Ozoz Sokoh fell in love with food at the age of 9 and since then she hasn’t looked back. I remember finding her blog with a recipe for agbalumo chutney, as a huge agbalumo (udara, African star apple) lover I was enraptured. Through the “New Nigerian Kitchen” this woman is one of the chefs who are redefining Nigerian cuisine , one platter at a time.
Ozoz, please tell us a little about yourself
I was born and raised in Warri and Port Harcourt, kind of middle child, went to two primary schools, two secondary and two universities for different reasons. Two primary schools because parents thought the second was better; two secondary schools because our final year results got withheld so I had to repeat my final year in secondary school; and two universities because of lecturer strikes in the first.
I grew up cooking outside, writing compositions during school holidays on every possible subject including the pets I never really had – save for Polly X 2 – the parrots because my mum was an English teacher, mining clay, collecting rocks, stones, foraging fruit and nuts from trees and forming various clubs with my sisters and friends.
It’s no surprise that my life has been shaped by the places I’ve lived in – Warri and Port Harcourt but also Liverpool, UK where I went to university the second time and studied Geology/ Earth sciences after three years studying Urban & Regional Planning at Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife – Nigeria; The Netherlands – where I lived and worked; and now, Lagos – Nigeria. I hope to add Nairobi, Paris and Australia to the list of ‘lived in’.
Yes. I’m an Exploration Geologist – geologists who ‘discover’, who find things – from water to energy resources, precious minerals and more. “I love exploration, the idea of it – of unearthing, of using known elements to infer and reveal the unknown. There’s such diversity of people, backgrounds, opinions and concepts and I like the fact that Explorers – Exploration geologists – don’t see barriers and they define new frontiers.
Interesting ! how have you been able to marry your profession with your passion?
Ha ha, I don’t see them as ‘married’ necessarily but they are both different parts of the whole that make up my life – different and complementary in many ways, answering to different needs…so may be in a way, you could say married. I don’t know.
Does your knowledge of geology improve your cooking… especially given that cooking is both a science and art?
I think my knowledge and practice of science does improve my cooking, as well as most other things. Scientific approaches are consistent in the sequence they put forward from inquiry through to testing and documenting.
I approach recipes from many angles
- Combinations, of flavours, colours, textures
- ‘What’s in season’
- What elements are culturally relevant to a particular cuisine
Quite often, I have the whole experiment written down, even to the tiniest detail like a pinch of x or half a teaspoon of y. Then I go ahead and test, pen and paper in hand in the kitchen or phone close by – I adjust as necessary.
When things succeed, I note as much; when they fail, I know why and when I want to turn them around/ change an element, I know what to do. The end result often doesn’t seem like the outcome of scientific musing – sometimes it resembles art and almost always, it is delicious.
You have no professional training as a cook but you have such a beautiful technique. How did you learn your culinary skills?
Thank you so much. I learnt to cook at home – from my parents who loved food.Then when I moved away from home to University, I began cooking as a way to comfort myself.
Much later, reading, watching lots of cooking shows and being part of food communities like Food 52 helped build not only my knowledge of Nigerian cuisine but of diverse global cuisines and techniques.
These days, the likes of Masterchef Australia are my classroom.
Why did you start blogging as kitchen butterfly and were you expecting the response you have gotten from readers ?
I started blogging in 2009 because I had a midlife quarter life crisis. I was lost at work – I didn’t feel good enough, as though I contributed in any meaningful way. This triggered my search for what I wanted to do with my life/ what a meaningful life was.
A combination of mentors – male and female, female career development workshops and conferences (particularly Women in Networking) and a lot of self-soul-searching made me realise I needed an outlet. I’d always loved food, writing and photography; always read blogs but it never occurred to me that I could start mine.
Once I decided to blog, I began to look for a name. Choosing a name was hard. It began with ‘Not a plastic spoon’ as a way of expressing my resilience and determination in the heat of the cooking pot but it was already taken on blogspot.
I then sat down, pen and paper in hand. All the key words I wrote down – growth, evolution, colourful, flighty pointed at some sort of progression, a journey from young to mature. Around that same time, I went to visit a butterfly garden and saw all the stages from egg to Chrysalis and full grown and the rest is history.
Now lets bring it home, were your family surprised at how seriously you took this passion for food or was it a case of ‘it’s about time!’?
It was very much ‘It’s about time’. I’d always loved food, well save for the first 9 years of my life when I hated it and really loved sugar and soaking garri (which I love till this day, 31 years on). I’d always done ‘extra’ at the table, no matter what it was – I would add a twist, my spin. Not having all the ingredients didn’t stop me – I learnt about substitutes, consulted the inter webs for the essentialness or not, learnt to make things I couldn’t find – almond meal for instance. One of the first successful gluten-free bakes I made was a Sicilian orange cake which called for whole oranges, which I had and almond meal, which I didn’t – I only had whole almonds. I learnt how to blanch them to remove the skins, and how to make my own almond meal. I learnt about measurements, ratios, proportions. And with each successive, successful experiment, my confidence grew and I became fearless.
What was the moment when you knew you had to take this food love a notch higher?
It wasn’t ever a conscious decision. I never sat down to even think through my relationship with food as something that needed to grow. Growth has been the natural outcome of love for it, consistency in practicing it and deeper enquiry – whether that’s in the market when I buying veg, or reading and researching more when I watch TV or I’m on the internet. The more I cook, the more I love food and cooking and the more I learn and research – and grow.
For me, food is more than eating. It’s beyond the plate – there’s love and culture, heritage and history, voice and brain on the plate. That’s the love for me, it’s what keeps me engaged with food. It’s why I’ve pioneered the New Nigerian Kitchen – to detail and celebrate Nigerian cuisine through my philosophy and practice with it.
In 2014, I spoke at TEDxPortHarcourt about Re-imaging Nigerian cuisine – I was shocked at the positive response to this idea that there are so many layers to food.
When I share my thoughts and experiences, it reinforces my love for and my desire to share Nigerian cuisine. Watching myself during interviews and features like CNN’s African Voices makes me see that what was a personal love has transforming capacity – has the ability to create awareness, inform and even inspire people to do and know more.
So though my taking this food love a notch higher was unconscious, I’m happier for it.
Million £ question you are a geologist, chef, wife and a mum to beautiful children and you live in Lagos. How do you do it ? How do you make quality time for your family ?
The most important thing about having a full life is that it is your choice to do what you want, how you want it and when – that balance to you is how you choose it to be. There’s a faulty impression that balance is the same thing to everyone. What gives me rest, how I chill/ distress will mean nothing, be ineffective to/for the next person – that’s fundamental.
I do things that make me happy, that soothe my soul and give me peace. Those same things would be of no significance to the very next person because we have different personal goals!
Top of my list on balance is I don’t bother with things, activities or events that don’t interest me.
I treasure my weekends and make them count for everything – no unnecessary waka. If I don’t need it desperately, I hug my couch or sit at the bench on my dining table – writing, or stay in my kitchen catching up on making something from my long list of ‘things to try’ or go out or some other thing.
Because my weekends are special (and I’m sorry I started this sentence with because – my mum did teach me not to but…) , I also avoid cooking on Friday evenings. I like to ease myself into the weekend, preferring to order pizza or have everyone fend for themselves whether that’s a sandwich, left overs or cereal. Quite often, in Nigeria we judge mothers by their abilities to cook from scratch every day. Failure to do so might confer ‘bad mother’ status but I saw other perspectives when I lived in The Netherlands. I had friends who would buy store-bought pancakes, lovingly warm them up and serve up to their children without fear of judgment from children or society. This was a huge revelation for me – I’m not less of a mother for feeding my children sandwiches! What’s key is nutrition, variety and balance. It also made me understand that mothering doesn’t have to be hard and strenuous to be successful. Not everything virtuous and loving and true comes from toil and hard labour.
I get my family involved in everything – I believe that everyone must be invested to make it work so whether that’s making some decisions or helping out in some way. This addresses many things – working together as a family without any one person being/ feeling burdened with the bulk of it. So, at meal times for instance, everyone contributes to getting food on the table whether that’s setting it, prepping some elements, etc. The children take it in turns to do the dishes, laundry, cleaning the house. They know what it involves and I think in some little way can appreciate the effort I put in.
We all play badminton – in front of our house every other evening after school/ work – as long as there’s daylight. Sometimes, it’s half an hour play, other times longer but we bond, exercise and spend time outside. Important on so many levels.
I sometimes write for my blog – in the car on my phone, at lunchtime. I also use homework time when the children are slugging hard at theirs to to catch up on my own writing, internet things. I break huge tasks into small bits and spread them over days, weeks, months, sometimes years – depending on their ranking because I’m well aware that I am not likely to have the 6 hours uninterrupted I need to complete that project but I have 5 minutes today and tomorrow and before you know it, I’m done with that project.
I often cook on weekday evenings so I can free up weekend time. My rationale is, I’m already tired – this ain’t gonna make it worse. Sometimes, I split the task over days. Today – I cook the meat and tomato mix, tomorrow I finish off the stew – portion it into freezer bowls and off it goes. Help here is fundamental and I have my housekeeper prep prep prep. Sometimes, I order produce and products online and have them delivered – that saves me time, and honestly doesn’t cost a lot more than I would ordinarily spend. Where it does, I am fine with that – it’s the opportunity cost for ‘buying me time’. In the end, it works for me.
You also take beautiful photos, is that still a hobby or something you may explore even more?
Thank you for your compliment. Life for me – food, photography, art – is about exploration, continuous exploration for me and there’s no stop line.
My December 2015 ‘Postcards from Lagos’ exhibition – my first ever – was a collection of photos that reflected my time in Lagos. Records of places – favourite and visited, colours – yellow, and more. I had a great time seeing my random musings about the city marshalled into a cohesive, coherent story.
I love photography – I love seeing the world through two sets of eyes – mine and my camera’s because often, I see less by eye. Maybe because I’m short-sighted. The camera has a way of showing what it will and I’m quite stunned to look at photos after the fact and see themes and threads.
How do you unwind and relax?
I sleep. On the couch because there’s such luxury to it. You’re in the midst of family, lots going on but still able to snatch some shut-eye. This is special.
I cook. Food is my therapy. It lifts, it soothes, it teaches. I particularly love cooking late at night when everyone is gone to bed and it’s quiet outside. I feel as though I can process my thoughts clearer, walk or cook through problems, decisions that need making and more. Food and cooking definitely makes me relax and unwind.
I watch TV. Current favourites – Chef’s Table on Netflix; Masterchef Australia. I write, About life, food, …I walk as a way to loosen up aging joints – 40 is no joke
Thank you very much for your questions – I learn a lot about myself from these questions.
Thank you very much for answering them, Kitchen Butterfly !
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