S4, E5: It’s Time to Taste Lagos

On this week’s episode of Travel Tales by AFAR, cookbook author Yewande Komolafe journeys to Lagos, Nigeria, the city where she was born for food, family, and a new sense of self.

On the fifth episode of Travel Tales by AFAR, season four, food writer Yewande Komolafe travels to Lagos and finds family, food—and a sense of self.


Aislyn Greene, host: I’m Aislyn Greene, this is Travel Tales by AFAR. In every episode, we hear from a traveler about a trip that changed their life. Plus, this season, I’m sitting down with each storyteller to talk about life’s big travel questions. Well, I’m not really sitting down with them, because I’m recording all this from my houseboat in Sausalito, but you know what I mean.

This week, we’re exploring identity, food, and what provides a sense of home with Yewande Komolafe. Yewande is a writer, recipe developer, and author of the new cookbook, My Everyday Lagos. I first came across her work in the New York Times cooking section, where she pens a monthly column, and shares mouthwateringly delicious recipes for dishes like maafé, a Senegalese stew, and bolo de cenoura, a Portuguese carrot cake that I actually think I might make this weekend.

As you’ll soon hear, Yewande grew up in Nigeria but has spent most of her adult life in the United States, which contributed to a sense of dislocation and a feeling of not being very grounded in herself. But then in 2018, she finally returned to Lagos. And it seemed to unite her many selves—and helped usher in a new and powerful connection to the food of her youth.

Before we get into Yewande’s story, instead of an interview we’re going to hear a short excerpt from My Everyday Lagos, which is a gorgeous book packed with stories and recipes that made me want to do two things: chuck my computer out the window and sprint to the stove, and book a flight to Lagos. I think I’ll start with the cooking. Alright, let’s hear from Yewande.

Yewande Komolafe, excerpt: This is how I might describe Lagos to someone who asks me where I am from and what it is like there. Its energy is overwhelming, its chaos and disorder acutely unnerving. But once you adjust to it, you feel as though it heightens your senses. The traffic, even at midnight, can threaten to take the last bit of your day’s enthusiasm away from you. But you’ll emerge from the car into a late-night hotspot and feel a blossoming energy returned to you. Crises in other places are mere mishaps in Lagos.

Lagos has no more chaos or confusion than other major cities. But Lagos feels to me like a distinctly African megacity, one that preserves its relationship to nature even as it paves over it. Lagos was neither colonized by the Portuguese or English into existence, nor was it born in the decades that followed its independence. For centuries, it has been adapting, expanding, and evolving. For those of us in the diaspora who revisit it in short stays, or only in memory, it is still revealing itself. For me, in Lagos, change is a force that simultaneously reimagines the present and the past. In this reality, I am wary of making any kind of definitive statement through my cuisine.

I can still see my grandmother hunched over a pot in the backyard of her home in Surulere, tending the flames to ensure that into the jollof rice would seep a smokiness that no stovetop or sauce in a jar can replicate. I see my mother at Oyíngbo Market in Ebute Metta, hand-selecting the finest herbs and dried plants for making medicines. I see my aunt in her kitchen in Ikeja unwrapping a bag of yaji spice that is quite literally the best on the planet. There is a brilliant and defiant order to Lagos, and it starts with its people, and it stems from their relationships with each other. From that simple context outward, Lagos is a place where anything is possible.

Yewande: I was born in Berlin but I grew up in Lagos. We moved back to Nigeria because both my parents are Nigerian and they met in Berlin as students. But at 16, I packed up my life once more to move to the United States for college.

In our family there was always the expectation that us kids were going to move away from home—we would go to college in another country, just like my parents did. When I moved to the United States, my older brother was in Maryland, and so I was going to join him.

I was so young. I mean, I have kids of my own now and I’m horrified at the thought of them leaving home so early. But in the Nigerian school system, kids graduate high school at 15 or 16. So that’s when I left Lagos for college in the U.S.

I think that that was one of the first instances where my spirit fled my body.

After about a year of living here and going to school, I lost my older brother. He was two years older than me. I was 17 at that point. He was 19. He passed in the first summer I was here and that fundamentally changed me.

That was an instant where I decided that I couldn’t process what was happening to me and my family. Looking back now, I literally left myself and fled and just walked around as a shell of a person. My body was walking around, but my spirit wasn’t there.

For that reason and others, a regular four-year college was not working for me. I was doing poorly, and I wasn’t happy. But one day I saw a flier for a culinary arts school—and that flier changed the course of my life.

I did graduate college, and then I applied and then went to culinary school. It completely absorbed me. I loved the intimacy of working with food, being able to break down ingredients and see how they change form as they cook. Working with food also helped me find connection at a time when I felt very alone in the world. Even though I was often spending long days in windowless kitchens, working with food allowed me to connect with the seasons. I would spend hours hulling strawberries or slicing fennel. The precision of that work was incredibly soothing to me.

But this time also led to me becoming undocumented. See, when I arrived in the States, I came here on a student visa, but those are very particular and regimented. So when I moved over to a two-year culinary school, the registrar made one tiny mistake, and because of that mistake, I lost my legal status. I tried to fix it, but I wasn’t granted reinstatement.

At that time, I was like, “I can’t leave in the middle of my school year, I’m trying to accomplish something.” It was also at a point in my life where I finally started to feel like myself again after my brother’s death and I didn’t want to fracture that sense of stability. I didn’t want it to be like “OK, the past five years of your life mean nothing, you have to go back to square one.”

After graduating, I went on to cook at restaurants all over the country. And then I started to work as a recipe developer in test kitchens and for places like Bon Appétit and the New York Times.

So I was fully immersed in my life here in the West. I still thought of Nigeria as home, but I thought of it as a distant home. In some ways, I was finally beginning to accept myself, all versions of myself. With every passing year, Lagos felt more distant.

I even stopped cooking Nigerian food at home. I knew in the back of my head that I could always make rice and stew, my go-to comfort food. But I almost felt afraid to examine that side of myself because I didn’t know when I could go home. I just didn’t want to think about it, so it was easier not to cook the foods of my childhood.

But then I met my husband, Mark. He used to run a supper club in New York, and we had mutual friends in common. We were like 35 at that point, and so really quickly we decided that we wanted to get married and be together. We knew that we were life partners.

So that was beautiful. And on top of that I realized, “Well, this is also going to fix my issues with being undocumented and I’ll be able to travel.” So we got married, I applied for my green card, and in 2018, I found myself with a plane ticket to Nigeria. I hadn’t been back for over 15 years.

I remember getting off the plane with my husband, and there were people standing in that tunnel, you know the one right where you step off the plane? And everybody was Black. And everyone smiled and was like, “Welcome to Nigeria! Welcome to Lagos!”

I felt like they were talking directly to me. We got in the car and my mom’s, like, pointing out things like, “Oh, do you remember where you used to get this thing? And that’s where you used to meet up with your friends?” And I’m sitting there like, “I have no idea where I am right now. The math is not mathing—it’s not adding up at all.”

But then we got to my parent’s home. This isn’t the home I grew up in, but I immediately recognized it. The house is set into a compound and it’s surrounded by a lush garden. And I would recognize that greenery anywhere. My parents have always grown food and plants; they are big gardeners.

I walked around the garden, touching all the leaves and the plants. We were there right when all the trees were full of ripe fruit. I saw trees heavy with bright yellow starfruit. I touched scent leaf and brought it up to my nose. It’s like if mint, oregano, and basil had a kid. It immediately felt like, “I can’t believe I’m in Lagos.”

The whole time I was there, I was just flooded with so much emotion and so much stimulus. You have to understand, Lagos itself is just hectic. There’s constant traffic and people and noise and horns blaring and there’s so much activity in the streets. There’s so much color. There’s so much to see.

And so I felt like I was turning around and every second like, “What’s going on here? What’s going on there? What about over there?” And there was all this excitement to it, like, “I cannot believe I’m here. Like, I came here, on my own will, and I’m going to go back and they’ll let me back into the United States.” So that was so surreal. For a long time, I wasn’t sure that would ever happen for me.

A few days into our trip, my parents took me and my husband to a smaller city outside of Lagos named Ile Ife. Ile Ife is an ancient Yoruba city. It’s important in history as the first Yoruba city-state and the seat of tradition. It’s famous for its statues and ancient buildings.

It felt like it took forever to get there. But I remember that the sand on the roads just got redder and redder the deeper we got into the country. Lagos sits on the coast and we were heading inland, deep into the southwest. Finally, we arrived at Oòni’s palace, where Yoruba kings have lived since the 18th century, including the current King Ojaja II.

There are these very tall iron gates painted black and gold around the palace. But inside, it felt almost cozy. It isn’t gilded. There are mats on the floor—there’s no marker that, in a Western sense, would tell you “I’m in the king’s palace.” But it felt so spiritually aligning, right away.

We were with a tour guide and we got to this one room where the guide tells us, “This is where the kings are laid to rest.” And then he started telling us about Yoruba beliefs: “We never say the king dies because we don’t believe in death as a finite. We believe in reincarnation.” And he’s talking a lot about cultural ideas and beliefs about death.

And in that moment, all I could think of was my brother. When I was younger, shortly after he died, I remember walking around New York City expecting to run into him. I could never fully grasp that he was gone, because I felt like he was still with me.

I was also thinking about how I’ve always been so fascinated by Day of the Dead traditions. I put little skulls everywhere in my apartment, and my mom hated it. She would always ask, “Why do you have death all around you?” And I couldn’t really explain it fully. I remember just telling her, “It’s the first time I’m seeing death depicted in a way that’s still alive.”

I didn’t understand why, but I was drawn to it. So when I was in Ile Ife and this guide was saying, “We Yorubas never say the king dies,” it all kind of just started to click into place, like click, click, click.

And all of a sudden I’m thinking, “Yes, I believe in reincarnation.” Like my name, Yewande, literally, my name means “mother has come back.” And I was given my name to indicate that my spirit has been here before; that I’m someone who has returned to this life. And I’m thinking of how I always knew deep down I’ve had a past existence, somewhere, somehow.

And all of a sudden, it feels like the floodgates opened in my brain. That moment in Ile Ife led me on this path where I started to really dive deeply into what it means to be Yoruba.

Later in the trip, we visited this relic, a statue of Moremi Ajasoro, a folk hero who helped the Yoruba people escape oppression. The idea of this warrior who fought oppression and enslavement was so moving. I felt like I could take some of her energy back into my own life. It was a beautiful moment for me, and connecting these learnings in Ile Ife allowed me to step into my power in a way I had never been able to before.

Nigeria has its issues, but being in this place where I felt seen and accepted in many ways, it helped me begin to reconcile all the versions of myself. That trip was the beginning of me gathering my many selves and understanding myself through the lens of being Yoruba.

For example: These days I think of myself as a spirit and I move through the world as a spirit, constantly learning how to be human. I’ve also always thought of myself as gender fluid and in Yoruba tradition, like in most Indigenous traditions, you don’t really have a gender binary—which feels right for me.

After my trip, coming home, I felt so overwhelmed. It took me years to slowly process all the things I was learning about myself. But eventually, something else clicked; I could bring my love of food, my career, into the story of who I am, the Yoruba person I was learning to be.

It was around then that I started to return to cooking Nigerian food, seriously. For years, I didn’t feel the need to examine it closely. And at the beginning of my career, I was more interested in classic cooking methods and those are very Euro-centric. For example, I wanted to be a classic pastry chef, which meant that I wanted to learn French pastry.

And I also just didn’t see myself in the food landscape or food media. But finally, I started questioning that. I started to ask, “Why is it always about bread or pasta?” I asked it of myself and then the larger food community.

Right before my trip to Nigeria, I was developing recipes for the New York Times, and they asked me to do this project that’s centered on Nigerian food. That was the first time in all my years of cooking and recipe testing that I got to talk about being Nigerian, about being an immigrant.

And out of that project came a cookbook: My Everyday Lagos.

That book flowed out of me. It felt like an opportunity to tell a story about myself that I had fully never spoken out into the world. In this book I honestly reflected on the things that have happened to me and, through writing, began to process them.

Writing about my immigration story, my older brother—it was intense and painful to relive those moments but so important and so necessary for my own healing.

I think that the story of immigrant cuisine is the story of America. And writing this book, I had to grapple again and again with my identity. I still struggle to call myself an American, but that doesn’t really matter so much to me anymore. I really just think of myself as Yoruba.

These days, I once again cook the Nigerian dishes that I grew up with. And doing so grounds me in my past and present. There’s one dish in particular that’s a regular part of my life. It’s called ogi, a fermented corn porridge that I used to eat every Saturday morning growing up. I started cooking it again in 2020, after another trip to Lagos. At that time, my daughter was one year old, and ogi is a great dish to wean children. Plus I’d just gotten the book deal and this recipe felt like the perfect place to start.

Ogi takes forever to make from scratch, but that’s part of what I love about it. I start with dried corn, which I soak overnight until the kernels get plump. Then I put it into a blender and grind it, creating a cornmeal. Then I put this cornmeal into a fine mesh sieve and rinse it with clear, fresh water. The water pulls out the cornstarch, which creates a milky liquid that you ferment until it gets all nice and sour and bubbly and smells yeasty. Then I pour off the liquid and I’m just left with this paste of fermented cornstarch. Every morning, I would put one or two tablespoons of this paste in a pot and make a porridge, which I would eat with maple syrup.

It’s delicious, and it’s something I feel like I collectively developed with my daughter. Making the recipe, I felt grounded again by food in the middle of the pandemic. It’s something I learned from my mother in Lagos and that I can share with my daughter, who I’m raising in Brooklyn. It’s a warm, soothing bowl, a dish that’s rooted in the past and looking to the future.

Aislyn: That was Yewande Komolafe. Now that it’s fall, and we, like, all have colds, I love the idea of a warm bowl of ogi every morning. It just sounds so comforting. Yewande is kicking off a book tour for her cookbook, My Everyday Lagos, which we’ll link to in our shownotes. And you can find more about her appearances on her website, also in the show notes, and through social media. Next week, we’ll be back with a special bonus interview episode featuring the queen of country herself: Dolly Parton.

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This has been Travel Tales, a production of AFAR Media. The podcast is produced by Aislyn Greene and Nikki Galteland. Music composed and produced by Strike Audio.

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