How Food Kept Me Close To My Identity
By: Ronke Lawal
As a British born Nigerian the fusion of cultures has always been a priority for me, as my parents instilled the importance of not losing sight of my Nigerian heritage and Yoruba culture in the western world. Food was at the core of this, I learned how to cook staple Nigerian dishes at the age of 12 and it was essential that I not only knew how to cook them but that I enjoyed those dishes too. Food was and still is a way of ensuring that culture is not forgotten and lost in a new land. Language may be diluted but food has a way of reminding us of who we really are. Food for me is where my comfort lies, it doesn’t judge me, it doesn’t laugh at my accent to check my “Nigerianness” nor does it question whether I should be here (British Problems).
Having eaten Nigerian food in my youth, these dishes had always been part of my identity but they also made me feel a part of a wider community. This is why so many diaspora communities in a diverse city like London create centralized hubs. We have Brick Lane with an array of Bengali and Indian food, North East London with Turkish restaurants and of course China Town in Central London.
Being part of such a large diaspora community in a metropolis like London gives those of us who are considered a “minority”, a sense of belonging. Growing up in the 80s there was no digital space, to be part of a greater community I reluctantly would join my mother on shopping trips to Dalston’s Ridley Road Market where we were surrounded by familiar faces and other members of the diaspora who were also buying their provisions. Seeing people from all cultures; Jamaicans, Ghanaians, Nigerians shopping in that local market gave us a sense of unity and a sense of belonging to any form of social media ever could. This is part of the reason why gentrification hurts so much at times, whilst we welcome developments and progress it feels like our cultures are being erased. Those markets are the safe spaces of people who came to Britain who were often disenfranchised and discriminated against. Our markets are a place to reconnect, feel proud of who we are without fear of judgment, with so many different cultures coming together in one place it felt like a home away from home.
Physically being surrounded by people who shared similar experiences as yourself can really help to keep communities grounded in heritage. I think this is probably why I have always been so secure in my identity even when people try to explain my identity away and this is why I hold Nigerian Food so dear. I can’t tell you how often I have had a tough week and the escapism that comes from cooking my pot of stew brings me an elevated sense of joy. Adding the peppers, stock cubes, seasoning and the golden hue of oil… and eating more than 2 pieces of meat…ohhhh the passion. In a country that still questions why I am here, that still does not allow me to see myself so readily on screens at least I can declare that they can’t take away who I am through my food.
On a social level, I love the potential and possibilities that Nigerian food has to teach people, I want people from all walks of life to visit The Old Kent Road, which I believe has the potential to be “Nigeria Town”, a mile stretch of Nigerian bars, restaurants, and club. There is an African food emergence taking place with many food entrepreneurs creating ready to eat/easy to understand products which are now becoming available in the mainstream supermarkets, not just in markets like Dalston. Nigerian food entrepreneurs seem to be at the forefront of this and making headway in the types and varieties of products they are offering. Nigerian restaurants are also starting to have some impact but it’s still not enough to compete with the popular international cuisine that other nations have offered to the British Community. As a PR specialist, I can argue that “Brand Nigeria” in the UK hasn’t always been represented in the best light. Too often our restaurants and hospitality providers contradict what we know to be true as a people. Whilst we have our flaws, Nigerians are some of the best hosts I have ever experienced in the world and I have traveled the world; generous, flamboyant and utterly welcoming. We don’t want to close off our cuisine for fear that recipes will become tainted or too westernized, and by so doing limit our own growth in the food market.
One could argue that the mainstream UK based media has not often allowed for a dynamic view of the African-Caribbean experience. Our communities are often boxed into a very rigid perspective, possibly trying to protect the authenticity of the dishes and yet many of us who were born in the UK have such a rich tapestry of experiences. We honour our heritage but we can also explore the realms of our country of birth/residence, exploring and enjoying Britain without feeling like we are compromising our identities. All too often the diaspora, labeled as “immigrants”, has been seen as an affront to British values and yet our communities welcome all, wanting everyone to share in the joys of our cuisine. There is a willingness to share in the joys of African cuisine which cannot be denied. “Nigeria Town” has the potential to make food entrepreneurs into millionaires and I look forward to the day when I see Nigerian chefs being profiled with as much respect and dignity as chefs from other backgrounds on mainstream TV. But it is also up to us to encourage our friends who have never tasted Nigerian food to try it, enjoy it and spread the word about it and it is up to me to continue to be an ambassador in my own small way, by sharing my experiences but also by sharing the food which makes up my identity, makes up who I am.