A Nigerian Lunch, from Memory

By Hunter Lewis, Kitchen Director

Published on March 23, 2010

We measure, weigh, and record every ingredient for every recipe that we test in the SAVEUR kitchen. The cooking times and temperatures are noted. Then we taste, revise, and test the recipes again and again, until they come out right. Staff meals offer us a chance to set aside the digital scales, timers, and measuring spoons for an hour or two and bring a sense of improvisation to the stove. These meals also tell us more about a cook's background than any resume could. Our kitchen assistant Yewande Komolafe has cooked in professional kitchens up and down the East Coast, from gigs at Restaurant Eugene in Atlanta to Momofuku Milk Bar, a dessert-centric joint here in Manhattan. This week, however, she dipped back into childhood memories of her family's kitchen in Lagos, Nigeria, to prepare an incredible lunch: jollof rice, stewed chicken, greens, fried sweet plantains, and hibiscus tea.

Yewande flavored her rice, chicken, and greens by sauteing a piquant mixture of pureed red onions, plum tomatoes, red bell peppers, red habanero chiles, and garlic in each pot. The mixture, known as ata, brought to my mind both Puerto Rican

sofrito and Italian soffritto, two important building blocks that deepen the flavor of rice, beans, stews, sauces, and braised meats. The ata gave her dishes subtle heat and lent the rice a pleasant reddish yellow hue. Yewande, who left Nigeria for the United States at 16, cooked the meal from memory and improvised along the way. "Personal touches are big in Nigerian cooking, as recipes are hardly ever written down," she said. "You learn by watching someone else, or cooking to your own taste or your family's taste."

Photos by Anna Stockwell

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