Meet Ozoz Sokoh, the Historian Creating A Digital Archive of West African Food

“There’s something about homesickness that makes you romanticize home,” says Nigerian-born culinary historian Ozoz Sokoh. Like many immigrants, nostalgia for “home food” impressed Sokoh — who now lives in Canada — to discover her native delicacies. 

It wasn’t till just a few years in the past, nevertheless, that she found one of the earliest documentations of jollof rice in Practical West African Cookery, a cookbook printed in 1908/1910. Sokoh was excited to search out such a file of West African historical past — till she learn the racist introduction. “The preface, An apology to every Nigerian reader, shared the uncertainty of the writers, whose ‘main object in view was to enable the white man to obtain that well cooked and varied food so essential to health,’” explains Sokoh on her site. “The apology wasn’t repentance for the language used to describe Nigerians, but was directed instead to British home cooks stationed in Nigeria, for the imperfect adaptation of French recipes to Nigerian circumstance.”

This guide could be the basis for Sokoh’s platform Feast Afrique, which she launched in October 2020, additional solidifying her dedication to documenting African culinary historical past. Feast Afrique is a digital platform that, as she places it, “celebrates West African culinary heritage.” On the web site, you will discover sources corresponding to a digital library of over 240 books on African culinary historical past spanning from 1928 to at present, “problematic cookbooks,” and map-based explorations of world meals. By documenting and archiving African culinary historical past, Sokoh hopes to reveal the politics of meals that continues to marginalize Black individuals.

I just lately talked to Sokoh about how she began her journey and why Feast Afrique issues.

Walk me via how your culinary journey began.
I first turned concerned about meals whereas at college in Liverpool. As a younger scholar, I used to be hungry and wished good meals, so I began exploring and writing recipes in notebooks. I wrote these “experiments” down as a result of I wished to have the ability to repeat recipes constantly. My first recipe was a cooked tomato salsa in 1998. 

Still, it wasn’t till I moved to the Netherlands in 2007 that I noticed the recipes I used to be accumulating as one thing I might publicly share. At the time, I used to be working as an exploration geologist, which is what my father had inspired me to review at school. I used to be sad and nonetheless obsessive about meals. In the fall of 2008, a good friend came visiting for dinner and was running a blog. That’s when the concept for a weblog settled in. It took 9 months for me to publish my first put up as a result of I used to be a perfectionist — and that’s how Kitchen Butterfly was born.

When you first launched Kitchen Butterfly, did you may have plans to gather and doc Nigerian and African recipes?
Not notably. When I initially launched, I shared generic recipes that I found and previous recipes from my childhood that I had tried once more as an grownup and wished to share. This can be once I began significantly contemplating the aesthetics of meals. I’d take photos of some of the Nigerian meals I’d prepare dinner and assume, Is this even fairly sufficient to share? I started deliberately accumulating Nigerian cookbooks in 2010. I had gone out with a colleague to a restaurant and he made a press release a couple of Brazilian meal, akaraje, that sounded similar to the Nigerian akara — it made me interested by what different connections had been on the market. I used to be shocked to see simply how few there have been.

Your remark about the aesthetics of the meals you made makes me take into consideration whether or not that was a barrier to Nigerian and African cookbooks getting printed. Our culinary practices — how we plate meals, how we eat — is completely different and typically considered as uncultured. What do you assume?
Absolutely, a bunch of the work I considered once I began my journey was written by Western individuals. It was unhappy to see extra of the identical sorts of books getting commissioned whereas African cooks and culinary anthropologists barely bought a point out or the alternative to share our historical past.

Is this what impressed Feast Afrique?
The concept for Feast Afrique truly got here in 2013. I envisioned it as a print journal exploring African meals. The aim was initially to prepare the hyperlinks, concepts, and information I had collected over the years.

It would take some time earlier than Feast Afrique truly launched — what occurred?
If I used to be going to do that work of documenting African culinary historical past, I wished to do it effectively. I reached out to an information scientist to assist with analysis. In 2014 my editor good friend, who I had reached out to assist, died and that grief affected issues. In 2015, I despatched proposals and pitches about the journal, however bought no responses. Still, I put the concept on the market and launched a web site in 2018. It was holding house as proof of analysis. In 2020, nevertheless, issues modified for me.

How so?
While I’ve lived overseas for a good portion of my life, 2020 was the first time I lived in North America. This was my first time experiencing systemic racism on this method. I noticed how there’s at all times this strain to push “Black excellence” to show how worthy we’re of scholarship and of documenting. It actually made me contemplate methods I’ll have pandered or displayed “pick me” habits for Western acceptance. I considered how the world celebrates non-Black mediocrity and realized I don’t have to fulfill unrealistic expectations for me or my work to be worthy. I learn so much about this, however it was one factor to expertise it myself. And so I’ve been studying about enslaved individuals’s relationship with meals and the way that formed historical past inside and out of doors America. Colonialism actually created this insidious disconnect amongst us. It’s been an emotional expertise.

Yes, migrating and studying about historical past by way of the Black diaspora was additionally an expertise for me. It’s wild to see how a lot there’s to inform and know the way a lot goes untold by mainstream publications claiming to inform international tales, proper?
You know, once I was doing preliminary work for Feast Afrique, I’d search “best food in the world” and see what search outcomes got here up and doc. It is overwhelming to see the bias current in documenting African historical past. Language is a large determinant of notion. For occasion uziza, a sort of pepper utilized in Nigeria, is commonly translated as “fake pepper” in literature. Another instance is how in France, there’s tete de veau which is lauded however whenever you point out Nigeria’s isi ewu, individuals freak out about the concept of consuming goat head. 

I like that you simply talked about this. I feel typically as Nigerians and Africans, we understandably battle with the concept of our meals being “explored.” What’s your expertise of this as a culinary researcher?
I perceive why individuals really feel protecting: Appropriation and fusions can usually be inconsiderate mash-ups with out respect for the ingredient/meals’s historical past. I do so much of ingredient-based work/recipe growth that honors the ingredient’s origins. History is vital as a result of it mirrors — which means, it’s mirrored in the current.

What’s subsequent for you?
I wish to assume of my work as a technique to showcase prospects while recognizing our heritage. I bought right into a fellowship with Forecast in 2020 and it has been an expertise. I’ve the mentorship to essentially hone my work. I’m engaged on two analysis movies on West African components. I commissioned a poet to make a poem about meals. There are countless prospects! 

Thanks a lot for taking the time to speak with us, Ozoz Sokoh!

Adedoyin Adeniji


Adedoyin “Ade” Adeniji is a contract author based mostly in Chicago whose writing focuses on African digital cultures, womanhood, race and tradition. When she’s not writing, you will discover her thrifting throughout the metropolis.

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