“Why do you go away? So that you can come back. So that you can see the place you came from with new eyes and extra colors. And the people there see you differently too. Coming back to where you started is not the same as never leaving.”
These words, penned by Terry Pratchett, the U.K.’s best-selling author of the 1990s, could have been written for Tola Akerele, whose parents sent her, as an eight-year-old, from Lagos, Nigeria, to boarding school in England.
Akerele spent more than 20 years living in the U.K. From prep school in the seaside resort town of Burnham-on-Sea, she went on to high school in Worcestershire in the West Midlands. She graduated from the historic University of Bristol with a degree in economics and politics, which secured her a job in London working for Credit Suisse, the global investment bank.
“I was loving London. Enjoying the city. Traveling. Doing well financially. There was a very strong pull to stay in London. But I also felt this pull to go back to Nigeria.”
To weigh her options, not wanting to have regrets later, she quit her job. “I thought I would spend six months in Nigeria, hate it, and return to London to live.”
But, “I found I loved coming back. Bonding back. It felt amazingly right.” Within days, Akerele was invited to join a good friend in a venture involving one of the biggest galleries in Lagos, Africa’s second-largest megacity after Kinshasa. She said yes without hesitation.
“Thinking back, I wasn’t that excited by what I had been doing in London. It wasn’t like, Yay! another spreadsheet…” she shares as she laughs.
“The gallery gave birth to (and is still part of) Bogobiri House,” a boutique hotel that would presage the launch of a new career direction for Akerele— interior design. Notable in its absence, Akerele and her friend started on the design concept and detail, showcasing Nigeria’s bounty of local materials. Hand-carved furniture and furnishings, for instance.
Variety is Nigeria’s Spice of Life
Bogobiri House would become what Akerele calls “an Afrocentric melting pot” for lovers of art, music, food and culture. From the start, the hotel restaurant offered a mix of local and international fare for their 90% (pre-COVID) foreign guests. Once Akerele started traveling regularly in southwestern and southeastern Nigeria for her design business, she came to learn about — and appreciate — the country’s culinary bounty and diversity. She noted that, like the dècor, a veritable banquet was being overlooked. To redress this, Akerele opened The Orishirishi Kitchen at Bogobiri House, which the Lagos restaurant would become known for its creative quality farm-to-table Africana fare.
Appropriately, “orishirishi” translates as “variety” in Nigeria’s Yoruba language. Nigeria, a federation of 36 states, is home to more than 300 ethnic groups. Nigerian cuisine reflects this diversity. For a quickie overview of the country, click through and read this 2020 BBC article, Nigeria turns 60: Can Africa's most populous nation remain united?
Inspired by the restaurant’s popularity and fare, Akerele has now ventured into the world of publishing with The Orishirishi Cookbook, a splendid, practical, accessible coffee-table homage and guide to Nigerian food and culture.
“I really am proud of my heritage,” she says. “Food is one way people can get to know and understand a country, its culture, its people. With this book, I wanted to bring Nigeria alive for Nigerians in the diaspora, as I was when living in the U.K. Also to make the country’s culinary culture and recipes accessible to anyone with an adventurous palate, anywhere.”
A cookbook for the culinary and culturally adventurous. People like herself, it strikes me as we talk.
Diving into Nigeria
When I Google “Tola Akerele,” the first thing that pops up is a feature in ritzy Harper’s Bazaar on her and her Lagos home, which you can read here. It begins, “Nigerian interior designer Tola Akerele is a woman of many talents.”
Since returning to Nigeria and “diving in,” she has trained at New York’s acclaimed Parsons School of Design and London’s KLC School of Design. And established iDESIGN by Tola Akerele, her award-winning interior design company, which handles the gamut from commercial and residential projects to hospitality ventures and corporate offices.
“I love traveling. I love eating. And Nigeria is very big,” says Akerele, when we connect via Zoom in Durban (where I am) to Lagos to hang out and talk. I catch her between trips. She, her lawyer husband and their two daughters have just returned from summer vacation: London and the Greek island of Crete.
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“When I travel, I love to eat the foods. Thailand a couple of years ago was wonderful. In Greece, we ate lots of lovely lamb and salads.” She is off, in a couple of days, to Dallas, Texas. A working trip. “One of my clients who is building a house here used to live in Dallas and wants to source his furniture from there.”
She says her intention with “The Orishirishi Cookbook” is to bring Nigeria “alive” for the world. She had a vision, an image of what she wanted it to look like. For a team to work on it with her, she asked for ideas from her book club and a restaurant group she belongs to. She got names. Spoke to people. She says she, “Found people I thought understood what I had in mind and who I thought I could work with.” The graphic designer, a key person, she had worked with before. She chose Lagos-based food photographer Anjola Awosika and her editor through her book group contacts.
And she spent time in the kitchen testing recipes and deciding what to include. Click through to see Akerele preparing her favorite “Native Soup “ on YouTube.
In regards to the different dishes and different flavors she discovered while traveling for her design business, she says, “I wanted to include all of these. Traditional Nigerian food, not jazzed up but real and authentic. I realized that people living abroad, as I had, would not have access to what I was discovering,” she says. “I wanted to make them easy to prepare. How do you make them in a simple way? And where do you get the ingredients? Including this adds a cultural element.”
Nigerian food, like many West African cuisines, is known for being spicy. The cookbook has her versions of what she calls “main stars,” which are still not mainstream—the acclaimed West African specialties, jollof rice and egusi soup, for instance.
“Here in Nigeria, we have a lot of leafy vegetables. A lot of yams [for] breakfast and lunch. Beans. Cassava. We’re quite heavy on carbs. We are carnivorous. There’s a lot of meat eating. Poultry. Seafood. We’re not big on desserts and cakes. That’s not part of the tradition. People do desserts for parties, but we generally prefer a fruit salad.”
Some of the recipes are from the original hotel menu. Others are Orishirishi Kitchen’s specialty items, including frejon, available at the restaurant just once a year. “My husband is a Lagosian, from Lagos. His family, generations back, were slaves in Brazil.” Frejon (from feijão, the Portuguese word for beans), eaten at Easter time, is made from black beans traditionally cooked gently overnight over a fire then mixed with coconut milk to form a thick, smooth pudding. Starting from the 1830s, many emancipated slaves began moving back from Brazil to Lagos, bringing with them infused cultural, culinary and other traditions. These are the roots of a Brazilian Quarter in Lagos Island.
Food, Family, Memories
Given we are both boarding school survivors (my school was in Durban, and like her, I started boarding at age eight), the inevitable subject comes up. Boarding school food. “We had to wear these (pinafore) overalls that had two pockets. I remember putting Brussels sprouts in the pockets to discard. Boiled. Bland. Such a disservice to food. For years I was put off vegetables.”
Her earliest food memories?
“Visiting my grandparents. They had a courtyard. My earliest memory is of my grandmother cooking over firewood outside in the courtyard. There would be a gathering. She’d be super-excited because we were all visiting her from Lagos. I remember the smells; so distinctive. Her jollof rice. The various aunties. My grandfather. The togetherness. The joy. The pure contentment. The food, always so spicy, you needed gallons of water to get you through it.”
Her mom, she says, is a huge foodie.
“I grew up with a big focus on food. My mom loves to cook and entertain. My parents had dinner parties often (when her dad was still alive). My mom cooks both Nigerian food and English food. We have a good roast often.” Her parents had a (second) house in London and school holidays were spent between London and Nigeria, “So while I am fully Nigerian, having grown up in the U.K., I definitely have some of that culture too.”
Both her brothers, she says, are amazing cooks.
“And my husband is a foodie. Long breakfasts that continue into brunch are his specialty. The breakfasts started when the kids were young. They are nine and seven now, so growing up, but the breakfasts continue. He loves to invite people. Family, friends for food, pleasure, company.
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“Sometimes 10 or 12 people. Sometimes just us. He likes to experiment.” His favorites to prepare are yam chips and egg stew (a kind of omelet with tomato). Or he might do moi moi (a savory steamed traditional dish with black-eyed peas, peppers, onions, peppers; often seafood). Or akara (a light and crunchy black-eyed pea fritter).
“Here in Nigeria, any excuse to celebrate and we’re there,” says Akerele. “Naming events. Birthdays. There are about four ceremonies around weddings. As a culture, people celebrate. I had 1,000 people at my wedding. That’s not unusual. The first child in the family getting married, my parents were very excited. Although now with COVID, obviously not …”
Why would we come to visit Nigeria, I ask? “Not for the sights,” says Akerele. “Rather for the art, the music, the fashion, the energy. It is not the easiest place for the traveler. But the festivals, the culture. I recently had friends to stay from Australia and London and they loved it.”
By the time we’re zoomed out, I am keen to visit. Her enthusiasm and passion are contagious. I think of the Terry Pratchett quote.“Coming back to where you started is not the same as never leaving.” Isn’t that the truth?