"I come from a very large family," says Adetokunboh Adeniyi, who runs Little Lagos in Sydney's Newtown.
He's not exaggerating.
Conduct a headcount of how many people lived in his childhood home in Lagos, Nigeria, and you'd easily get over 15 inhabitants. The numbers changed often. In fact, his household would balloon to more than 30 people at Christmas time.
"My dad was the eldest child from his tribe," says Adeniyi. "His house is where everyone comes – [if] anyone needs anything, they come to stay there."
It made cooking an interesting proposition. One household dish that easily fed 30-ish people was jollof rice, but its heavy-duty preparation time meant that it was often saved for special occasions (birthdays, Christmas and Eid al-Fitr) or Sundays, when there were enough hours to build up the spiced tomato stew to flavour the rice.
"It's not something you get to eat every day. When it's on the table, you're like: 'yes, life is good!'" says Adeniyi.
"You're making two kinds of dishes when you're making jollof rice: the actual stew itself and the rice. And it's a tricky process because once you've made the stew, you have to cook the rice in the stew," he says.
Ensuring the rice doesn't get too soggy or too dried out is challenging, as is the fact you're often making mega-sized portions to feed a few dozen people. But nail it and it's incredibly rewarding, for you and the waiting crowds.
"By the time you bring the rice into the stew, it brings out the flavour, that's what gives it that magic taste," says Adeniyi.
Jollof rice is considered Nigeria's national dish and it's a signature item at Little Lagos, the restaurant that Adeniyi has finally opened in a permanent location on Newtown's busy Enmore Road strip after its previous lifespan as a pop-up at Earl's Juke Joint nearby.
"By the time you bring the rice into the stew, it brings out the flavour, that's what gives it that magic taste."
The menu features many other dishes that were a hit in his childhood Nigerian home. There's asaro: a yam porridge that's prepared like jollof rice, with pieces of the root vegetable simmering inside a stew. Some pieces dissolve right into the tomato-thick liquid, while others remain as large starchy chunks. "That's one of my favourite foods," he says.
Although Adeniyi considers it one of his milder dishes, it still has a chilli kick to it. In fact, much of the menu has a fiery charge of habanero or peppery heat.
"Most Nigerian dishes have some spice in it," he says, noting that heat levels vary regionally. The country has three major ethnic groups: the Igbo in the south-east, the Hausa in the north and the Yoruba in the south-west - the latter to which he belongs.
"Of those three tribes, the Yoruba are notorious for their high tolerance of chilli. People are always like, 'are you Yoruba? OK, I think I have to come to your place with a gallon of milk!' Because they just expect that the food is going to be very spicy," he says.
It's not just chilli that flavours Nigerian food. He credits spices such as iru (which tastes like powdered vegetable stock) and kuli kuli ("similar to roasted peanuts") as giving the cuisine a unique flavour profile.
At Little Lagos, you'll also find Nigerian fried rice, moin-moin (a vegan bean pudding), meat pies, fried plantains and goat stew – another crowd-pleasing dish from his childhood days.
"Goat was always the meat that would go with the jollof rice," he says. Not only did it make logistical sense (many people rear goats in Nigeria), but buying a whole goat was also a party-compatible move. "That can feed 20 to 30 people in one sitting."
Adeniyi's most memorable time eating goat stew with jollof rice took place one Christmas, when his father bought three goats for the occasion. The pot for the stew was so massive they had to cook it in the garden over firewood.
"That's how big the pot was. It would not fit on any gas cooker," he says. It required two people to constantly ensure it didn't burn. "It was literally two aunties standing and stirring this pot with massive ladles," he says. With such a mammoth serving, how long did it take for everyone to finish the stew?
"About two hours," he says.
The funniest moment happened afterwards, when the pot – big enough for someone to comfortably crawl inside – was empty.
"When it was time to clean up, they had about four kids cleaning that pot at the same time. And it was four kids almost falling inside of it as they were trying to scrub it clean," he says.
That's obviously not a problem for Adeniyi at Little Lagos, right? People aren't likely to fall inside the pot used for goat stew?
"No," he says, laughing.
Nigerian goat stew
- 2 kg goat shoulder or hind on the bone cut into 3cm pieces
- 2 red onions
- 1 meat stock cube
- 4-6 tomatoes
- 1 red capsicum
- 2 habanero chillies (or capsicum)
- 6 tbsp olive oil
- Salt to taste
- 3 tsp curry powder
- 1 tsp Vegeta or vegetable stock powder
- ¼ tsp ginger
- ¼ tsp red chilli powder
- Fresh coriander, to taste
- Steamed white rice, to serve
1. Wash the goat meat thoroughly and place into a medium-sized pot.
2. Dice 1 red onion and add to the pot. Add 1 meat stock cube and enough water to cover the goat. Boil for 20-25 minutes until the meat is very soft.
3. While the meat is boiling, add tomatoes, 1 onion, capsicum and habanero chillies to a blender. Blend until you have a chunky sauce consistency.
4. Drain the meat, save ½ cup of the liquid goat stock.
5. In a separate pot over a hot heat, add the olive oil.
6. Add the chunky sauce and fry for 10 minutes. Keep stirring and if necessary, add some more oil. Add the curry powder, Vegeta, salt and any other spices and stir
7. Add the goat meat and the ½ cup of goat stock. Cover and cook over medium to high heat for 15 to 20 minutes. Take off the heat, stir and stand for 5 minutes
8. Garnish with coriander, if desired, and serve with a side of steamed white rice.
This is a simplified version of the Nigerian street food. The original uses a powder made from roasted, ground peanuts that have had excess oil extracted, along with a slew of spices. The combination can vary dramatically, and some spices, such as the Sichuan pepper-like uda, are nigh on impossible to find outside of West Africa. Prawns and chicken are common alternatives to red meat, while sides include roasted plantains and cabbage salad. If you want to cram more meat onto your skewer, no worries – thicker kebabs will just take a bit longer to cook.
Efo Riro is a rich vegetable soup that is native to the Yorubas of Western Nigeria.