So if there’s any interview that has been a long time coming, it’s this one. Lope and I first met at Loughborough University, two students navigating the jungle we called Lufs, Lope was always a go-getter, always passionate about the things she held dear and as with many who attended uni with her, it’s no surprise to any of us that she has blossomed into Lope Ariyo the author of Hibiscus. PS. This interview was so good, we had to split it into two, watch out for part two 13th July.
When did your passion for all things food start?
From as young as I can remember. My most vivid memories were making chocolate covered Rice Krispy treats in primary school followed by helping my mum in the kitchen on Sundays whilst she made okra stew with her pepper stew and eba. I started to be a lot more hands on when my mum would make European dishes and I just didn’t like how she made them. So she gave me access to the kitchen quite early which was more a retaliation to my picky eating.
Has anything ever gone terribly wrong for you in the kitchen?
Yes, and they still do on occasion. I’m a self-taught cook so it would be crazy for me to expect things to always go right. In fact, if things always went right it would mean I wasn’t learning and that would make me concerned. The more I learn the more I’m able to help sure other people don’t make those mistakes and as a result I can be a better teacher.
You’re quite experimental with your recipes, I remember coming across a recipe for mulled malt. What’s your thought process every time you attempt to experiment with a recipe?
Funny you should say that as that was one of my test recipes which I’ve since perfected. My thought process is much more different from what it used to be. I used to just grab ingredients here and there, toss something together and then just publish it. Now I look at my primary ingredient and I think about what secondary ingredients, usually just herbs, compliment it best. I then move on to what I like to call my tertiary ingredients which is usually where the main flavor comes from and that is typically decided based on if I want my dish to be sweet, sour, spicy, bitter, savory and so on. I also take into consideration how many people it has to serve, the total cook time, the total number of ingredients needed and if they are in season, the amount of cooking equipment needed and how many steps it’ll take to make the dish.
How do you experiment with traditional Nigerian/African cuisine whilst ensuring you don’t lose what makes African food African food?
From the get go I label my style of cooking as modern/contemporary Nigerian cuisine and that’s simply because most of my recipes are an extension of where I’ve grown up and how I’ve grown up. I think it’s important to differentiate the two because I don’t want someone to think I’m trying to rewrite traditional Nigerian food, instead (I feel) I’m creating an additional branch of Nigerian food which showcases other ways to use Nigerian and other West African ingredients.
Is there a fear that food bloggers of African descent who typically document African dishes are attempting to westernise the name of dishes in order to attract those who may not already be familiar with that cuisine, as opposed to ensuring that it is presented and embraced for what it is?
That’s an interesting one and I think there needs to be a balance. While you might want to attract an audience from a different demographic they’ve also come to you because they want to learn about the culture. When you write a recipe there’s meant to be a headnote and that gives space to talk about the culture or how you thought about that idea. But if we look at the title alone, I think bloggers who write recipes might struggle because food writing, in general, is about how descriptive you can be in order to allure the reader. So for example someone might create a recipe on ‘Grilled Tripe’ instead of ‘Grilled Shaki’ but there’s no reason why they couldn’t say ‘ Grilled Honeycomb Shaki’ it still gives the reader a sense of what they’ll be cooking without taking away from the culture. You could even take it up a notch and say ‘Flash Grilled Honeycomb Shaki’, again it still sounds fancy but doesn’t lose cultural value. That’s something I’ve had to learn along the way and hopefully other bloggers do to. An alternative way to go about it, is to have the respective African title and in brackets the English/French translation if there is one.
You won Red Online’s food writing competition, take me through that process, what inspired you to apply? Were you nervous, did you think you’d win?
I had a handful of different people who had seen the competition advertised telling me to apply and saying I’d be stupid not to. I had to submit 10 recipe ideas and out of those ideas 5 had to be full length recipes completed with headnotes. Then I got an email to say I’d been shortlisted for the top 10 and that I had to cook for the judges. After cooking I was then given a phone call saying that the finalists had been whittled down to two and I was part of that two. The last stage was having to write a page or so about why I’m passionate about Nigerian food. I wasn’t nervous about my food, I hosted a tasting session for my friends a few days before and they advise what was best to give the judges. I only really let myself think I could win when I got down to the final two which is why I ended up writing 4 pages about my passion for Nigerian food instead of the suggested 1.
How will your cookbook give Nigerian cuisine/african cuisine the exposure it deserves?
I think it will help give people who have misconceptions about African food a better insight into what it is that’s actually eaten and how vibrant the food can actually be. On top of that I think for people who are used to Nigerian food my book will hopefully inspire them to go beyond what has been taught traditionally and really get a chance to utilize the potential of ingredients native to Nigeria and West Africa. I just hope the price of plantain doesn’t increase.
You studied Math at university, have you found your degree of any use when it comes to the pursuit of your passions?
Surprisingly yes. Not in the sense that people would assume. Of course, I use basic math skills such as BODMAS, differentiation and integration however I rely much more on transferrable skills such as logical thinking, analytical thinking, problem solving, research skills and communication skills. Even the ability to meet deadlines which people under estimate.
If you could give five key tips to anyone interested in getting into food blogging what would they be?
- Have a least 10 post /recipes ready before you decide to go public. (If you’re creating recipes make sure they’ve all been tested)
- Learn about food photography and food styling sooner rather than later.
- Create original content and don’t copy others.
- Create genuine connections with other food bloggers
- Don’t give up.