TANTV Tastemakers is the stylish corner of our platform where we showcase distinct finds in the marketplace by African and multicultural creatives known as tastemakers. For our first feature in the Tastemakers series, TANTV CEO and Editor-in-Chief Adedayo Fashanu interviews The ‘New York Times’ cooking columnist Yewande Komolafe. The conversation focuses on Komolafe’s cookbook titled “My Everyday Lagos”, recently published by Ten Speed Press, October 24th 2023. The interview is in a video and written format; a fun watch and an enjoyable read!
My interview with Yewande Komolafe is one I’ll always cherish perhaps because I’m one of the long-absent Nigerian diasporan and immigrant who has been away from home far too long. It feels like Yewande has written this book for me. Lagos is also my hometown, so it’s no wonder I resonated with every aspect of our conversation about her stories and the recipes like Akara shared in “My Everyday Lagos.” I particularly appreciate Yewande’s openness to speak unashamedly about being an undocumented immigrant, a taboo topic immigrants shy away from. Yewande is bold in her approach of not whitewashing key elements in the cookbook that could have been more Westernized, trusting that her right audience will recognize what she is talking about without needing an explanation.
For Yewande Komolafe, “Home” means ” Ogi made from scratch, like with the fermented corn, blended and so on…” There is a high level of nostalgia that every immigrant feels when they move away from home, the nostalgia is even more acute when you are undocumented. Without the security of proper documentation, the mere thought of international travel is off-limits, as the risk of not being able to return looms large. This was Komolafe’s reality for eighteen years, living as an undocumented immigrant in the United States. It’s a wonder how she achieved so much, including being a cooking writer for the food section of the holy grail ‘New York Times’. Komolafe candidly opens up about her immigrant experience in America and how it shaped her journey so far.
During our hour-long conversation, she confesses:
Komolafe opens up about her immigrant experience because she thinks it’s something that many go through in the United States but rarely discuss openly. She admits, that even family members who were going through the same process never spoke openly about it. At this point in her life, Komolafe is claiming her narrative and is in this place where she is living without shame. She says, “It is not my shame or burden to carry, the fact that I was undocumented. It’s not something that I did to myself. So I feel like being open and vulnerable, just letting other people see their own stories reflected back to them.”
Berlin-born and Lagos-raised, she is defining her identity how she pleases and from the recipes and stories in “My Everyday Lagos,” it’s clear she is wildly unapologetic about her heritage.
In 2019, the cooking writer was asked by The ‘New York Times’ to develop a collection of 10 Essential Nigerian Recipes. “It is a responsibility that I do not take lightly,” she writes in the piece. This must have been an assignment of a lifetime for Komolafe, because Nigerians are known to be custodians of their ethnicity and culture. This means as we Nigerians say, “you have to come correct and deliver!”. The curated recipes Komolafe developed, truly delivered! The success of the editorial brought her into an acclaimed status where she got great recognition but not without its criticism.
To the question of how Komolafe thinks of criticism about her recipes, she says she cooks according to her preference. She tells me, “I like a lot of spice, I’m gonna put a lot of spice in my food. You know, if I like a lot of green onions then I’m gonna put a lot of green onions in my food. I don’t really think of recipes as something that should be unchanging. I think of recipes as not static and always evolving, even in Lagos, the food evolves, you know. I go back home and they’re like, Oh, we don’t do it like that anymore, that’s like the old way of doing it. So, I think of it as an ever-evolving concept.”
Komolafe doesn’t dabble in self-doubt when it comes to her cooking. She trusts her creativity, her experience, and who she is as a cook, she says. One thing you can trust with her style of cooking is that it is backed with thorough research that honors the genesis (the people, the stories behind the recipe) and of the food and if she is cooking something from a different culture, she is sure to collaborate with those more knowledgeable with experience of that particular dish and include them in the story.
For the development of “My Everyday Lagos”, Komolafe built an army of reference checkers from the continent and diaspora that provided a critical review of the manuscript; the book cover was even designed by a Nigerian artist. While the recipes and writing were done by Komolafe, she credits the creation of the cookbook to the community and collaborative aspect of cooking that Nigerians have.
“After being away for so long, I really wanted to understand the reason behind the way we were cooking,” Komolafe says. According to her, the cookbook explores how Nigerians layer flavors, the spices we use, and an understanding of the basic ingredients. “I know I can buy pepper soup spice that’s already ground and mixed, but what’s in pepper soup spice? I don’t know. I asked my mom, and she’s like, ‘I don’t know. It’s a bunch of spices.’ I’m just like, ‘Okay, well, that doesn’t help.’ And so I wanted to do a deep dive into the elements of our cuisine.” The cookbook, she says, is almost like an introduction to Nigerian food 101.
In this life, I feel like I move through the world as a spirit learning to be human
Komolafe describes the creation of the cookbook as a spiritual process. She says, “In this life, I feel like I move through the world as a spirit learning to be human. While writing this book, I had many instances where I would be sitting, writing, and then my grandmother, who I hadn’t thought about in so long, would just come to mind. And I would have this memory of her sitting in her backyard, either grinding pepper, making Akara, or ọ̀jọ̀jọ̀. I had so many instances exactly like that, and some of the headnotes reflect that process. It was literally like my grandmother was speaking to me about how she makes that dish. These are things I hadn’t really thought about in eighteen years. It’s so hard for me to explain why, all of a sudden, in the process of writing the book, I’m having these memories or flashbacks. It was such a spiritual process to write this book. It was also me talking about a lot of things that I hadn’t openly discussed before.”
It took Komolafe three years to get this cookbook out into the world. When discussing the challenges she faced, she affirmed that Nigerian or African food doesn’t always fit neatly into Western structures, which meant she had to present the elements of our food exactly as they are, for the people who would recognize them without her having to explain herself.
Komolafe is in awe of this big feat: documenting classic Nigerian cuisines in her 2023 cookbook, which captures the nation’s recipes, including ones her grandmother has been making since the fifties and sixties. She acknowledges that this is possible because of Nigeria’s rich oral tradition, which has allowed kitchen secrets and recipes to be passed down from generation to generation. She believes that both written and oral history have a place in the documentation process, and both should be honored.
I don’t consider myself living the American dream
For someone who has accomplished as much as this once-undocumented immigrant, it is remarkable that Komolafe still doesn’t consider herself to be living the American dream. “I don’t know if the American dream even exists,” she says. “I don’t think it’s a reality. I don’t consider myself living the American dream. I’m at a point where I don’t have to worry about survival every single day, but I’m still in a very privileged place compared to where I was six or seven years ago. I never really trusted that the American dream was inclusive enough.”
When asked for advice for anyone grappling with immigration issues, she suggests finding a community that understands and supports you, because that’s what worked for her through her process. She explains, “A community of family and chosen family is essential.”
Looking ahead, Komolafe doesn’t see herself going back into the restaurant industry anytime soon. Instead, she’s setting her sights on storytelling. “Documenting our stories through writing, podcasting, or video is more interesting to me,” she shares. “That’s where my focus is right now.”
Watch the full interview video