Nigerian street food is not for the weak of heart -- or stomach. But if you've made it as far as Lagos, Africa's largest city and most travelers' first entry to Nigeria, you're likely something of an adventurer already.
Roadside eats in Nigeria are like the country's people: The are bold, strong and often feature a spicy kick. Street food is also not where you might expect to find it. In most U.S. cities, food trucks and hotdog stands are downtown. But in Lagos and especially Abuja, Nigeria's inland capital city, you're just as likely to find roadside cooks in the sprawling neighborhoods surrounding downtown.
Don't think that these neighborhoods are quiet suburban streets. Most avenues are crowded with traffic of all kinds. Just like the streets, the roadsides are full: restaurants, shops and other businesses are everywhere. On the curb is where you'll find cooks standing over makeshift coal fires, roasting fish, meat, yams, and many other cheap dishes. Upwards of 60 percent of Nigeria's population lives in poverty. It's a country full of people on the move, always working to make ends meet. For them, street food is a staple.
Below is a short guide to some of what you'll likely see on the busy streets of Lagos and Abuja.
Eaten all over the country, suya is a simple meat dish barbecued over a charcoal fire. Beef is the most common meat, though you should be able to find chicken and fish varieties as well. The meat is marinated in peanut oil, salt and suya spice consisting of cayenne pepper, garlic and salt.
Be warned: Nigerians like their suya (and most dishes, to be honest) spicy. Once the meat is marinated and grilled, over-enthusiastic cooks will often sprinkle on more spice. A pancake-like bread helps balance out the flavor.
The chicken is cooked with bones and all, which helps keep the meat moist and flavorful. The beef is generally very chewy, but pleasantly so. For those with iron stomachs, ask for beef intestines. It'll probably cost you extra, though. A good-sized helping will run you about 500 naira, or $3.50. For perspective, the World Bank says the average annual income in Nigeria is about $1,400.
If you're somewhere near the water in Lagos like Victoria Island, you shouldn't have to look far to find barbecued croaker. The fish is named after the peculiar sound it makes. It's available deep-fried in restaurants across the country. But on the street, it's usually grilled with a spicy tomato-based sauce and garnished with fresh red onions and tomatoes. Depending on where you are, a meal of croaker fish and a side of rice will run you $5-10.
Also: Unless you've been in the country for a while, it's best to avoid fresh fruits and vegetables on the street. Most produce, unless it's been cooked or has a skin, will cause traveler's sickness.
Boli is a simple roasted plantain, eaten salted with peanuts or palm oil. In some areas of Nigeria, it's eaten with mackerel and a habanero-onion sauce. Either way, plantains have a sweet flavor that goes well with the salty complementing ingredients. It's a heavy dish, so plan for a nap afterward. A good-sized serving shouldn't cost more than a few dollars.
Nigeria has about 250 ethnic groups, the major three being Hausa in the north, Igbo in the southeast and Yoruba in the southwest. Moyi-Moyi, a leaf-wrapped bean cake, is a specialty of the Yoruba. Brown or black-eyed beans are blended with pepper, onions, salt, palm oil, tomato puree, crayfish and nutmeg. It's a high-protein, intensely flavored favorite for snacking. Plan to spend about $3.
Nigeria loves yams. It's the world's largest producer by a long shot; the government estimates it accounts for about two-thirds of the world's supply of the tuber every year. And these are not the yams you are used to seeing on the Thanksgiving dinner table: The West African variety grows up to 150 pounds and has a white flesh.
On the street, you'll likely find yams deep-fried in peanut oil. You can eat them plain, or in a fish stew flavored with fresh pepper, tomatoes and bell peppers. A helping of plain yams should only be about $0.50.
For a true mish-mash of street food, look no further than this dish. Beans, long-grain rice and spaghetti are the base of a beef stew topped with a boiled egg. The tomato-based stew features intestines and even the cowhide. Ponmo, as the locals call it, must be boiled for hours before it's edible. Price: $3.
Nate Minor of Minnesota Public Radio is spending two weeks in Nigeria on a reporting fellowship sponsored by the International Center for Journalists. It is a program to study and become involved in journalism as it is practiced in other countries. Find more photographs and dispatches from Nigeria on his website and MPRNews.org. Special thanks to Morenike Umar and Babatunde Akinyemi of Radio Lagos.
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