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Nigerian chef transforms traditional cuisine into fine dining

Nigeria

Chef Uzor Orimalade left her high profile corporate job to pursue her passion for food. She set up “Uzo’s Food Labs” where she grows her own herbs and vegetables. One of her clients is another chef, Ozoz Sokoh.

Both women are slowly revolutionising Nigerian cooking.

Uzor started an initiative called “garden to table Nigeria” which encourages organic and environmentally friendly farming.

She grows tomatoes, eggplant, peppers, cucumber, ginger and other vegetables and herbs. Some of which are not indigenous to Nigeria.

Under the moniker, “Kitchen Butterfly,” Ozoz runs a blog where she experiments with local recipes in what she calls the “The New Nigerian Kitchen.”

Her goal is to elevate traditional Nigerian cooking to fine dining.

“The new Nigerian kitchen that we see a lot of now that is championed by someone that I really really like, Ozoz, integrates other elements from other cuisines into our Nigerian food so by having a garden like this with things like basal and lime basal and the foreign egg plant, we can integrate that into Nigerian food and it will be seamless and I think that’s actually the key to opening Nigerian food up to the international pallet, a lot of the problem I think has been the presentation of Nigerian food and the ‘conkness’ which isn’t necessarily bad but let’s face it, you need to water things down or make Nigerian food a little more acceptable to the pallets of the foreigners and by doing that you can just integrate some things that they are familiar with and then it almost seems like it now goes from Nigerian food to world cuisine,” said Uzor.

Today, Ozoz is preparing a meal for a group of friends in her home in Lagos. The chef says she transforms Nigerian meals into delightful culinary adventures.

She begins by blending tomatoes, pepper, onions, ginger and coconut to prepare a green curry sauce.

Ozoz hopes the “New Nigerian Kitchen” will inspire other chefs to be more innovative and push food and restaurant industry here to grow.

“I hope that it changes what Nigerians at home eat. I hope that it also influences what is served in Nigerian restaurants at home and abroad and I think more importantly is I hope that it inspires and creates a generation of small and medium entrepreneurs who create products that are exportable, that are shelf stable products that can be you know, that can be used in restaurants that can be sold at home and abroad,” she said.

Along with the curry, Ozoz serves “acha” or steamed grain, fried chicken rolled in dried cassava leaves, plantain bread, “abacha,” an African salad made with desiccated coconut, pawpaw juice and hibiscus tea.

Her guests say they are impressed.

“I love how she cooks, I like how she elevates Nigerian food, how she takes something, a really simple ingredient and then turns it into something fantastic like we have the green curry here which is made with nshawu also known as efirin(scent leaves) and it’s just fantastic. It’s the sort of thing that if I go to a restaurant, a better restaurant, and they serve it to me I’ll be really happy to pay,” said Ufuomaka Umeke, Ozoz’s friend.

To promote her new brand of cooking, Ozoz also participates in events like this food and drink fair. Several chefs demonstrate their skills in front of a live audience.

For Ozoz reinventing age old recipes is her way of ensuring that those traditions remain alive and continue to be passed down from generation to generation.

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