In Lagos, Nigeria’s commercial capital, irresistible delicacies and spine-tingling dishes are enjoyed everywhere and every time
BY SYLVESTER ASOYA
Some years ago, a broadcaster described Lagos as the capital of street foods in the world. The comment, it will be recalled, was actually inspired by the activities of young and energic Nigerians in street food business outside Nigeria. At the time, many of them had exported Nigeria’s mouth-watering foods and excellent outdoor eating experience to the streets of West and East London. For those who still remember, the interest in those creative and hardworking Nigerians abroad in the business of feeding people across age, race and gender was fueled by impressive sales volume and a high profit margin.
However, a follow-up report and further investigative work by a journalist recently, revealed that those Nigerian food vendors have moved on to other ‘big’ things but they are still keeping tabs on the business.
In Lagos where the business of eating out or meals by wheels booms, that is also the attitude to this business. So, the big food vendors hardly stay far even after starting other things. For many of them, that is the only way they keep their eyes and ears on opportunities and the big prize connected with street foods. Those in West and East London probably learned the tricks of the trade back home from those who are still keeping the fire of street foods burning, especially in Lagos.
Therefore, for people who live and work in this interesting economic capital of Nigeria, eating out is a way of life. In fact, food is served round the clock on Lagos streets. And it has remained so for reasons of convenience, class, taste, adventure, ease and variety. However, for others who may not know, Lagos is unique for many reasons. For instance, eating out booms mainly because this is a city that hardly sleeps. Here, everybody is on the go, all day and night essentially for one reason: survival. And to survive in Lagos means that you must pay little or no attention to home cooking, especially during the week when deadlines are met.
One of the commonest foods on display in Lagos streets is Suya, (roasted skewed meat with spices) regarded by its lovers as the most popular street food because of its great taste and availability.
There are also other foods like Ewa Agoyin (special beans meal prepared mainly by our neighbours from Togo and Republic of Benin); Bean Cakes, Roasted Plantain with fish, Plantain Chips, Ofada Rice, Jollof Rice, Small Chops, Puff Puff, Fried Rice, Boiled and Fried Yam, Potatoes and Assorted Meats are also on the street.
In addition to all these are fish and meat pepper soup, Okpa (local pudding), Boiled and Roasted Maize, Guguru and Epa (popcorn and ground nut), Pap and Beans, Agidi, Moimoi, Snail, Kilishi, Indomie Noodles and the ubiquitous wheelbarrows that now convey cooked white rice and pepper soup, served hot all through the day.
Mandu Umoh is a broadcaster and an entrepreneur. According to her, street food is one of the things that distinguishes a Lagosian and people from other parts of Nigeria. “Like most Lagosians, street food is part of me; in fact, a way of life. You don’t need to be told to eat street food when you are duty-bound to wake up as early as 4am to meet up with appointment on Lagos Island or other far-flung places in Lagos metropolis”.
She adds that it is not usually convenient for anyone to think of entering the kitchen on a week day when he or she is already overwhelmed with the daily challenges of Lagos like traffic, surprises, the city’s fast-paced life, confusion and other things that make Lagos one of the most exciting cities in the world.
“In Lagos, nobody waits to cook because we are all on the go. So, for me, street food is real, correct and irresistible. People are free to have reservations but we have been eating it and we will continue to eat because many of us are game with it. This is also the reason many offices have one form of street food or the other”, she says.
Similarly, Theo Ejiofor, a businessman, enriches the debate with strong and supporting personal experience both from his days as a student, and now as a worker in Lagos. “Street food is more than just a matter of choice; it is a necessity. Many people who live in Lagos depend on street foods for survival. Apart from the variety street foods offer, many people compulsorily eat it to stay away from hunger while at work. I love it, and I have no problem with it. It is unique, fun and delicious”.
A journalist, Tony Chukwuyem also shares his thoughts which align to some extent with other interviewees. However, he chooses hygiene and comfort as his points of departure. “For me, the only challenge is the environment where such meals are prepared and served. As you know, sometimes, the foods are exposed and they are sometimes not in the best of conditions. But they are tasty. They are also affordable, and that is the real deal. I also love the setting because it is a meeting point where people congregate and discuss freely irrespective of age, gender, creed or social status”.
So, as things stand, to banish foods from Lagos streets may be considered cruel by lovers of this kind of outdoor treat. Many people may even consider such measure an extreme and unusual punishment especially for those who live on them. There are even those who are likely to regard such sanction as a sacrilege because that could also mean identity loss, especially for people who identify with this phenomenon that has come to stay despite its flip side. But apart from providing employment opportunities, income, career, satisfaction and stability in the lives of many people, street foods have the potential to positively affect healthy living, integration, good neighbourliness and social order.
Therefore, a government that fully understands the changing times and the importance of nutrition plan for its citizens can actually open new frontiers by offering new opportunities to her citizens in this most unlikely area of growth. Going forward, street foods could become better, both in cooking and packaging but in all of these, hygiene remains a major factor if Lagosians hope to keep the culture going.