Nigerian cuisine is filled with beautiful complexity – as Zoe Alakija’s plant-based recipes demonstrate.
Whether you’re a passionate cook or someone who makes great dinner reservations, many of the meals we eat on a daily basis have roots all over the world. From biryani and satay to gnocchi and moussaka, food has a wonderful way of opening a window onto cultures near and far – even as we’re sat at our kitchen tables in the UK.
Sometimes, though, we can’t see our own heritage reflected by mainstream culture, which is what inspired British-Nigerian art director and food stylist Zoe Alakija to write her new cookbook Afro Vegan: Family Recipes From A British-Nigerian Kitchen. Now based in London, Alakija fuses the flavours of her childhood in Ibadan, southwest Nigeria with vegan principles to create more than 50 eclectic recipes that will bring your palate to life.
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The recipes in Afro Vegan are totally accessible if you’re new to Nigerian cuisine, and can easily be made with ingredients that are readily available in the average UK supermarket: think tomatoes, peppers and onions. That being said, if you’re lucky enough to have an Afro-Caribbean market or specialist store nearby, it’s definitely worth tracking down ingredients traditionally used in Nigerian cuisine, such as yam, cassava, hickory smoke powder, honey beans and Scotch bonnet peppers.
Ultimately, whether you’re cooking for meat-eaters or vegans, you can be sure that the dishes in this book will surprise and delight anyone interested in food.
Below, Alakija shares three recipes from Afro Vegan, starting with a hearty groundnut and sweet potato stew. A staple dish in West Africa, Alakija’s version is a tempting combination of sweet and savoury flavours, featuring tomatoes, peanut butter and, of course, a fiery kick provided by Scotch bonnets.
The yellow rice, meanwhile, is the perfect accompaniment to your favourite stew. Seasoned with Caribbean-blend curry powders, shombo (cayenne) peppers and a rich mix of vegetables, it’s a cinch to prepare and will keep a hungry crowd happy.
Finally, if you’re a firm believer that brownies should be fudgy, then Alakija’s nutty recipe could well be your new favourite bake. As Alakija explains below, the key ingredient is plantain – and once you’ve perfected the mix, you can go to town with the toppings. Prepare for a taste sensation…
Groundnut stew with sweet potato
Zoe says: “My mum doesn’t cook – except for this. And, boy, does she cook it well. We ate this spicy ground-nut (the word Nigerians use for peanut) stew all the time as kids and never tired of it.
“Enjoyed throughout West Africa as ‘mafé’, and usually made with chicken, it has an unequalled palette of flavours: sweet tomatoes, aromatic cumin, smooth peanut butter and fiery Scotch bonnets, tempered with creamy coconut. Serve with brown rice as pictured here, è.bà, or just as it is.”
Cooking time: 1 hour, 15 minutes
- 3 tbsp groundnut oil
- 1 white onion, finely chopped
- 1 or 2 Scotch bonnets (to taste)
- 2 tbsp fresh ginger, peeled and finely grated
- 4 garlic cloves, crushed
- 2 tsp ground cumin
- 1 tsp cayenne pepper
- 1 tsp ground white pepper
- 2 tbsp tomato purée
- 400g can chopped tomatoes
- 1kg sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into 3cm chunks
- 180g smooth natural peanut butter
- 1 tsp fine salt
- 1 vegetable stock cube (preferably Maggi), crumbled
- 150g unsalted peanuts
- 250g fresh spinach, washed
- 160ml coconut cream
- 3 limes (1 juiced, 2 to garnish)
Heat the oil (red palm or vegetable oil work too) in a large pan, over a medium heat. Brown the onion for about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally.
Meanwhile deseed and finely chop the Scotch bonnets, then add them to the pan along with the ginger.
Cook for 2 minutes, then add the garlic, stirring for another minute.
Tip in the cumin, cayenne pepper and white pepper and cook for 1 minute more, stirring to avoid any burning.
Stir in the tomato purée, then add the tomatoes, sweet potatoes, peanut butter, salt and stock cube with 1 litre boiling water.
Bring to the boil, before reducing to a simmer. Cover the pot three-quarters with a lid and cook for 50 minutes, stirring occasionally.
Meanwhile, preheat your oven to 180°C (160°C fan) for the roast peanut topping.
Blitz the peanuts in a food processor for just a few seconds, so you still have chunks and a variation of textures. Spread them out on a tray and bake in the centre of the oven for about 15 minutes, or until dark brown in colour, before setting aside.
When the stew’s had its 50 minutes, mash a few of the sweet potatoes, leaving some chunks, and stir in the spinach, coconut cream and lime juice.
Serve topped with the oven-roasted peanuts and the remaining limes, cut into wedges. Crispy onions, crushed plantain crisps or chilli flakes, for extra heat, also garnish well.
Zoe says: “This iconic, yellow, crispy, caramelly Nigerian rice is best served hot, loaded with dodo and lashings of spicy ata dindin or alongside your favourite stew.
“Usually made with chopped beef liver, this version features an array of vegetables paired with aromatic herbs and spices. Caribbean-blend curry powders work best for this recipe and if you can’t find shombo peppers, you can also use jalapeño or serrano peppers.”
Cooking time: 50 minutes
- 500g long-grain rice
- 4 tbsp vegetable oil
- 1 red onion, diced
- 3 garlic cloves
- 1 or 2 shombo (cayenne) peppers
- 3 large flat mushrooms
- 3 medium carrots, peeled
- 2 yellow, orange or green peppers
- 150g green beans
- sprig of fresh rosemary
- 2 tsp dried thyme
- 2 bay leaves
- 1 ½ tsp turmeric powder
- 2 tsp curry powder
- 1 tsp ground ginger
- 1 tsp ehuru (calabash nutmeg) or ground nutmeg
- 2 tsp fine salt
- 1 tsp freshly ground black pepper
- 500ml vegetable stock
- 150g fresh shelled peas
- 200g can sweetcorn, drained
Gently stir the rice in water to remove the starch, then drain and repeat until the water stays clear.
Heat the oil in a casserole dish over a medium heat. Add the red onion and cook for about 10 minutes until golden.
Meanwhile, finely chop the garlic and shombo peppers, dice the mushrooms, carrots and deseeded yellow, orange or green peppers, and trim and chop the green beans. Add them all to the pot, stir, and cook for 5 minutes.
Add the rosemary sprig, thyme, bay leaves, all the spices and the salt and pepper. Mix and cook for 2–3 minutes, then gently stir the rice into the pan in small increments, cooking for 2 minutes more.
Slowly pour in the vegetable stock, bring it to a boil and then reduce to a simmer. Give it one good stir, then cover and cook gently until the rice has absorbed the stock, roughly 10 minutes. Monitor it but try not to stir. If needed, add a small splash of hot water.
Add the peas and sweetcorn, return the lid, and cook for a further 3–5 minutes, until the peas are tender.
Remove from the heat and leave to sit for 10 minutes.
Remove the bay leaves, and lightly fluff the rice with a fork. You could garnish with crispy onions, chilli sauce and plenty of fresh, chopped parsley.
Nutty plantain brownies
Zoe says: “These brownies are everything good brownies should be: decadent, moist, fudgy, and absolutely delicious to sink your teeth into. Most people think I’m joking when I say there’s plantain in them, but this ingredient is actually the key to the lushness and makes the flavour all the more caramelly.
“The selection of nuts balances the sweet softness with a satisfying crunch for the ultimate rich treat – but you can get endlessly creative and load them up with your favourite goodies.”
Cooking time: 1 hour, plus cooling time
- 150g coconut oil, melted, plus extra for greasing
- 100g cocoa powder, sieved, plus 2 tbsp for dusting
- 2 ripe yellow plantains (the skins will be splotchy black), peeled
- 125ml full-fat oat milk
- 1 tsp vanilla extract
- 150g plain flour, sieved
- 200g caster sugar
- 1 ½ tsp baking powder
- ¼ tsp fine salt
- 125g hazelnuts, roughly chopped
- 125g cashews, roughly chopped
- 150g vegan dark chocolate, chopped into small chunks
- 140g smooth peanut butter
Heat your oven to 180°C (160°C fan).
Use a small amount of coconut oil to grease and line a 20cm/8in-square tin with baking parchment, then grease the parchment.
Sprinkle the tin with the 2 tablespoons of cocoa powder, shaking and tapping it to make sure it’s spread evenly. Set aside.
Tip the plantains, 150g coconut oil, the oat milk and vanilla extract into a blender or food processor and blitz until smooth, then pour into a medium bowl.
Sieve the flour, 100g cocoa powder, sugar, baking powder and salt into a separate bowl, and tip into the wet mixture, combining well into a batter.
Once smooth, stir in the nuts and chocolate, reserving a small handful of each for the topping.
Pour the batter into your prepared tin and spread the mixture out evenly using the back of a spoon.
Drop the peanut butter in nine, roughly equal dollops across the tin and use a knife to marble it lightly into the batter, without mixing it too much.
Scatter the reserved hazelnuts, cashews and chocolate chunks over the top, gently pushing them into the mixture.
Bake in the centre of the oven for 30–45 minutes, checking the brownies after 30 minutes, until the mixture is set but with a definite wobble in the centre. Leave in the tin to cool completely, then slice into 12 equal pieces for serving.
From Afro Vegan: Family Recipes From A British-Nigerian Kitchen by Zoe Alakija (£25, Hoxton Mini Press), out 20 May
Photography: © Zoe Alakija
Christobel Hastings is a London-based journalist covering pop culture, feminism, LGBTQ and lore.