A Food Enthusiasts’ Journey, Joys & Reflections
Ozoz Sokoh is a food researcher and food enthusiast; the mastermind behind The Kitchen Butterfly. Over the years, she has unearthed nuances and details about Nigerian produce, spices and cooking techniques. She has gone on to develop a seasonal produce calendar and has a newsletter in the pipeline, through which she is going to share all the dimensions of food that she has discovered (you can subscribe here). She was gracious enough to share her journey, specifics on how she developed a thriving relationship with food, what underpins her love for food, the impact of the lockdown as well as her thoughts on food security. We hope you enjoy this riveting piece which includes tv show and book recommendations, nuggets of advice as well as an innovative recipe inspiration or two.
"Even the most mundane, the most common of ingredients still yields new discoveries"
On what life was like growing up and the principles that guide how she lives life now
I had a happy childhood; Nintendo NES, playing outside, climbing trees, holidays in Jos and around the Niger Delta, a girls club with my sister and friends, cooking outside, Christmas grills, Crunchie chocolate, Walls ice cream, Mr Biggs Donuts, Pacesetters, Kingsway and Leventis. Shall I go on? If you grew up in early 80s Nigeria, you had a blast! Those memories, those years of simple joys resonate with me stronger than ever and have set the tone for the life I choose now - one of exploration, of meaning and purpose, of joy. I’m so grateful to God mostly that I can look with wonder at a sunset, cry for McDreamy and Mer in Grey’s anatomy, sit behind a desk - my desk - and get excited about a complicated recipe for which I’ve just discovered I have - not only the ingredients - but the confidence to conquer.
On the joy of food research and what life is like behind the scenes
The joys of food research? Finding the botanical names of spices you’ve been looking for, for years! I used to work as a geologist but gave that up a few years ago to settle into my work with food. Now, I am in transition, broadening out, still anchored in food but exploring other aspects. When I’m not cooking or researching food, I’m eating, thinking about cooking and currently watching Scandal in awe of Kerry Washington and bowing to Shonda Rimes. A typical day in my life has elements of prayer, food, writing, photography, eating, cooking and thinking about Kitchen Butterfly, which has been many things to me and will remain my journal for a long time to come.
On her relationship with food
I have a healthy relationship with food. I don’t forbid many things. The one thing I know is I can’t stand celery (but I love celeriac, its tuber) but that’s besides the point - I’m good with food though it hasn’t always been like this. In 2012, I read a book, Women Food and God by Geneen Roth which changed my mind and stopped me from treating food as the enemy and instead focusing on my unresolved personal issues and understanding how I used food to compensate. That book - which I read at the same time as I worked my way through The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron helped me adult better and find/accept/love me in all my vulnerability and imperfection. The result? I have a healthy relationship with food that includes treating ingredients with respect, understanding how to extract flavour from them and celebrating their amazingness. I’ve always been a slow eater and that’s helped me stay mindful and in the moment when I’m eating. I rarely eat on the go - I love food that much to want to spend time with it.
On her love for food food; the breadth of food and food’s capacity for forgiveness
I think of food as salvation of sorts because the defining moments in my life, the points at which I came to the fork in the road have had food, front and centre. This is why the ground rule for my kitchen and dining table is: Celebrate! Celebrate the joys of that fresh mango, juice snaking its way down your arm, white dress and all; celebrate the sweet, sour, tart of agbalumo, the bitter of bitterleaf, understand them for what they are and enjoy them however you think best. I like the expanse, the breadth of food, the fact that even the most mundane, the most common of ingredients still yields new discoveries. Agbalumo is one of those things - a fruit I grew up with and one that challenged me to do more with it, whether that was documenting its appearance so I could note it in a seasonal produce calendar I created - a first for Nigerian fruits and vegetables, or figuring out how to preserve it, make drinks from it, bake with it. To me, that was a gift, is a gift, one I will never tire of.
Food is more than eating. I’ve said this so many times but it never ceases to amaze me just how much we can tell from a single plate - about migration, politics, agriculture, human preferences and more. I’ve talked about the breadth of food but really, it’s the capacity for forgiveness and possibility that holds the greatest allure for me. Food holds no grudges. Cook carrots wrong today and they won’t swear off you. If anything, they might move you to prepare better and create more because of the failure but...you must embrace it, embrace failure as key to success otherwise it won’t work.
The lockdown has deepened my love for food - which never waned. I’ve found new dimensions and places to explore, new recipes, recipes I actually have time to read and digest and make. I’m cooking more, I’m eating more or less the same, drinking more tea, baking a lot more - bread, cakes, joy! I no longer have to rush through steps or wait for a break in my days and weeks to follow through, to complete recipes. It’s also grown my range of knowledge with sustainable cooking. I hate wasting food that at first glance looks like it has no more life - hibiscus (zobo) flowers once the infusion is done; tomato skins; bread crumbs, parmesan cheese ends, vegetable water - there’s so so much flavour to extract, nutrients to preserve and deliciousness to be had, all round. I have enjoyed this time. It’s been easy - I’ve had the space to reflect and I’ve embraced that.
Agbalumo carrot cake
On proactive steps that can be taken to end food insecurity in Nigeria
Food insecurity begins with the individual and then expands out to the community, and region. Growing up, we had a little back garden and we grew everything that would grow. Nigeria being the amazing country it is - with good soil and climes made a lot of things flourish - okro, greens, corn, tomatoes, peppers. And now, older, I think that’s the key. And though the space and the seeds might not be an issue, I think the knowledge that would inspire, trigger, get all this to happen is missing. Yes, there’ll still be food shortages and unavailability of some things but if everyone grew something, different things at home or in community gardens, there would be growth, exchange and barter, things would improve. If that was combined with knowledge resources - that would deepen and expand and increase. That’s one area of focus - encouraging everyone to grow something, encouraging empathy and neighbourliness to share. There is hope for us all and this is one way we could tackle the scourge of food insecurity.
To wrap up, we threw a few light questions at her over Zoom and she had the most insightful, most endearing answers: