Although typical of what is found throughout west Africa, traditional Nigerian food is more diverse because of the number of ethnic groups in the country. It differs between the south and north depending on what food products are available.
As a general rule of thumb, Nigerians are fond of some kind of starchy staple accompanied by an (often spicy) soup – this is actually more like a sauce or relish and is not runny like a soup. They use a lot of palm oil, a reddish coloured oil made from ground palm kernels, and a lot of chillies ground into a red powder (known in Nigeria simply as pepper). The starches include pounded yam, which is boiled yams literally pounded in a giant mortar until the consistency is light and fluffy; it looks a bit like mashed potato.
Others are eba or garri, porridges made from pounded cassava; amala, ground yam peels, which are boiled into a stiff paste and have a darker brown colour; and semovita, made from maize flour, another mashed-potato-looking concoction and similar to mealie meal or pap eaten all over eastern and southern Africa. Most of these starch-based staples have little taste and are very bland, and some have a fairly slimy texture, but they are cheap and filling and soak up the flavour of the sauce that comes with them. Alternatively you can opt for rice, which is served plain or cooked with peppers and palm oil; the latter is called jollof rice, which is bright orange, fairly hot and very tasty.
Most of the soups are made with lots of palm oil and some meat-based stock, and a few pieces of your chosen meat are plonked on top. Nigeria is renowned for its fiery obe ata (pepper soup), which effectively is the country’s national dish; it’s a thick sauce made by boiling tomatoes, ground pepper, meat or fish broth, onions, palm oil and other spices. A Nigerian must-do is to try dried fish, beef or chicken pepper soup with your choice of starch and be prepared for your eyeballs to melt and your nose to explode, though you may choose to pass on the hugely popular isiewu (goat’s head pepper soup) – every part of the goat’s head is swimming around in it.
Other soups include the tasty egusi soup, made from ground melon seeds and bitter leaf (a sort of spinach); okra soup, made from okra, also known as ladies’ fingers; draw soup, made from palm nuts, which is horribly slimy and viciously hot and is so called because the spices are ‘drawn’ out; and groundnut soup, which is made from peanuts and lends a slight satay flavour to the sauce.
You can add additional meat to these meals, which usually consists of a few pieces of very tough beef or goat, cooked dried fish with its head still intact, or a piece of chicken; the last ranges from delicious KFC-styled fried chicken to a piece of bone with hardly any flesh on that has been boiled dry. It’s worth remembering that you’ll get very good or very bad versions of these meals; there is often no way of telling which it’s going to be. Nevertheless, if you’re lucky you’ll get a big plate of steaming starch, tasty soup and tender meat. If there’s also dodo on the menu add this – it’s a delicious dish of fried plantains.
Fish, meat, vegetables
Because of the prevalence of tsetse fly, cattle are scarce in the coastal regions, so consequently more fish are eaten in the south, while meat is more popular in the north. Look out for suya, which is delicious barbecued beef on sticks, though you can also get offal and goat suya, and kilishi, spiced dried meat that is very thinly sliced and dried outside in the sun. You’ll often see bushmeat on the menu, which is considered a delicacy. Sometimes it’s antelope that’s unfortunately been poached out of the countryside, but more often than not it’s grasscutters (cane rats) or giant rubbery snails called igbin.
Vegetables such as onions, tomatoes, bitter leaf and yam are plentiful throughout Nigeria, though more exotic vegetables can be found in Lagos and the markets of the bigger cities. Outside Lagos we only really saw potatoes (and chips) on the menu in the north. Strangely given the dry climate, we also found more salads in the north, and they were surprisingly delicious, with lettuce, onions and tomatoes, a spattering of tinned baked beans, hard-boiled eggs and a big dollop of mayonnaise.
Fruit is plentiful and bananas, mangos and slices of fresh pineapple, or even coconut, are often seen on the side of the road, as are imported apples and sometimes pears from South Africa. Dairy products are scarce and you are unlikely to see cheese apart from in the posh restaurants on Victoria Island, though tinned condensed milk, milk powder and canned margarine are available. One brand of margarine that’s popular is Blue Band, about which one reader said, ‘I didn’t entirely trust a food product that doesn’t go off when kept in a warm cupboard for a year. My suspicion is that Blue Band is actually a form of spreadable plastic.’
Nigerians are largely meat eaters, and there are very few specific vegetarian dishes on restaurant menus. However, there are some exceptions. In the southeastern regions where meat is rare, beans are used to supplement protein in soups, and throughout the country moin-moin, or bean cakes with a slightly gelatinous texture about them, are popular snacks and are usually wrapped up in banana leaves. Vegetarians must be aware that while most soups are made with palm oil and vegetables (with the selected piece of meat added afterwards), the stock is often still meat-based, so ensure you ask first. This is even the case of efo, a wholly vegetable soup, which sometimes also has a meat-based gravy.
Starting with the obvious, international branded soft drinks such as Coca-Cola, Fanta, Sprite and Schweppes lemon are available everywhere, from roadside stalls to buckets on top of people’s heads, and in all the country’s restaurants and bars. They’re not always cold so check first before handing over the N50 or so it costs for a 350ml bottle – you give the bottle back as soon as you have finished. Occasionally you’ll see disposable cans but these are quadruple the price of a bottle.
There are several brands of locally produced and hugely popular malt drinks in brown bottles; one such drink is brewed by Guinness, and is served very cold. It tastes like a thick, non-alcoholic Guinness. They’re advertised as being very good for you and it’s common to see a couple in a bar with the man drinking a beer and a woman drinking a malt drink.
A drink called Chapmans is hard to find except in the more upmarket restaurants, and is expensive at about N250 for a glass, but is very refreshing; it’s a deep red berry colour and tastes a bit like a non-alcoholic Pimm’s and is made with a good dose of Angostura bitters and either tonic or lemonade with ice and a slice – like lemon or lime bitters. At most motor parks you’ll see men trundling around on bicycles selling chilled, flavoured yoghurt drinks. These taste nice, but I’d give them a wide berth as, despite them being served out of cooler boxes, you have no idea how many times they’ve warmed up in the sun. You’re better off buying these from a supermarket.
Lipton tea bags are readily available, as are small tins of condensed milk, small packets of milk powder and small tins of Nescafé. When ordering tea and coffee in a restaurant, this is what you get, and it invariably comes with bread. If you are unable to speak to anyone in the morning before a caffeine fix, I suggest you bring one of those electric elements you heat water with and a plastic or Thermos mug, as all the ingredients are available in Nigeria.
In a hotel, you may wait for an hour before a simple cup of tea emerges from the hotel kitchen. All over Nigeria in the mornings, on the side of the road and in the motor parks, you’ll see tea-and-bread sellers who serve huge plastic mugs of tea and a hunk of bread, but as they boil the sugar in the water, the tea is exceptionally sweet.
Bottled water is available, though sporadically, so try and buy it when you see it. Expect to pay around N100 for a half-litre bottle. Much more common and sold literally everywhere are half-litre plastic packets of what is known as pure water. Not everyone trusts the purity of pure water and it’s generally believed to be tap water, neatly packaged by pure water packaging machines that are freely advertised in the newspapers for anyone to buy and set up their own pure water business. (One Lebanese businessman I spoke to told me that this is exactly what happens.) Always presume that you are drinking ordinary tap water and not any kind of special mineral water. For this reason I would probably avoid them in Lagos and the bigger cities, where tap water is more likely to be contaminated. One pure water brand I saw in Sokoto was called ‘Acceptable Water’, which says it all.
Except in the northern cities, you won’t have a problem finding alcohol, and there are many excellent brands of locally brewed beer, which are sold in big half-litre re-usable bottles for about N150. The most popular are Star and Gulder; the former has the lighter taste. Big bottles of Guinness are hugely popular, but it’s not served in quite the same way as it is in the emerald isle; you’ll get it very cold and, quite bizarrely, it usually comes with a straw.
It’s brewed to a recipe that keeps the tropical heat from spoiling it, so it’s more strong and bitter than the Irish original. You’ll need to ask for a glass. As Nigerian Breweries is under licence to the Heineken label, you’ll sometimes see cans of Heineken but, as it comes in cans and not re-usable bottles, they are more expensive at around N400–500.
Local drinks include emu, or palm wine, the favourite drink in southern Nigeria, which is a natural sweet, frothy juice with a foul smell. It has to be drunk fresh and is potently alcoholic, and gets more so as the day wears on; administer with care. The distilled version of palm wine is ogogoro, a strong local gin, but it’s very discreetly sold. You’ll sometimes see Gordon’s Spark, which is a Nigerian version of an alcopop made with gin. Imported spirits and wines are expensive and can only be found in upmarket restaurants and hotels, and the few supermarkets dealing in imported goods, and are very rarely seen outside Lagos, Abuja or Port Harcourt.
Apart from Lagos, Abuja and Port Harcourt, which each has several international-standard hotels (there is no star grading system in Nigeria), Nigerian hotels are generally run-down, dilapidated, poorly maintained, have limited services, are often not wholly clean and have not seen a lick of paint for perhaps 20 or 30 years. That said, as long as you know what to expect, then you will find adequate and comfortable accommodation just about everywhere.
If you are prepared to pay over US$200 for a room, you’ll get one of a good standard, but at the very bottom end of the scale, where hotel rooms go for as little as US$20, you’ll get ancient and scuffed furnishings, dirty carpets, frequent power and water cuts, rattling or defunct air-conditioning units, leaking fridges and bad smells. Budget travellers will really want to be checking if there are clean sheets and that there is water available, even if it’s in a bucket. Even for a little more, roughly US$60–100, you’ll get the same in the so-called state hotels.
These were obviously built during the 1970s–80s oil boom and, although they are huge, with vast public areas, cavernous empty restaurants and often defunct shops, no maintenance work or improvements have been done on them since they were built, and everything is very faded and old-fashioned. For what you do or do not get, accommodation in Nigeria is not especially good value (and Lagos hotels are particularly expensive), though on the up side even the cheapest establishments have en-suite rooms with air conditioning and television.
It’s almost impossible to pre-book a hotel in Nigeria, not only because of the inefficient phone and email services, but because the only way to reserve a room is by paying the deposit up front and, as you are strongly urged not to use a credit card, this is almost impossible to do unless you are already there. The only exception to this is at the very top-end, international-chain level such as the Sheraton or Hilton, which you can book through the websites. The South African chain Protea manages a number of hotels across the country. Again, they have an efficient website for reservations. Elsewhere, you will rarely find that a hotel is full, unless there is a large conference on.
Camping is not really an option in Nigeria and there are no formal campsites with ablution blocks. Though self-sufficient overlanders manage to cross Nigeria and bush camp in quarries, timber yards and down dirt tracks on the side of the road without any problems, there are no facilities. Be wary of camping near towns and cities or any congested areas as you are bound to attract unwanted attention and news of your impromptu bush camp will spread like wildfire. Many of the hotels have large compounds and car parks (essential if you are driving) and at these places there’s no reason why you can’t ask if you can put a tent up, though you’ll have to negotiate a price for camping. This is really only suitable for large groups as they will be expected to take at least one room for use of the shower and toilet. In the southeast of the country ignore the signs that say ‘camp ground’ – these are not campsites at all but venues for large religious gatherings that frequently take place on Sundays and go on all night.
If you have gone to Nigeria to work then it makes sense to live in rented accommodation. Most companies provide accommodation for their employees, and in Lagos there are many large expat communities on Victoria Island and Ikoyi living in apartment blocks, company compounds or private houses. There may sometimes be waiting lists for accommodation and it’s not uncommon for new expats to spend the first few months of their stay in a hotel. Bear in mind rents can be upwards of a whopping US$50,000 a year for a two-bedroom apartment in a compound, plus an annual service charge of US$10,000 or more, though it’s the companies that usually meet these expenses.
Most apartment blocks have their own boreholes and generators for uninterrupted water and power supplies, and have extras such as a swimming pool and tennis court. Service charges cover all maintenance. In houses, however, which tend to rely on the public water supply, the tenant is responsible for services and maintenance, and it’s essential that you get a generator rigged up and consider some sort of security.
There is the added hassle of organising things to be fixed in your house. Many expats employ a steward or maid who lives in separate staff quarters. If you need to employ your own staff, it’s essential that you talk to other expats for recommendations; reference letters are easily forged and previous employers may be hard to contact once they have left Nigeria.
Potential expats and their wives are usually invited to Nigeria for a few days by their sponsoring company on what is termed in expat language as a ‘look-see’, before they decide to commit to a contract. They are usually put up in a very nice hotel, making the prospect of living in Lagos seem slightly brighter, and are often shown around by another expat or his wife. Work contracts tend to be long (at least two or three years), and it’s essential that you go on a ‘look-see’, and talk to lots of other expats, before committing to a lengthy stay in Nigeria.