Pepper soup is a brothy stew made with seafood or meat, a blend of toasted spices and chiles. PICTURE: The New York Times
There is a saying in Yoruba, one of the languages spoken by the people of south-western Nigeria, that translates as: “The soul that does not eat pepper is a dead soul.”

The saying refers not to just one single element, but to the variety of ingredients in Nigerian cuisine that add heat to a dish: the mild tingle and smoke of selim peppers, the sudden rush of alligator peppers, the sustained heat of a habanero. We don’t say a dish is spicy - we say it has pepper.

Pepper is not meant to overburden your palate, but to stimulate it with an interplay of flavours and to bring your mouth to life.

My quest to connect with the food of my childhood really began only a few years ago. The past, no matter how distant, grows within us.

After 15 years working in the food world - in bakeries, restaurant pastry kitchens and test kitchens - and developing recipes in cuisines familiar to American readers, I began asking questions about whose culture was being reflected in the food I was making. I realised that I had not included myself in the conversation.

Nigeria is a country three times the size of Italy and it has just as many regional cuisines.

The food in the north is influenced by the availability of cattle and other livestock; our coastal regions use more fresh fish than their neighbours, which highlight dried or smoked fish in their dishes. Red palm oil suffuses dishes from the south.

In a country where dozens of ethnic groups interact, we have developed a cuisine that transcends tribal boundaries, recipes that can be considered national dishes.

I have found that it’s important when cooking Nigerian food to trust the ingredients to do their work.

The ingredients are “Nigerian” only in their interactions with one another and will take time to conspire in your pot. To accomplish the variety of textures that make the dish stand out, each recipe should be approached with patience and a sense of adventure. Do not be burdened by notions of authenticity.

Also trust the preparation and techniques - with a long braise, the muscle fibres in the goat leg will tenderise and surrender to the peppered juices of the obe ata, a bright red purée of red bell peppers, onions and tomatoes, with habanero for added heat and complexity.

A whole habanero with seeds will lend its gentle, lingering heat to the jollof rice. Fermented locust beans will plump up nicely with a soak in warm water and will collaborate with crayfish and red palm kernel oil to make an umami-rich pot of efo riro, or stewed greens.

In a funny way, that term - “Nigerian cuisine” - is a lovely bit of enthusiasm, but it’s almost too broad for its own good. Nigeria is vast, and its dishes reflect the geographic, cultural and ethnic divides that exist within our country. When it is explored in depth, our cuisine reveals the nuances of regions and peoples, and those of diaspora and return. 

 The New York Times