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.



Written by Ronke Lawal, Founder of Ariatu PR  and food blogger



Join the discussion and tell us your opinion.

Adrienne Randle
3. July 2017 at 22:01

I love your passion for your culture. I will make it a mission to try Nigerian food !

Jay Colby
5. July 2017 at 23:45

I love that you’re still connected to your culture. I’ve been saying I’m going to try Nigerian food it seems like it would be great.

6. July 2017 at 0:57

Food is the best way of expressing your culture
It always has lots of memories with it especially when you are far from home

6. July 2017 at 1:47

I am familiar with the concept… Other than language, food is a powerful tool to stay connected to your culture. In a strange way it grounds you.. and it remains apart of who you are… Thank you for sharing

6. July 2017 at 7:27

It is wonderful that you have this area and these shop experiences to bring together your culture and those of other african and caribbean people. I can’t say that I have ever had Nigerian food, but I’m sure I can find some here in NY and hopefully be able to get some when I visit London someday!

Tatanisha Worthey
6. July 2017 at 17:38

This was a great read. This point stuck out to me, and I also share the same value, “Physically being surrounded by people who shared similar experiences as yourself can really help to keep communities grounded in heritage. ” Having a sense of community and being surrounded by your tribe/people is IMPORTANT. This is one thing we’re constantly telling and showing our boys. The world will easily try to snatch your heritage, but it’s up to each of us to keep it alive. Thanks for sharing!

6. July 2017 at 18:29

I absolutely LOVE this post! I love food so much. You hit the nail on the head about it helping you to feel close to your culture. It’s amazing how food can make us feel like we are home or remind us of a certain time in our lives.

Joyce Brewer
6. July 2017 at 18:37

I love how African culture has permeated every continent. Thank you for introducing me to this slice of Nigeria in the UK.

7. July 2017 at 2:36

I know exactly what you mean. Comfort foods that remind you of home are always great when you’re in an unfamiliar place. I missed visiting Nigerian Restaurants while in the UK. Near Stratham Hill and Brixton there’s a large Carib presence.

7. July 2017 at 3:01

I also hear about the diversity in London. I know there are still issues but I admire that especially coming from the South in America. I stay connected with my culture through food too.

Mimi Green
7. July 2017 at 3:27

I think it is so important to hold on to your culture. Not just hold on to it, but share it with other generations. Nobody can take your culture away from you.

10. July 2017 at 16:37

Yes Ronke! Old kent road, particularly 805 is my spot for Nigerian cuisine. I really believe food & conversation are the greatest gateways to understanding ourselves and others.

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