Nigeria is home to more than 250 ethnic groups. Its borders extend from the Atlantic Ocean to the middle of the African continent, spanning a range of geography and climates.

The food culture encompasses the diversity, with a plethora of dishes changing to suit local conditions. With such complexity, how does a single restaurant — thousands of kilometres away, no less — manage to encapsulate the experience of eating Nigerian cuisine?

Hospitality speaks to Ade Adeniyi, owner of Little Lagos in Sydney’s Newtown, about his favourite dishes, key ingredients and predictions for Nigerian cuisine in Australia.

“We’ve got 250-plus tribes, if you can wrap your head around that,” says Adeniyi. “Each tribe has a different cuisine.”

The same dishes might exist from north to south, east to west, but they could be prepared and cooked differently. Some proteins and produce will be found in some regions and not in others. “It’s a vast country; some areas are tropical, some are dry,” explains Adeniyi.

Lagos, where Adeniyi hails from, is situated on the Atlantic Ocean. There, fish is an inescapable part of everyday life, with generations of fishermen eating nothing but. The northern city of Kano, on the other hand, is home to cattle farmers and herdsmen, with beef and goat common proteins. “They don’t have any water, so fish didn’t exist in their diet,” says Adeniyi.

Spice levels are another indicator of region. Jollof rice is perhaps the closest thing to a national dish, cutting across all the major tribes. Often, the only difference will be the level of chilli. Jollof rice from the south east would be expected to have less heat than one from the south west. While Adeniyi says you can find most variations anywhere now, at Little Lagos, the team has been keen to make sure dishes bear the mark of their region, with the menu showcasing specialities from across the country.

“We want to be inclusive,” says Adeniyi. “We looked across the tribes [staff belong to] and picked the most common food items and the method of food preparation as well. What we’ve done at Little Lagos is set a [spice] threshold because we’re all from different tribes. We found this middle point where everyone could still enjoy the food without it being too spicy or not spicy enough.”

Seafood could be swapped out for beef or goat, but there are some key ingredients that feature heavily across individual dishes and regions: red palm oil, melon seeds, spice mixes such as yaji and irú. Their attributes are hard for Adeniyi to define or find comparisons for, and perhaps that’s what makes them so integral — they’re what separate Nigerian cuisine. COVID-19 has made sourcing imported ingredients difficult, but established grocers who ship in large quantities have saved the day.

Palm oil is what gives Little Lagos’ goat stew an edge. “Palm oil gives it a whole new flavour, as opposed to olive oil,” says Adeniyi. “When you see a dish with red palm oil, you’re like, ‘Oh that looks different’. It’s rich red. You can use it in every dish — we don’t always, but for most of our dishes, we tend to.”

US-based Nigerian-born food writer Yewande Komolafe has described red palm oil “as the glue that holds … ingredients together”. Her article The Problems With Palm Oil Don’t Start With My Recipes published in Heated underlines the difference between the unrefined red palm oil that’s central to West African cuisine from the industrially processed palm oil that’s subject to criticism from environmental activists.

It’s not the only misconception that abounds. There are fundamental misunderstandings about the nature of Nigerian cuisine. Until this point, proteins have been used to illustrate the regional variations that exist. But vegetables such as yams, sweet potato and spinach as well as capsicum, tomatoes, onions and a variety of chilli peppers are of the utmost importance. Beans and rice are staples, too.

According to Adeniyi, many Australians assume West African cuisine is meat-heavy. “Actually, 90 per cent of everything we eat is vegetables,” he says. “When vegans and vegetarians come in and we lay out all the options, they’re blown away.”

Little Lagos hosts events to help educate the dining public. A vegan day on Tuesday 21 October saw the kitchen team transform the entire menu. “There’s been huge interest,” said Adeniyi a day prior to the event.

Many diners have also taken the initiative to educate themselves. “When people come in they’re always interested to know more,” says Adeniyi. “I’ve found a lot of people actually do their research before they come. They go online and read about it and then know exactly what they want. “Australians who have travelled to either the UK or the US seem to have an idea about Nigerian food because in places like New York and London, there are Nigerian restaurants in every borough or suburb.”

Two of the most popular dishes are jollof rice and goat stew. They’re also demonstrative of West African cuisine, its regional variations and its key ingredients. Adeniyi describes jollof as rice cooked in stew. It has, he says, two distinct characteristics: a deep red hue and rich flavour. “So what we do with jollof is fry the stew,” says Adeniyi. “And then we add the rice. The stew has to cook the rice, and that’s where it gets very technical because too much stew will drown the rice and too little will burn the rice.”

The process is all about heat regulation. “You cook at a very low temperature, and you have to keep stirring to stop the rice from burning,” says Adeniyi. “It takes a lot of time. You’re not just cooking the rice. First you have to cook the stew, which takes quite some time.”

Next, is goat stew. “I love to highlight it because goat is very common in Nigeria,” says Adeniyi. “It’s similar to jollof rice stew, but there’s no rice added. [Alongside] the goat, key ingredients are tomatoes, onions, habanero or scotch bonnet and capsicum. The capsicum gives it a thick, rich red appearance. You leave palm oil [in the pan] until it’s really hot and then you start with the onion.”

After the other ingredients have been added and fried off, they’re blended but not for too long. “You always want to blend until it’s half smooth but still has a few chunks here and there,” says Adeniyi. “It should look like a proper stew and not a broth.”

West African cuisine, though, is more than its dishes. When Adeniyi opened Little Lagos earlier this year, he did so out of “selfishness”. The self-described “modern kid” was shocked to discover a gap in the market when he moved to Sydney. “For me, Sydney is one of the most important cities in the world, right?” he says. “You’re talking about London, New York, Tokyo, Dubai and Sydney. So how does a city of six million people not have many African restaurants?”

Little Lagos is an attempt to bring a little West Africa to Sydney. “There has to be at least one place where you could go if you couldn’t go to Nigeria but wanted to experience it,” says Adeniyi. “Food is a big part of what we’re doing, but it’s more about the vibes. You walk in and you see the art on the walls, you see the people, you hear the music, smell the food. That was the whole idea about having a bar as well and [including] the music — it’s not just solely a place to eat and then go home having learned literally nothing about Nigeria.

“I was like, ‘If I needed a place to chill after a hard week at work, where would I go?’ And this is it. This is home for us.” Besides the name, Adeniyi has tried to take a pan-African approach, especially when it comes to the food menu. “The whole western part of Africa eats the same things as us,” he says. “So you can’t really say Nigerian when Ghanaians eat the same thing; so do Liberians, Senegalese and Cameroonians. I think the second you walk in, you’re like, ‘Yep, this is an African restaurant’.”

When asked if he thinks more West African eateries will soon join the plethora of East African venues, Adeniyi is hopeful. “I can see a lot of home-style kitchens already operating,” he says. “They cook from home and people can order from them. There are a lot of Nigerian-Australians who were raised here. They identify with the culture and are thinking of ways to grow the Black economy in Australia. So I think it will get popular.”

This feature originally appeared in Hospitality’s November/December 2020 issue.

Photography: 1oh1 Media