Two African cooks walk into a bar; 30 seconds later they are arguing over whose country’s jollof rice is better. Or so the corny joke would go. The truth is, I really had no idea what would happen if we got Senegal-born chef Pierre Thiam (TED Talk: A Forgotten Ancient Grain That Could Help Africa Prosper) and Nigerian jollof promoter Ozoz Sokoh to sit down together for a friendly chat.
Based in New York, Pierre is a world-renowned chef who grew up in Senegal and is known for his exquisite dishes and his passion for spreading African cuisine across the world. He informed me that my interview request was the third jollof-related one he had granted in a week, the previous ones coming from the BBC and Wall Street Journal. It totally makes sense that in the heat of the jollof wars that now erupt every few weeks, mostly on Twitter, usually between Nigerians and Ghanaians, pundits are turning to a Senegalese chef for their take on the dispute. Jollof, after all, is named for the Wolof people, the largest ethnic group in Senegal; the country does have some claim.
Ozoz for her own part is an accomplished cook (she declined to be called a chef because it’s like a professional certification, apparently), food blogger and photographer, and probably one of the biggest promoters of jollof rice in Africa right now, an obsession that has since burst out of her Twitter timeline into a dedicated blog and the well-attended World Jollof Day festival. Was she down to interview Pierre about the jollof controversy? Of course. In fact, Ozoz had come from Lagos armed with homemade Nigerian spices, snacks and a jollof T-shirt for Pierre.
I apologize in advance to everyone who was spoiling for some sort of fiery showdown; this isn’t it. And I will admit to influencing their conversation slightly, by suggesting to them that the jollof question was merely an interesting pretext for a broader and infinitely more useful conversation about African cuisine that both of them were incredibly suited to have. What you are about to read is what happened next.
Ozoz: I think that it’s amazing that we’ve had all these ingredients for centuries but our preference is to default to what isn’t homegrown. You were talking about fonio yesterday, and I think there is an appreciation that we need to develop for homegrown products. Apart from fonio, what other things do to think we should be going crazy about? That are locally grown and could have transformative effects on food security.
Pierre: There are countless, you see. Millet is one of them. Sorghum is another one. The leaves too, especially in Nigeria where there are so many interesting leaf vegetables that are highly recommended for diets, and many cultures don’t know them as much as Nigeria does. So there is an opportunity there to share this knowledge. People talk about moringa, but moringa is just one of them.
Ozoz: One of my concerns is how do we get people in remote, non-urban areas to realise the value of what they have around them.
Pierre: Actually I don’t think it’s people in rural areas who have this problem. It’s people in urban areas who like to mimic the westerners’ way of eating and look down on the rural way of eating. Take fonio, for instance — you find it in Northern Nigeria and the Southern part of Senegal a lot, but in Lagos, Abuja, Dakar, you have to look for it. So the rural areas, they have it because there is a tradition. That’s what they have. And they can’t even afford the food that comes from the west. But us, we prefer to import from the west, and this is terrible for our economy. It’s terrible for our sense of pride, which is affected every day.
Ozoz: I feel like the attitude to homegrown is changing. Nok by Alara for instance, it has an amazing menu that is tribute to homegrown, just an amazing mixture of local flavours and textures. But what other things do you think we can do to grow the whole new Nigerian or West African-style cuisine — in addition to cooking, what other ways beyond the kitchen?
Pierre: It’s a very good question, because it goes beyond the kitchen. It’s not only chefs who can wage that battle. It takes many, many levels. The media is important because information is key. Many people don’t know: We have wonderful ingredients. We have superfoods. If you look at our DNA, our background, our ancestors were strong people and they were eating that food, and because of that they were taken, because of their strength. We today want to say that that food is not good enough, and we import diseases. Many of the diseases that you see today in Nigeria or Dakar are imported. Diabetes, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, hypertension … all of which are directly connected with your diet. We use a lot of cubes now in our diet, and that is directly linked to why there is a lot of hypertension, because there is a lot of sodium in them. It’s a mind shift, we have to get back to what we have.
Ozoz: You are right, the media plays a really important role. So jollof rice. Obviously, everyone says Nigerian Jollof is the best :) what do you think?
Pierre: I hear you. When I’m in Nigeria, I eat Nigerian jollof, that’s for sure. And I enjoy it. When I’m in Ghana, I love Ghanaian jollof too. This is the great thing about jollof, jollof is a dish that’s like all these different cultures and countries just owning it. Jollof means Senegal [ed: the name derives from “Wolof“], but that doesn’t mean we own it. That is the way Africa is, food transcends borders, you know, and jollof has obviously transcended borders in a way that is powerful. This war is beautiful.
Ozoz: So you think Jollof can promote world peace?
Pierre: Absolutely. I think world peace will come from sitting around the table.
Ozoz: I think there are many rituals that we’ve lost, but sitting around the table with family and friends is one that we need to reintroduce into our way of life.
Pierre: It is key. Simple moments like this on a daily basis can make a huge difference. And jollof rice is a symbolic dish that it’s great that everyone claims
Ozoz: it’s so refreshing to hear you say that — it’s a testament to your open and giving nature
Pierre: That’s what food is about: sharing. In Africa you go to a household and people offer you food. Food is something we don’t keep to ourselves, we have to share it. If you go to a household in Lagos, you will be offered something to drink, zobo, it’s a symbolic thing.
Ozoz: I was really, really fascinated to read modern recipes in Senegal, modern recipes from the source to the bowl. I was really intrigued by the palm oil recipes, particularly the palm oil ice cream. Really, really intrigued, it looks really amazing and it’s on my list of things to make once I get back and I settle down. I’m gonna get organic palm oil, the best quality that I can find
Pierre: That’s the best ice cream I’ve ever had.
Ozoz: It looks the part.
Pierre: I want to hear what you have to say when you make it.
Ozoz: Tell about how you developed this recipe. Were you sleeping? Was it midnight? How did it come to you?
Pierre: At first I wanted to have something vegan, something without dairy — as you can see, there is no dairy in that recipe. But when you eat it, you don’t taste that there is no dairy, it’s got the richness of the palm oil. There’s coconut milk, there is palm oil, and there is lime zest, which really brings the acidity. So you have a perfect balance, which is what you are really looking for. Creating new recipes is like chemistry. Your kitchen is your lab, and you just get creative and have fun with it.
Ozoz: I find myself thinking a lot about my memory bank…my taste bank. There are certain things I eat that transport me to a time, a place…what are some of the things that are in your memory bank, and can you share a bit about why they are there?
Pierre: Well, it usually goes back to childhood. The memories of food are powerful, and it can come from anything. Like a whiff that takes you back to your grandmother’s, the dishes that she would cook for you when you were a kid. So for me, I’m gonna come back to palm oil and okro, those are the ingredients that are very powerful to me and take me back to those moments of innocence. It’s very emotional when I get into that zone. A lot of my creations come from there, and those traditions. And that is why traditions are important. I think that any African chef before looking to the future has to go back into the past and remember what was served to them in their childhood — or do some research into the traditions and get a better grasp of the future.
Ozoz: If you were a spice, what would you be?
Pierre: Probably ginger, because I like the heat of it. Especially Nigerian ginger. I like it because it can bring the sensation of heat without being too overpowering like pepper.
Ozoz: If you were a fruit, what would your be?
Pierre: A fruit, huh? I love papaya, because I can use it as a dessert, or as a tenderiser when I’m cooking meat. I love green papaya that I can put in a salad, with red onions and chili and lime juice, that becomes a snack. It’s very versatile.
Ozoz: I think the future of food in Africa has a lot to do with collaboration. How do we grow this collective of voices around it, writers, food photographers, chefs… In the US, for instance, there are associations, foundations, but I’m not sure if those constructs would suit African needs. What should we thinking about if we are to take the appreciation of our food history and practice of the culture to the next level?
Pierre: I think that this conversation is important to have…like chef’s meetings. It could be around events. For instance, this November I’m inviting chefs to Saint-Louis, in Senegal. And they are coming from across Africa, from Cameroon, Morocco, Cote d’Ivoire, South Africa, and they are coming to this event as part of the Saint-Louis Forum. Each of us will come with our own traditions and approach to food.
Ozoz: You are absolutely right, that coming together, exchange of ideas, discussions …
Bankole in the background: blogging, food festivals…
Ozoz: Yes. We talked about the role of media earlier. Writing, podcasts, videos, how-tos, documentaries, it’s a whole range.
Pierre: And it’s the right time, right now, we have a lot of tools at our disposal. We don’t need big networks to broadcast this, we can do it ourselves and reach millions of people. As Africans, we have a unique opportunity to tell our story. African cuisine is ready to be explored, we’ve got so much to offer from each country and so many different cultures with different flavors.
Ozoz: Quick fire round. Zobo or tamarind?
Ozoz: What do you always have in your fridge?
Pierre: Oh boy…I don’t have much in my fridge…
Ozoz: What food can’t you live without?
Pierre: Uh? This is going to sound clichéd but I really love my fonio on a regular basis.
Ozoz: I don’t mind that. Foraging or fishing?
Ozoz: Cumin or coriander seeds?
Ozoz: Rain or sun?
Ozoz: Pancakes or French toast?
Pierre: French toast.
Ozoz: Food writing or photography?
Pierre: Both. Actually photography is very important, but good food writing can transport you to places in your imagination, which is more difficult to capture with photography.
Ozoz: Cilantro or parsley?
Ozoz: Last one. Nigerian jollof or Ghanaian jollof?
Pierre: Senegalese …