Inside the Spicy and Bold Guts of Lagos Street Food
The tastiest food doesn’t always come out of a fancy kitchen. In fact, the dining culture of a city is often shaped by the eats littered across streets and markets. These street merchants undeniably add color and zest to many a metro. From London to Mumbai, the vibrancy of the local culture isn’t dictated by its Michelin stars. Likewise, Lagos, a city bursting with people on the move, also has its own remarkable street food scene.
Street food in Lagos is communal and energetic, often wrapped in old newspapers and eaten with bare hands. The unique combination of being light on the palate and easy on the pocket make them staples in the average Lagosian’s diet.
There are rising concerns about the food safety of these street eats because they are sold in unsanitary locations, situated over open gutters, exposed to flies, carbon fumes, dust, and other harmful elements within the environment. What’s street food without health code violations, eh?
Puff-Puff is a spongy treat made from sugar, flour and yeast is highly loved on the streets of Lagos and can be enjoyed in various shades from peppered to glazed with different flavourings such as chocolate or coconut. It is also a chief member of the small chops family and when it’s missing from the platter, the side effects may not be savoury.
Dun-Dun, a Yoruba word for ‘Fried yam’, is another favorite. Thick rectangular chunks of yam are sliced and deep fried with a sprinkling of salt in sizzling oil for few minutes, then served when its color changes from creamy white to golden brown with just the right amount of crispiness. Dun-Dun is often served with Ata DinDin (fried pepper sauce) which is prepared from chopped tomatoes, onions and a tinge of scotch bonnet or ‘ata rodo’ for extra heat. However, when there is no Ata DinDin, ‘Akara’ can play the perfect substitute. Yeah, the sauce literally gets subbed for Akara. Who knew grounded beans, mixed with pepper and onions and dash of salt and other spices could be so satisfying especially after deep frying it into hot brown balls.
Akara on its own should be revered. This king of Nigerian breakfast sometimes serves as a patty in a local vegan-friendly burger when paired with bread. But not just any bread, ‘Agege bread’. The soft, stretchy bread with a chewy texture you buy from hawkers especially the early morning batch, fresh from the bakery and still rousingly hot. It is called a plethora of names including simply akara sandwich, but amongst the local champions on the street, this bean fritter in bread mix is known as the ‘Risky burger’.
If you do not fancy your burger risky, you can still enjoy your agege bread with another bean-based dish, Ewa Aganyin. Ewa Agayin is simply mashed boiled brown beans and the spicy Aganyin sauce. One interesting thing you find with Ewa Aganyin on the streets is that you often find the Agege bread sellers paired up with ewa agayin hawkers. There’s a term for this in economics, but it slips my mind right now.
Like the Ewa Aganyin, Abacha, fondly known as African Salad, is another “mobile” street food. The vendors are not stationary but rather transient, roving from one area to another. Traditionally from the Eastern Nigeria, Abacha starts off with a pile of shredded cassava. Then the sliced garden eggs, sliced pepper, onions, Ugba (Oil bean), and sometimes miscellaneous vegetables, come in. This combination is tossed into a palm oil emulsion with potash powder, which gives the salad its bright yellow colour, and it is stirred thoroughly. Abacha is often served with a variety fish, either smoked mackerel or deboned dry fish. There is, however, a growing trend of pairing it with peppered ponmo (cow hide).
Another favorite of the streets is Boli, soft partly ripened plantains grilled or roasted over blackened pots with redden charcoals along the road. In its authentic Port Harcourt form, it’s served with a peppery palm oil sauce and shredded Utazi leaves. In its purest form, there is also some mackerel on the side. The mackerel is sliced into segments - head, middle and tail - then spiced and glazed palm oil before grilling. Lagos has a slightly different take on Boli, however, Lagosian ditch all that oil and fish for some freshly roasted groundnuts.
Torinmo Salau is a freelance writer/journalist. Her works have been published online and offline in local and international publications.