My flight to Lagos arrives at dusk, and I slide out to an airport buzzing with activity, commerce and community. For me, it’s also a confusion of crowds after the stillness of a 13-hour flight. Once I am in the car, driving to my parents’ house, I can see shadows along the roadside, forms emerging from the headlights’ edges and plunging back into the darkness. Lagos is a city by the sea, a city with a distinct coastline, islands both natural and man-made, and a never-ending expansion toward what we call “the mainland.” Any benefits of an Atlantic Ocean breeze are swallowed up a few miles into the mainland’s humidity.
Wherever you are in Lagos, the streets are never silent and never still.
A quick glance and all seems calm. But when I look out those car windows into the night, people are filling up the dark like a tide rolling in and receding. They’re striding, chatting in groups, gathering by a food stand at the edge of a streetlight’s glow. They are carrying the city, still bursting with energy and life, steadily into the middle of the night.
As we come up Adeniyi Jones Road, to the small enclave of houses where my parents live, my mother points out landmarks from my childhood. None are immediately recognizable, but her voice is all the familiarity I need: I’m strangely, and impossibly, home. I breathe in the air and feel every inch of my person expand. We step out of the car and are greeted by the heat, the gorgeous glow of old incandescent bulbs in faded sconces, and the foliage filling every spare inch of our yard. Lemongrass, wild oregano and scent leaf fill the air as I walk up to the front door.
My parents’ home in Ikeja, Lagos, is a green oasis built with concrete and glass. From the dining room, I can make out the shape of a banana tree in the corner of the garden. Bright-yellow star fruit hang low on another tree. Everything is ripe and ready for picking. I hear chickens clucking, settling in for the night. Dinner is a light meal of stewed meat in ọbẹ̀ ata, fried sweet plantains, braised greens and steamed rice. The scent leaf I noted in the garden has been julienned, garnishing the dishes. It is my first time back in my parents’ home in 20 years. On the plate before me, all of the complexities of life in exile seem intermingled with the simplicity of home.
I have my version of Lagos, and every Lagosian has theirs, but some factors influence us all. This is how I might describe it to someone who asks me where I am from and what it is like: Its energy is overwhelming, its chaos and disorder acutely unnerving. But once you adjust to, you feel as though it heightens your senses. Crises in other places are mere mishaps in Lagos.
Young Nigerians are rediscovering the sentiments that inspired independence and the histories of our people before colonization. In turn, they are reinvigorating every aspect of our society. Bold activists and advocates are using their civic voices and engaging in political struggle, catalyzing urgent questions about who is safe and who is free in Nigerian society. As artists, filmmakers, entrepreneurs, we are all confronting and redefining the relationships we have with ourselves and what we believed our traditions to be. We are constructing a present and future out of the centuries of life that are still preserved within the modernizing cities and towns.
For me, in Lagos, change is a force that simultaneously reimagines the present and the past. I am weary of making any definitive statements through my cooking. But food is the lens through which I explore and explain the world, how I narrate my experience with displacement — as a Nigerian living in America — and a return to self. Each recipe I create is a way for me to construct a new reality out of existing tradition: from meals to start the day, like the jammy tomato breakfast eggs, topped with a dried herb seasoning mum would make on her visits, to the classic weekday lunch of iwuk edesi, a dish whose flavor is an incredible sum of all its parts, to dishes that grace our ceremonial or weekend tables such as àkàrà, a delightful, crispy bean fritter flecked with bits of onion and chile.
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 tinctures. 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.
Lagos is a place where anything is possible.
This article is an edited excerpt from “My Everyday Lagos: Nigerian Cooking at Home and in the Diaspora” by Yewande Komolafe (Ten Speed Press, 2023).