While in university, I was always fascinated by how one of my friends used to eat fried fish. The fish was probably sardines or mackerel. Chopped into 2 or 3 pieces (head, midsection, tail). It was deep fried till crispy. This guy would pop the entire thing into his mouth, chew and swallow it bones and all. It is possible that since the fish were small and deep fried, then the bones were no danger to him. In any case, now, having experienced other cuisines, I am always irritated that Nigerian cooking has not learnt to debone fish. Or chicken. Or any meat for that matter. It is so bad that in the south, periwinkles are thrown shell and all into soups. I have almost broken teeth several times. The culprits here are the cooks of the Niger Delta in southern Nigeria. They arguably have the best soups in the country. Rich, flavorful, colorful and nutritious. I should state here that soups and stews in Nigeria are not same as the thing one encounters elsewhere. Other than pepper soup, all soups and stews have to be eaten with some heavy-duty starch like pounded yam, eba, tuwo or fufu.
Nigeria is a pretty ethnically diverse country. It has over 200 tribes with some tribes having more people than many countries and thus probably should be called nations. Notable among them are the Hausa, Yoruba and Igbo which respectively boast over 20 million indigenous speakers each. There are also many smaller ones. Despite this diversity, our cuisine is pretty similar. Even though traditional staples vary according to region, methods of preparations do not. Or rather, not as much as they could have given the cultural diversity.
The flavor of our food is vastly different to what I have experienced in other cuisines. All our foods are savory and might seem quite oily. Other than snacks in the north, I think Nigeria has only one sweet main food; and even it can be eaten with a savory soup. It is a northern type of pancake made from rice called masa. We don’t use much spice except for salt and pepper. So, when we say food is spicy, we mean it is hot. I used to date a Bengali who was always talking about how spicy desi food is. Each time we went to one of the much-lauded Indian restaurants, I would be meh. Until I realized that to her and most of the world, spice means fragrance. To us, spice means heat. The most popular pepper is the scotch bonnet. It is either diced or ground into a paste. One time, in Togo, one of our neighboring countries, I had a meal where the peppers were cooked whole in the stew. My head almost exploded eating that meal. But it was really nice, served with fresh pineapple juice. We also don’t use milk or butter in our main dishes.
Rice is the most widely eaten staple. It is mostly eaten in one of 3 ways:
1. Jollof rice - this is a one pot style where the rice is combined with palm oil, tomatoes and other condiments. It is arguably the most popular cooking method. The dish is common across west Africa and is the subject of a playful cultural war between Nigeria, Ghana and Senegal as to which nation has the best jollof rice.
2. White rice and stew - this is boring, which is why when you get a good cook, the meal is amazing. I have only ever felt patriotic twice in my life. One of those times was when I saw a display of white rice garnished with peas. Green, white, green. The color of the Nigerian flag. The fact that I was also ravenously hungry might have helped too. The stew is made with oil, tomato and pepper paste, meat and other condiments.
3. Fried rice - this is the least popular. It is mostly seen at weddings and other occasions. I don’t like it much.
Other than rice, each part of the country has a food that is widely eaten. I mentioned pounded yam etc. in the first paragraph. These are all foods that while having different ingredients, are prepared in basically the same way. The food item is cooked till it is mushy and then pounded or mashed into a thick smooth pudding or treacle like form. It is then molded into spheres and eaten with soup, often with the fingers. In the north, these meals are usually made with rice, corn, millet, and guinea corn. Their generic name is tuwo, which is a Hausa word. The tuwo is eaten with soups made from either powdered baobab seeds, okra, or spinach. In the south, the staples are fufu (fermented cassava), eba/garri (fried cassava flakes), pounded yam (made from various species of dioscorea) and amala (powdered yam skin). Amala is a Yoruba food, so it is found in southwestern Nigeria while fufu is eaten in the southeast and south-south. One other food similar to the above is semovita. It is made from processed durum wheat. Prepared the same way as the others, it is not indigenous to any of the regions. Along with rice, it is the food most likely to be available in most restaurants in the urban parts of the county probably because it is easy to make.
There is a greater variety of soups in the south. Conversely, the north has a greater variety in food preparation techniques. This is partly because the north has the older, more sophisticated cultures that had contact with north Africa and the Arab world. Further, the north is more fertile and thus has more types of food. The north produces beans, cassava, yams, sweet and Irish potatoes, while the south produces yams, cocoyams and cassava.
We rarely have multiple course meals. In the north, this happens during Ramadan, the Muslim fasting period. Even then, the courses are not strictly ordered and anybody can eat anything at any time. During occasions like weddings, it is common to see a plate with 2 or 3 different types of rice.
There are lots more foods unique to each region and tribe. There are side dishes and foods for occasions. But the above are what you would most likely encounter. We tend to eat anything at any time even though there are certain foods that are more suitable for certain meals, they are not widespread.