Connecting With West Africa’s Plant-Based Past

When she moved back to Lagos in 2010 after living and working abroad, Affiong Osuchukwu noticed that a lot of the Nigerian food she cherished had become meat-centric. Although the essence of the dishes hadn’t changed, they seemed, to her, to be meatier.

“I never recalled a pot of soup as having as much meat and fish as I see today,” she said. “My running joke is ‘Where is the soup in the soup?’ Because all I see is animal parts. The soup is not there.”

Ms. Osuchukwu runs Plant Food Federation, a website focused on plant-based approaches to Nigerian cuisine, and she is one of many cooks in West Africa and the diaspora navigating the experience of being veganin a culture that holds certain ideas about food close. She is also part of a growing number of people trying to confront a misconception that it is difficult — and even limiting — to eat a meatless diet using West African ingredients.

On the contrary, Ms. Osuchukwu, who is originally from Calabar, in southern Nigeria, said that there are many ingredients available across the country that can be used to adapt traditional dishes for a plant-based diet, like sliced ugba, a fermented oil bean seed, which steps in for dried and smoked fish in native rice and in abacha, a salad of shredded cassava, red palm oil and fresh herbs.

“People always ask me know how I handle being vegan or plant-based in Nigeria because they believe we don’t have food diversity here,” she said, “and I always look at them like, ‘No, actually, we have more food diversity locally, right here, than in many different parts of the world.’ ”

West Africans are passionate about adaptations to their dishes. New approaches are questioned, and traditional ways of making beloved recipes are championed. But plant-based ingredients are not just replacing meat in these recipes; they are revealing new paths to familiar flavors.

Moin moin, a fluffy bean cake, is steamed in banana leaves and stuffed with mushrooms here. Credit…Kelly Marshall for The New York Times. Food Stylist: Roscoe Betsill. Prop Stylist: Getteline Rene.

Removing animal products from recipes like moin moin, steamed bean cakes that may be packed with meat, fish or eggs (sometimes all three), and often served at holiday celebrations; gizdodo, a chicken gizzard and plantain dish; and kontomire stew, a melon seed soup made with cocoyam leaves, hasn’t created the kind of culinary gap one might imagine.

Moin moin, for example, does not need the additions of animal products that have become ubiquitous across Lagos. (“The Nigerian Cookbook” by H.O. Anthonio and M. Isoun, published in 1982, features a plant-based recipe.) Mushrooms can step into many dishes, hitting all of the same notes you would find in a meat-based recipe. Lemongrass, coconut, cassava and seasonal fruit are indigenous ingredients across many parts of West Africa, and they shine in a lemongrass tapioca.

Bouncy pearl tapioca is served with a lemongrass broth and caramelized citrus slices in this vegan dessert. Credit…Kelly Marshall for The New York Times. Food Stylist: Roscoe Betsill. Prop Stylist: Getteline Rene.

Afia Amoako, who posts on Instagram and TikTok as @thecanadianafrican, said something that resonated with the recipe developer in me: There is no standard recipe for many traditional dishes. There are only standard methods, ways of building and layering flavor, techniques that produce a familiar outcome.

“We all know how incredibly protective of their food West African people are, but we sometimes forget that everyone does it differently in their own household,” she said.

When Ms. Amoako, a Ghanaian doctoral student living in Toronto, became a vegan about six years ago, her family and friends wondered how this would change her relationship to the food she grew up eating — food her parents ate daily.

She says it has helped her connect to a more traditional way of eating.

“My mom has been so gracious about helping me veganize a lot of my dishes,” Ms. Amoako said. “She’ll say, ‘OK, let’s pull out what we did in the village because that aligns with how you’re eating.’”

Her social media platforms have become robust forums for discussing what it means for everyday Ghanaian dishes to be adapted to suit a plant-based diet.

“My work on my platforms is a reminder to fellow Ghanaians that being vegan doesn’t mean losing or giving up your culture,” Ms. Amoako said.

In fact, she sees a harmony between exploring the continent’s history and adapting her cuisine.

“The ways that we did it before,” she said, “there was sustainability built into it.”

Fatmata Binta examines the plant-based foundations of Fulani cuisine through her dinner series, Fulani Kitchen.Credit…Francis Kokoroko for The New York Times

Fatmata Binta, a Fulani chef based in Ghana, has also found that harmony.

She examines the plant-based foundations of Fulani cuisine through her dinner series, Fulani Kitchen, which was inspired by her visits to Fulani settlements throughout Ghana.

She says that most people assume that the cuisine is meat-centric, because of the Fulani people’s connection to cattle. But, she says, “cattle is business for Fulani people” — the meat is mostly sold at markets and is a central source of income for the community.

Though Ms. Binta is not vegan, she notes that plant-based eatingaligns with a more traditional way of life.

“Our nomadic lifestyle requires that we travel mostly with nonperishable and preserved foods,” she said. “Grains, legumes, potatoes and sun-dried ingredients make up most of our diet.”

During the pandemic, unable to travel easily, she began finding ingredients at Nima Market in Ghana, where Fulani and Hausa traders would sell ingredients, and foraging locally in and aroundAburi. “I discovered so many local ingredients by foraging, and I’m able to work with the ingredients when they are at their best,” she said. “It’s so inspiring and therapeutic.”

For some West African chefs in the diaspora, engaging with vegetarian interpretations of their cuisines has prompted other kinds of self-reflection.

Salimatu Amabebe rejects terms like “vegan” when it comes to describing the intersection of African food and plant-based eating. It’s “used to market food to people,” he said.Credit…Rachel Bujalski for The New York Times

Salimatu Amabebe, who uses the pronouns he and they, is the director of Black Feast, a Bay Area dinner series that incorporates the work of Black artists and musicians, and centers the Black experience through a plant-based lens. He also seeks to merge two culinary identities: as a youth in the United States where his Nigerian father’s cooking was central to daily life, and as a professional cook. The dinners are set up on a sliding scale fee, ensuring that they are financially accessible. For Mr. Amabebe, it was a move toward inclusivity — something he said he didn’t feel within the broader vegan community.

Mr. Amabebe ate a vegan diet for 13 years, but said that identifying as a vegan felt disingenuous. The term “vegan,” he said, is “used to market food to people.”

“I have a lot of discomfort in using Western food terms to describe Nigerian cuisine, even when the dishes are traditionally that way,” he said, adding, “The West African food I know is very much about sharing with family and community, rather than mass marketing.”

“Putting ‘vegan’ and ‘Nigerian cuisine’ together feels a little bit like I’m like doing something conscious,” he said. “I would love to find words or phrases that feel true, or easier on my soul.”

In fact, all of the people I spoke to said that the word “vegan” didn’t easily apply to West African foodways, and the way they are discussed.

Ms. Osuchukwu often relies on terms like “plant-based,” “plant-based vegan” or sometimes even “vegetarian.” She says she will tell people that she’s a vegetarian “because they understand ‘vegetarian.’”

She added: “I don’t actually like using the word ‘vegan’ to be honest, regardless of where I am. I feel that ‘plant-based’ is a better descriptor of our food.”

No matter the terms they use to describe their diets, these four West Africans are telling a story with many chapters, and figuring out their place in the world.

“I am rooting my diet in the history of cooking in my family,” Ms. Amoako said. “I am just living how my grandparents and my parents did.”

For Mr. Amabebe, it is more about his own journey.“Having a background of working in kitchens run by white chefs, where there’s a specific style of consistency around fine dining, the process of cooking Nigerian food brings me back home,” said Mr. Amabebe, who finds that Nigerian home cooking truly lets the cook’s style and ingredients shine.

“The food changes you. You can’t help but change your mind about how you do things. Those ingredients are talking to you.”

Recipes: Moin Moin (Steamed Bean Cakes) | Roasted Mushrooms in Ata Din Din | Coconut-Lemongrass Tapioca With Caramelized Citrus

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