Palm Oil Stew and Rice

Stephanie 1

Two items color-blocked on my plate: one a vivid, scarlet red, and the other a stark, alpine white. Each of these ingredients possess their own lived history, but together they create a new story. The combination of the palm oil stew and white rice creates a delicious medley in my mouth as each of the flavors accompanies one another in a perfect blend. The dish encapsulates the untethered, multilayered past of southern food. The white rice reflects the European cultivation of the ingredient from early quests to Asia, while the stewing of savory palm oil preserves my West African heritage.[1] The harmonious fusion of the cultures in this dish illuminates a complex relationship and moment of cultural collision emblematic of the Global South.[2]

Palm oil stew consists of simmering cups of amber-colored palm oil and fiery bits of tatashé pepper that are native to West Africa; pristine, fluffy white rice native to Eastern Asia; succulent chunks of tender chicken breasts that are products of the Old World; and juicy slices of vine-ripe tomatoes, which are products of the New World.[3] Evolving from African and European relations, these elements come together in a network characteristic of contemporary African American culture in the South. The collision of palm oil stew and white rice reflects a shifting southern identity through its preservation of fundamental ingredients such as rice, tomatoes, and chicken, combined with global ingredients such as palm oil and spices native to Nigeria.

The inaccessibility of this traditional Nigerian dish in the United States amplified my growing craving for it.

I often ate rice and palm oil stew while growing up in Lagos, Nigeria. It was not a treat for me then, but something I ate because it was always served. It was not until the second grade that I realized the hidden comfort of slow-cooked tender chicken chunks enveloped in a delicious coating of palm oil, tomato sauce, onion, garlic, salt, and tatashé pepper, and served over a bed of steaming-hot white rice. The inaccessibility of this traditional Nigerian dish in the United States amplified my growing craving for it. I yearned for the times I would sit in my grandmother’s kitchen eating rice and palm oil stew while listening to stories of her childhood and life experiences. I missed the euphoric feeling of eating it for dinner after many fun-filled adventures with my cousins on scorching-hot afternoons.

Stephanie 2During the nearly two-hour-long process of cooking this delectable dish, I appreciate the flavorful ingredients and escape my willingly overscheduled, fast-paced life to dwell in a world of fused global cultures. With each forkful of this scrumptious dish, I calmly recall the memories of playing dress-up in my mother’s closet and entangling myself within her scarves. With each forkful, I recall watching The Little Mermaid daily, hoping I would somehow become a princess of the sea if my mom would let me sit in the bathtub long enough. To me, white rice and palm oil stew—like many southern dishes—thrives off these memories and feelings of comfort, nostalgia, and wholesomeness, while revealing quintessential southern ideologies through the complex interplay of two distinct cultures and practices representative of the Global South.

Palm oil stew and rice originated in Colonial Nigeria between the nineteenth century and Nigeria’s official formation as a nation in 1914. Britain still had a major role in Nigeria’s cultural dynamics until 1960, when Nigeria became an independent federation. Despite the forced assimilation of Nigerians to British customs for many years, Nigerian culture continued to thrive under British rule and Nigerians have maintained elements of their distinct African heritage nearly lost through colonization. Palm oil stew and rice similarly endured, and held new meaning after British colonization. The ingredients of the dish preserve longstanding West African culinary traditions, while maintaining the memory of the experiences that Nigerians endured in the colonial past, and the fruition of new experiences that Nigerians live out today. It embodies a cultural process of making sense of the complex power play of two opposing forces representative of centuries of racial conflict and domination.

Each bite of palm oil stew and rice evokes a nostalgic comfort connecting me to my Nigerian heritage…

It is a heritage that has undergone constant adversity, pain, and struggle through oppressing exterior forces and imbalanced governing, yet has still managed to flourish as “the Giant of Africa”—a nickname that comes from the immense and powerful influence that Nigeria has throughout Africa and the world. When I eat this dish, I endure the pain of those who have suffered—in the past, through the disruption of colonization, during the challenging establishment of the modern-day nation-state, and for Nigeria to become a country that serves as an example to other nations throughout the world. Even though I am not physically in Nigeria, every time that I consume this dish in my North Carolina home, I feel closer to my country.

The combination of the seemingly contradictory African and European entities within palm oil stew and rice creates an effortless accord; the elements of the dish are both African and European along an unfixed, harmonious threshold within the American South. This dish embodies a hybrid product of a single southern culture derived from many cultures. With the utilization of the distinct African spices and European grains, the dish represents a cultural exchange of African and European edible culture. Palm oil stew and rice adequately reveals the blend of cultures that have heavily influenced the South for centuries and characterize the current state of southern cooking. It represents principles from cultures that seem to oppose each other, yet it also reveals the complex and harmonious blend of these different cultures within the ideologies of the Global South.

Stephanie Okonmah-Obazee

[1] J.R. McNeill, “5.1 The Columbian Exchange,” The Columbian Exchange (January 1, 2008) Accessed March 1, 2015.

[2] Marcie Cohen Ferris, “The Edible South: Food and History in an American Region” (lecture, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, NC, January 22, 2015).

[3] “The Global Exchange of Cultures, Plants, Animals, and, Disease,” Mariners Weather Log 52, no. 3 (2008). Accessed May 19, 2015.