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Saturday, October 23, 2021

What the food we cook reveals about us

In many ways, the pandemic has kept us closer to home than ever. It has also brought for so many of us a kind of great downsizing (briefly, I hope) of the number of people with whom we share a meal. And, for those of us who love to cook, it has sent us deeper into our pantries.

By: New York Times |
September 28, 2021 10:30:19 pm
Environment Lifestyle Peanuts Lagos (Nigeria) Scholarships And Fellowships Flowers And Plants Cookware Nigeria Komolafe, Yewande Condiments Medicine And Health Content Type: Service Carrots Food And Beverage Food Spices Oils And Fats Fruit Recipes Salt Nuts Coronavirus (2019 Ncov) Epidemics Citrus Fruits Cooking And Cookbooks Scallions Quarantine (Life And Culture) Pickles And Relishes Education Ginger Africa Paprika VegetablesRoasted carrots with yaji spice relish. In her new monthly column, Yewande Komolafe returns to the food of West Africa to examine how it shaped her cooking, and her idea of home. (Kelly Marshall/The New York Times)

By Yewande Komolafe

There was a time, just a couple of years ago, when I would invite two dozen strangers over to my apartment for dinner. Twice a month, I would cook and serve dishes like fish pepper soup, seasoned with up to 10 spices; fork-tender goat, braised for hours in a fiery red obe ata; baobab granitas; and lemon-grass coconut soup over springy tapioca pearls — all in an effort to connect with the food I grew up eating in Lagos, Nigeria.

I have revisited those memories in the past few months, amused at what I once thought were the necessary logistics of serving four courses to a group of lively diners — timing the dishes, finding places for coats, getting the bar ready, to say nothing of today’s face shields, temperature checks and social distancing. And, although I was consumed with those details at the time, they were far from the whole picture. Beyond the meal and the hosting duties, the dinners were helping me answer a question I only now realize I was asking: What happens to us when we share our cuisine, and what story does our food reveal?

My career has always been shaped by my love of food. My years as a professional cook and recipe developer have taught me that the dishes we create hold a narrative, and that recipes speak to the harmonious way ingredients come together. Recipes tell of a place, of a culture and the humans behind it.

Just before the pandemic, I began writing a cookbook about the food I’ve always known and loved and longed for: the many cuisines of Lagos, Nigeria’s largest city and a cultural nexus. Its food embodies the contributions of those who have lived within it for centuries and those who have migrated to it. The memories I had of these cuisines, I knew, were like the recollections we have of a favorite childhood haunt or a film watched when our hearts were full (or freshly broken) — almost dreamlike with the passing of time.

Diasporas — some recent, others culminating over hundreds or thousands of years — make up much of American cuisine. The African continent’s imprint on it has inspired almost as much engaging scholarship as it has irresistible dishes. The broader region I come from, West Africa, has influenced so much of what we consider essential to the American palate, that its contributions almost feel like a foregone conclusion. Ingredients, cooking methods and preservation techniques I know from home are all present in American cuisine.

But I don’t experience the continent’s foodways in the past tense. To me, they are all part of the story I’ve been telling with the food I love to make, and part of the story that I will be unraveling as I write this monthly column. In essence, my work in this space will strive to continue what I set out to explore and understand with my dinners — how ingredients, food and cooking can shape and determine our idea of home.

In many ways, the pandemic has kept us closer to home than ever. It has also brought for so many of us a kind of great downsizing (briefly, I hope) of the number of people with whom we share a meal. And, for those of us who love to cook, it has sent us deeper into our pantries. There, in some ways, we find the stories we all tell with our food, sharpen the ideas we hold about where we come from and realize what has influenced us along the way.

Where once I would have slapped two wide cast-iron griddles over my entire range to sear off pounds of beef suya for newly arrived guests, I now draw from the quickest and easiest methods of connecting with ingredients I love.

Yaji, an essential pantry spice for many West Africans, is something that should be in every kitchen. This recipe, a simple side of roast carrots with yaji-spiced relish, is the result of my rummaging through my cabinets for a taste of home and grabbing an agreeable vessel. Sweet, caramelized carrots roasted on a sheet pan never fail, but you could use this on meats or any other seasonal vegetables. If instead of yaji, you have a spice that reminds you of home, it will work just as well.

Environment Lifestyle Peanuts Lagos (Nigeria) Scholarships And Fellowships Flowers And Plants Cookware Nigeria Komolafe, Yewande Condiments Medicine And Health Content Type: Service Carrots Food And Beverage Food Spices Oils And Fats Fruit Recipes Salt Nuts Coronavirus (2019 Ncov) Epidemics Citrus Fruits Cooking And Cookbooks Scallions Quarantine (Life And Culture) Pickles And Relishes Education Ginger Africa Paprika Vegetables A relish of scallions, lemon, yaji spice, paprika and parsley tops the carrots. Food Stylist: Barrett Washburne. Prop Stylist: Paige Hicks. (Kelly Marshall/The New York Times)

Roasted Carrots With Yaji Spice Relish

By Yewande Komolafe

A fragrant combination of dried spices and aromatics, yaji, also known as suya spice, is as ubiquitous as salt and pepper in homes across northern Nigeria and West Africa more broadly. Often used to cure meats and finish other dishes, the spice blend is made depending on taste and access to ingredients, so the recipe can range from home to home and vendor to vendor. Common among blends is the addition of a warming chile powder, ground ginger (although fresh is used in some cases) and pulverized peanuts. Here, a basic yaji spice blend is incorporated into a fresh, piquant relish of scallions, lemon zest and juice as a finish to liven up roast vegetables.

Yield: 4 to 6 servings

Total time: 50 minutes

Ingredients:

4 pounds carrots, scrubbed, cut into 3- to 4-inch pieces, halved lengthwise if thick

1/4 cup neutral oil, such as grapeseed or vegetable oil

Kosher salt (Diamond Crystal)

1 (1 1/2-inch) piece fresh ginger, scrubbed

1 cup thinly sliced scallions (from about 5 scallions)

2 lemons

1 tablespoon roasted peanut oil (optional)

1 tablespoon yaji spice (see Tip)

1/4 teaspoon smoked paprika

1/2 cup chopped fresh parsley

1/4 cup toasted unsalted peanuts, roughly chopped

Environment Lifestyle Peanuts Lagos (Nigeria) Scholarships And Fellowships Flowers And Plants Cookware Nigeria Komolafe, Yewande Condiments Medicine And Health Content Type: Service Carrots Food And Beverage Food Spices Oils And Fats Fruit Recipes Salt Nuts Coronavirus (2019 Ncov) Epidemics Citrus Fruits Cooking And Cookbooks Scallions Quarantine (Life And Culture) Pickles And Relishes Education Ginger Africa Paprika Vegetables Carrots are halved lengthwise, then tossed with oil and roasted until caramelized in spots. Food Stylist: Barrett Washburne. Prop Stylist: Paige Hicks. (Kelly Marshall/The New York Times)

Preparation:

1. Heat oven to 400 degrees. Toss the carrots with 2 tablespoons oil, and season lightly with salt. Spread in an even layer on 2 baking sheets and roast until vegetables are tender and caramelized in spots, about 40 minutes, rotating sheet pans once halfway through the cooking process.

2. As the carrots roast, make the relish: Grate the ginger into a large bowl and add the sliced scallions. Zest 1 lemon over the bowl, and squeeze in the juice from 1 1/2 lemons. (Reserve the other half for serving.) Stir to combine. Add the remaining 2 tablespoons oil. Stir in the roasted peanut oil (if using), the yaji spice, paprika and parsley. Stir to combine, then taste and adjust the seasoning if necessary.

3. While the vegetables are still warm, gently toss in the large bowl to coat with the relish. Transfer to a platter, and scatter the toasted peanuts over the top. Serve with reserved lemon half, if you like.

Tips: To make about 1/4 cup yaji spice blend, combine 1/4 cup toasted peanuts, 1 tablespoon ground ginger, 2 teaspoons smoked paprika, 2 teaspoons onion powder, 1 teaspoon garlic powder and 1 teaspoon fine sea salt. Pulse in a spice grinder, or use a mortar and pestle to make a fine powder. Store in an airtight container for up to a month.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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