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A Culinary Ode to my Nigerian-British Upbringing

Written by Toyo Odetunde: @toyotastes

Illustration by Rhia Cook: @rhiacookmakes

Food is inextricably linked to our cultural identities and upbringing. This becomes particularly apparent when thinking about the culinary concept of ‘staples’. This term often denotes the dishes and ingredients widely recognised as defining a cuisine. In some ways, the basics. Staples paradoxically combine notions of collectivity and introspection. The staples we choose to eat can reflect our relation to a cultural community, whilst simultaneously embodying a deeply personal experience of taking pleasure in the familiar.

Recently, I have come to recognise how this curious paradox manifests in my own eating habits. Two meals in particular that I enjoyed growing up combine basic staples originating from different cuisines. They both somewhat amusingly, yet aptly, pay homage to my upbringing as a woman cultivated by both Nigerian and British culture, and by the specific culture bred from the symbiosis of the two. These meals combine the gratifying simplicity of British comfort food culture, with Nigerian household favourites.

Tea and agege bread with butter and jam

Tea, jam, butter, bread – a quartet of ingredients integral to a quintessentially British breakfast, or to the British ritual of light refreshment; 'afternoon tea'. I am more of a coffee drinker really, but I cannot deny the tenderness that swirls within a simple cup of tea. While coffee ignites the mind, tea caresses the soul. Then, is there really anything that delivers saccharine gooey goodness in the way that jam (strawberry or raspberry for me, please!) does?

Cementing this meal, or at times snack, is agege bread. Agege bread derives its name from the Lagos suburb which became a key centre for its production in Nigeria. However the history of agege bread is interwoven with Nigeria's wider colonial and socio-economic past. It is a soft, stretchy, sweet bread which uniquely manages to achieve both fluffiness and density. Simple yet delicious, it is a bona fide family favourite across Nigerian households globally. Agege bread is commonly eaten with other Nigerian and West African dishes and stews, such as ewa aganyin - a dish of mashed beans and a rich hot pepper sauce. I enjoy these traditional combinations, but I derive a distinct pleasure from the simple harmony of agege bread and jam. The flavours and textures are complementary, and perhaps as agege bread is characteristically unsliced, portions are measured in relation to emotion. Agege bread has featured in many of my most solitary moments, but it also reminds me of my family's shared love of food. A loaf has a respectable shelf life, but its life expectancy in our house was always around 3 hours from time of entry into the pantry. To avoid dispute, we would share it at a family breakfast – each of us lathering our quarter with our accompaniment of choice. Again, that comfortable paradox of individuality and togetherness.

Egusi stew and jacket potato

If there ever was a definitive directory of the mainstays of modern British food culture, the jacket potato would surely be shortlisted. The protagonist of productions such as 'A Midweek Night's Dream' and 'High School Dinner Musical'. But I came to enjoy the feathery starchiness of a jacket potato by combining it with the ambrosial Nigerian egusi stew.

Ẹgusi is the Yorùbá name for a type of melon harvested in parts of West Africa. The term is also used to refer to the seeds of gourd plants. The stew is made from these seeds. They are grounded, cooked with palm and or vegetable oil and leafy vegetables, and the stew is usually embellished with pieces of meat and or seafood. It is seasoned with various ingredients including chillies, onions and irú (Yorùbá for fermented locust beans), with some variations also using tomato. It is intensely flavourful and traditionally eaten with iyan (Yorùbá for the lovely billowy dough formed from pounding yam). Nevertheless I found the humble yet warming jacket potato, a British food classic, to be an adept alternative carb for soaking up and balancing out the uniquely rich flavour of egusi stew. There are practical benefits too, it's an easy way to enjoy left over egusi stew – pounding yam, even instant versions, is an arm workout you may wish to avoid after a full day's work.

I love experimenting with food and cooking techniques, occasionally sampling and trying my hand at the more complex or unusual. However being able to explore so much of my identity just by reminiscing upon two relatively simple meals, reminds me of the innate beauty of staples. They are not just comfort dishes, they are a reminder of who we are.

Toyo's piece was first published in Issue 3, our Back to Basics issue. Get your own copy of the magazine here:


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