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Food from Nigeria, Ghana and other countries is breaking through barriers and finally becoming more accessible in the city's restaurant scene
Victor Ugwueke wants people in Toronto to try the food he grew up eating in Nigeria.
Working with food has always been a part of the Toronto chef’s life. He was six when he started washing dishes at his mom’s restaurant in Lagos, Nigeria. He opened up his own restaurant nearby in Victoria Island at 21. Fast forward 20 years later and Ugwueke has made his mark in popular Toronto spots like Tabule, Nota Bene and Enoteca Sociale.
But when he talked to peers about his favourite foods he was often met with blank stares.
“When you mention African food, people’s brains usually go straight to Ethiopian food,” he says. “I want people to have access to all other parts of Africa.”
That’s why he created his own restaurant, Afrobeat Kitchen in 2017. With a lively atmosphere and a soundtrack of Afrobeat artists like Tiwa Savage, Burna Boy and WizKid, he doles out flavourful dishes like suya hot wings, spicy and smoky jollof rice and egusi and greens with pounded yam.
It’s a contemporary Toronto version of Nigerian food, combining traditional recipes with locally sourced ingredients – lemongrass, green cardamom and star anise in the jollof, gochujang in miso mafe stew. He says the fermented flavour of the gochujang matches that of the fermented locust bean dawadawa.
“When I moved to Toronto. I saw some Nigerian restaurants from my people who were doing it already,” says Ugwueke. “But I think they were just focusing on the Nigerian community, so only Nigerian people [could] have access to it. I wanted to make sure people from all backgrounds can be exposed to our food. We can use food to build a friendship and have a good union.”
Ugwueke isn’t alone in his sentiment. Toronto is known for its rich and diverse foods, but it’s taken until recently for West African food to get its moment in the spotlight. The chefs and entrepreneurs involved in its rise have various theories about why. Racist stigmas, ingredient sourcing and lack of accessibility are just some of the barriers it faces.
Afrobeat Kitchen offers dishes like buka beef (paired with coconut rice and fried plantains), suya hot wings, egusi (paired with fufu) and jollof rice.
Skcookks opened in Etobicoke in 2017, but is now located downtown in Liberty Village.
Owner Sasilka Shallangwa says launching her business was a big struggle at first. She prioritizes authenticity, but it was difficult to source ingredients from Nigeria. Dishes like Kak’s chicken, a grilled chicken marinated in suya, are made with recipes that have been passed down from her grandmother and mother.
“When I moved here in about 2012, I did not think that there was a huge presence for African cuisine, especially Nigerian or West African cuisine,” she says. “I thought that it was essential to have that presence in the city, and create the community that we wanted to see as immigrants.”
Now, dishes like ayamase, a hearty stew made with green peppers, are easier to find in downtown neighbourhoods at spots like Skcookks, the Suya Spot, Calabar Grill and ID Love.
Kak’s chicken from Skcookks.
But it’s not just restaurants. Staple dishes and West African ingredients like tatase peppers, iru and Ola Ola pounded yam flour are becoming more accessible at services like the online Nigerian and African grocery delivery shop My Chop Chop and in local grocery stores.
“A lot of Africans that have moved in the last couple of years are international students moving from hardship or trying for a better future, or refugees.” she says. “They’re not thinking about risking whatever small money they have into doing a business.”
Now, Adeyemi says, more people are in a better financial position to take the risks involved in starting a food business. Adeyemi launched her own ready-to-eat soup and sauce line back in 2018. Today, her products, like West African Pepper Sauce and Meat Lovers Chili, are available in Sobeys, Whole Foods and smaller health stores across the GTA.
“There’s some evolution when it comes to food, and I’m starting to see that now,” she says. “But there’s still a long, long way to go.”
Unlike some other cuisines, West African food is hampered by stigma and deep rooted racism.
Ozoz Sokoh is a professor, food researcher and creator of online food blog Kitchen Butterfly. She says that West African cuisine is known for its spiciness, which is a barrier for some people – a hypocritical barrier that is the result of racist ideologies from 400 years ago.
“Europeans love colonialism, and as a result they discarded and damaged hundreds and millions of lives in Africa,” she says. “Back in the 16th century, they said it was wrong to eat pepper. And since then, everything to do with chilies and pepper, heated food, has been vilified.”
“But then you’ll have the same people rush to Nashville to do hot-chicken-eating contests,” she continues. “There’s a lack of consistency in what people say and what people do. It’s a dismissal of Black heritage and origins.”
A lot of West African cuisine has similar dishes and cooking techniques to other cuisines around the world. Tête de veau, for instance, is a French dish that usually consists of a calf’s head, served with an acidic sauce like vinaigrette or ravigote. In Nigeria, there’s a similar dish that’s spicier, called isi ewu, which consists of goat head, habanero peppers, and ehuru, a type of nutmeg.
Yet there is still stigma surrounding West African cuisines, says chef Rachel Adjei.
“When West African food entrepreneurs try to expose you to very similar [dishes] – because the smell is different, because the look is different, because the taste is different – you’re afraid to approach it. It’s really hard for us to break into that, because you’re so fixated on the norm.”
Rachel Adjei created the Abibiman Project to showcase food from the Black and African diaspora and to educate others on food justice.
Adjei created the Abibiman Project, a non-profit initiative, which educates people on Black food insecurity and food justice in the city. Adjei aims to break rooted stigmas on cuisines from the Black and African diaspora.
Having a Ghanian background, she also finds it important to put more light on the region’s foods. Her favourite Ghanian dish is kelewele, fried plantains marinated with garlic and ginger and then finished with salt. It’s just one of the many food items that she usually sells online or at pop-up markets.
“It’s a matter of getting over the hump to where people can see West African ethnic food as ‘acceptable’ ethnic food,” she says.
While it took a long time to have the spotlight, one thing is for certain: West African food is here to stay, says Ugwueke. He cites the region’s pop culture, like Afrobeats and Nollywood, giving more exposure to the food.
“I’m so proud of what the artists are doing for my country,” he says. “It is our time.”