The line of Hispanics, African Americans, Asians, and European Americans waiting to be served in front of Veronica’s Kitchen, a Nigerian restaurant in Inglewood, California can be intimidating for someone just arriving to make a purchase. Curled around the building is a crowd of mostly young people, with heads bowed facing their phones, the device through which most of them probably got to know about Veronica’s Kitchen and navigated themselves to the place. Since the establishment of Veronica’s Kitchen in the 1990s, it has been patronized by mostly Nigerians who live around the greater Los Angeles Area. This drizzling crowd of patrons raised on home-cooked meals understandably consider eating out a luxury to be indulged in with caution. Today, however, Veronica’s Kitchen has become a cosmopolitan restaurant in the greater Los Angeles Area as a result of videos posted on social media by influencers. This interest in African food has been sustained for some time with many patrons saying they would never have thought of eating African food but for the awareness created on the social media platforms.
Indigenous African food has been known to Africans and those familiar with the continent’s cuisine as nutritionally dense and exceptionally tasty. For years, however, indigenous African food suffered negative narratives in the hands of the powers that have monopolized the global mainstream media. Images of suffering and dying Africans, of dirty streets and bare villages, wars and conflicts and other negativities defined much of what the world heard and knew about Africa. This biased and one-sided opinion of those who controlled the global news media was passed on as fact around the world. The thought of identifying food with Africa was not a palatable one for many who considered the continent a dirty swamp where people were often malnourished and dependent on the rest of the world for sustenance. Foods from other continents were promoted on the global map, for the most part. Asian foods, South American foods, European and American foods were widely patronized across the globe. For instance, many people around the world know of Japanese sushi, Mexican tacos, Italian pizza, British fish and chips, Chinese hot pot and all that. But unfortunately, most global citizens have, for long, been denied the “tongue-dropping” taste of most African foods such as Nigerian/West African fufu with egusi soup.
The social media revolution has clearly provided Africa with an opportunity to play on a more level field with the rest of the world. Audiences no longer need to wait for the major news houses/broadcasters to serve them what they ‘should’ know. The birth of a more democratized media space is heralding an era of what journalism should stand for – transparency, honesty, dignity and empowering the voiceless. Through social media, the more traditional media houses are now at a loss on how to make a profit, since people have taken it into their hands to find out what is real or what is not.
Veronica’s Kitchen’s moment came when some social media influencers began to post pictures of her range of foods and how tasty they found them. For the more nutritionally conscious, the nutritional and calorific contents of the food were equally noted, making many social media users to desire African food. A 31-year-old African American nail artist Joeneen Hull drove 80 miles from Moreno Valley to Veronica’s Kitchen. For months, she watched on social media as different people from different ethnicities enjoyed fufu on camera, she could handle the craving no more. Joeneen drove to the nearest African food restaurant, Veronica’s Kitchen, and ordered egusi and okro soups with fufu. Since restaurants in California are closed to dine-in due to Covid-19, Joeneen could not endure the long drive back home to eat the food, so she settled in her car, whipped out her camera and, starring at her Tik Tok followers, she tasted her first bite of real African food. “Bomb – it is so worth it,” she declared. Joeneen’s video has been viewed over six million times on Tik Tok and shared millions of times on WhatsApp.
When asked to describe the taste of the egusi soup, Joeneen delightfully and rightly said that “It’s just savory, it has a little bit of spice to it, which I love. It’s hearty. I can’t compare it to any other food.” Indeed, there is no doubt that the world’s taste bud is yet to become even remotely acquainted with what is authentically African, not just by way of cuisine, but across such sectors as medicine, pharmacology, architecture, technology, governance etc. Global knowledge continues to lack the exceptional and critical contribution that Africa has to offer in different areas of life.
As this interest in African foods soars, African chefs and restaurateurs will do well to plan with foresight in searching out novel and exciting ways of preparing traditional recipes and cooking with indigenous ingredients. One interesting work being done in this area is by the Senegalese West African chef Pierre Thiam who is promoting Fonio, a densely nutritious and superbly tasty grain indigenous to parts of West Africa. There are far too many nutritious and tasty African grains, tubers, legumes, vegetables, fruits, etc., many of which are medicinal, which the world needs to become acquainted with. While African chefs should invest in creating new recipes with these indigenous ingredients, care must be taken to preserve the traditional recipes they have long been associated with in their various communities of origin.
Further, there is a need for a cross-cultural collaboration across ethnicities, communities and nationalities in Africa. Although long portrayed as a liability, Africa’s ethnic diversity is one of the continent’s greatest strengths. However, this strength is best harnessed where mutual respect, understanding and acknowledgement across boundaries exist. When ideas, food items and recipes are pulled from different communities, the effect is a lot more satisfying plate and nourished body than a monotonous dependency on only one group’s diet.
The diverse crowd at Veronica’s Kitchen itching for a taste of African food is only the beginning of what would be the surge that will follow when increased awareness of Africa’s indigenous knowledge dawns on both Africans and the rest of the world. It is up to Africans to dig deeper into their knowledge systems and apply innovation in such a way that will bring about the continent’s and global advancement.