Meet Ozoz Sokoh, the Culinary Historian Creating a Digital Archive of West African Food
“There’s something about homesickness that makes you romanticize home,” says Nigerian-born culinary historian Ozoz Sokoh. Like many immigrants, nostalgia for “home food” inspired Sokoh — who now lives in Canada — to explore her native cuisine.
Over the past decade, Sokoh has collected recipes, blogged about food, and traced the culinary history of West Africa. She has written about recipes explored in African literature and the importance of African culinary memory as a form of resistance against colonialism.
It wasn’t until a few years ago, however, that she discovered one of the earliest documentations of jollof rice in Practical West African Cookery, a cookbook published in 1908/1910. Sokoh was excited to find such a record of West African history — until she read the racist introduction. “The preface, An apology to every Nigerian reader, shared the uncertainty of the writers, whose ‘main object in view was to enable the white man to obtain that well cooked and varied food so essential to health,’” explains Sokoh on her site. “The apology wasn’t repentance for the language used to describe Nigerians, but was directed instead to British home cooks stationed in Nigeria, for the imperfect adaptation of French recipes to Nigerian circumstance.”
This book would be the foundation for Sokoh’s platform Feast Afrique, which she launched in October 2020, further solidifying her commitment to documenting African culinary history. Feast Afrique is a digital platform that, as she puts it, “celebrates West African culinary heritage.” On the site, you can find resources such as a digital library of over 240 books on African culinary history spanning from 1928 to today, “problematic cookbooks,” and map-based explorations of world foods. By documenting and archiving African culinary history, Sokoh hopes to expose the politics of food that continues to marginalize Black people.
I recently talked to Sokoh about how she started her journey and why Feast Afrique matters.
Walk me through how your culinary journey started.
I first became interested in food while at university in Liverpool. As a young student, I was hungry and wanted good food, so I started exploring and writing recipes in notebooks. I wrote these “experiments” down because I wanted to be able to repeat recipes consistently. My first recipe was a cooked tomato salsa in 1998.
Still, it wasn’t until I moved to the Netherlands in 2007 that I saw the recipes I was collecting as something I could publicly share. At the time, I was working as an exploration geologist, which is what my father had encouraged me to study in school. I was unhappy and still obsessed with food. In the fall of 2008, a friend came over for dinner and was blogging. That’s when the idea for a blog settled in. It took nine months for me to publish my first post because I was a perfectionist — and that’s how Kitchen Butterfly was born.
When you first launched Kitchen Butterfly, did you have plans to collect and document Nigerian and African recipes?
Not particularly. When I initially launched, I shared generic recipes that I discovered and old recipes from my childhood that I had tried again as an adult and wanted to share. This is also when I started seriously considering the aesthetics of food. I would take pictures of some of the Nigerian meals I’d cook and think, Is this even pretty enough to share? I began intentionally collecting Nigerian cookbooks in 2010. I had gone out with a colleague to a restaurant and he made a statement about a Brazilian meal, akaraje, that sounded just like the Nigerian akara — it made me curious about what other connections were out there. I was shocked to see just how few there were.
Your comment about the aesthetics of the meals you made makes me think about whether that was a barrier to Nigerian and African cookbooks getting published. Our culinary practices — how we plate food, how we eat — is different and sometimes viewed as uncultured. What do you think?
Absolutely, a bunch of the work I viewed when I started my journey was written by Western people. It was sad to see more of the same types of books getting commissioned while African chefs and culinary anthropologists barely got a mention or the opportunity to share our history.
Is this what inspired Feast Afrique?
The idea for Feast Afrique actually came in 2013. I envisioned it as a print journal exploring African food. The goal was initially to organize the links, ideas, and information I had collected over the years.
It would take a while before Feast Afrique actually launched — what happened?
If I was going to do this work of documenting African culinary history, I wanted to do it well. I reached out to a data scientist to help with research. In 2014 my editor friend, who I had reached out to help, died and that grief affected things. In 2015, I sent proposals and pitches about the journal, but got no responses. Still, I put the idea out there and launched a website in 2018. It was holding space as evidence of research. In 2020, however, things changed for me.
While I’ve lived abroad for a significant portion of my life, 2020 was the first time I lived in North America. This was my first time experiencing systemic racism in this way. I saw how there’s always this pressure to push “Black excellence” to prove how worthy we are of scholarship and of documenting. It really made me consider ways I may have pandered or displayed “pick me” behavior for Western acceptance. I thought about how the world celebrates non-Black mediocrity and realized I don’t have to meet unrealistic expectations for me or my work to be worthy. I read a lot about this, but it was one thing to experience it myself. And so I’ve been reading about enslaved people’s relationship with food and how that shaped history within and outside America. Colonialism certainly created this insidious disconnect amongst us. It’s been an emotional experience.
Yes, migrating and learning about history via the Black diaspora was also an experience for me. It’s wild to see how much there is to tell and know how much goes untold by mainstream publications claiming to tell global stories, right?
You know, when I was doing preliminary work for Feast Afrique, I would search “best food in the world” and see what search results came up and document. It is overwhelming to see the bias present in documenting African history. Language is a huge determinant of perception. For instance uziza, a type of pepper used in Nigeria, is often translated as “fake pepper” in literature. Another example is how in France, there’s tete de veau which is lauded but when you mention Nigeria’s isi ewu, people freak out about the idea of eating goat head.
I love that you mentioned this. I think sometimes as Nigerians and Africans, we understandably struggle with the idea of our food being “explored.” What’s your experience of this as a culinary researcher?
I understand why people feel protective: Appropriation and fusions can often be thoughtless mash-ups without respect for the ingredient/food’s history. I do a lot of ingredient-based work/recipe development that honors the ingredient’s origins. History is important because it mirrors — meaning, it’s reflected in the present.
What’s next for you?
I like to think of my work as a way to showcase possibilities whilst recognizing our heritage. I got into a fellowship with Forecast in 2020 and it has been an experience. I have the mentorship to really hone my work. I am working on two research films on West African ingredients. I commissioned a poet to make a poem about food. There are endless possibilities!
Thanks so much for taking the time to talk with us, Ozoz Sokoh!