, in the east, or west. Preserved milk—evaporated, condensed, and powdered—are used for cooking and baking as well as in drinks. Beverages like tea, instant coffee, and chocolate drink powders like Bournvita, Milo, Nesquik, and Ovaltine are popular and sometimes form half of a perfect bread meal, where slices or pieces of bread are dunked in cups and mugs of sweet, hot beverage.
Canned protein—fish like sardines, mackerel, and tuna, as well as products like corned beef—are popular, and they’re turned into compound butters or pates and used as spreads for bread, sometimes with vegetables folded in. They are also added to fried and stewed eggs, sauces, and incorporated into rice dishes, as well as pottages made with yam, plantain, and potatoes.
White sugar and honey are the most common sweeteners, for everything from cups of tea to sweetening cereal and baking. Honey comes in a variety of colors and flavors, from dark, wildflower varieties to those with a fermented profile, which are often the product of bee hives that are close to palm trees.
Less common is delicious mazarkwaila, heavy, compact discs of brown sugar, cooked down from sugar cane juice, and processed in a similar manner to piloncillo or jaggery. In the north of Nigeria, where it’s made, it’s a popular addition to drinks, and is also eaten as a snack, bits broken off and chewed or licked.
Where to Buy Nigerian Ingredients
You can find all of these ingredients in a variety of stores online, and in African, Afro-Caribbean, Caribbean, and even in general grocery stores. So, when you get a chance, try out some Nigerian recipes with ingredients from our store.
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