Back in 2018, we talked with chef and recipe developer Yewande Komolafe about her experience as an undocumented immigrant. She grew up in Nigeria, but after immigrating legally to the U.S. a clerical error led to her losing her immigration status. For years she felt she had to hide parts of herself, for fear of being outed as undocumented. And because of her status, she couldn’t go back to Nigeria. This week we’re replaying that episode, followed by a new conversation with Yewande in which she updates her story, and talks about the release of her first cookbook, My Everyday Lagos.
If you want to win a copy of Yewande's cookbook, sign up for our newsletter by November 12. If you’re already subscribed, then you’re already eligible to win.
The Sporkful production team includes Dan Pashman, Emma Morgenstern, Andres O'Hara, Nora Ritchie, Jared O'Connell, and Julia Russo. The team that originally produced parts of this episode was Anne Saini, Aviva DeKornfeld, Rob McGinley Myers, and John DeLore.
This episode contains explicit language.
Interstitial music in this episode by Black Label Music:
- "Twenty 99" by Erick Anderson
- "Mouse Song Light" by Ken Brahmstedt
- "Rogue Apples" by Karla Dietmeyer and Olivia Diercks
- "Madame Prez" by Karla Dietmeyer and Olivia Diercks
- "Pong" by Ken Brahmstedt
- "Kenny" by Hayley Briasco
- "Rooftop Instrumental" by Erick Anderson
- "Dream Houses" by Hayley Briasco
- "Sugar and Spice" by Hayley Briasco
- "Happy Jackson" by Ken Brahmstedt
Photo courtesy of Kelly Marshall.
Dan Pashman: This episode contains explicit language.
Yewande Komolafe: I think I'm at the part of my life where I'm just reflecting on all of the experiences that I've had. I call it — a few years ago turned 40, and I call it my shameless 40s where I'm just like living without shame because I'm figuring out that a lot of the shame that I carried was put on me by, like, culture, family, experiences, and it's not mine to carry and so I am, like, shedding that chain.
Dan Pashman: This is The Sporkful, it's not for foodies it's for eaters, I'm Dan Pashman. Each week on our show we obsess about food to learn more about people. Quick note before we get started, this Wednesday October 25th is World Pasta Day. And to celebrate, I am going to be making a big major announcement. I’ll drop a special message right here in the podcast feed, I’ll put it on social media, it’s gonna be very, very exciting. That’s this Wednesday.
Dan Pashman: All right, let’s get into it On today’s show, we’re talking with Yewande Komolafe, a chef and recipe developer living in Brooklyn. Yewande has a new cookbook out, called My Everyday Lagos, which includes her take on some classic Nigerian dishes, and some more modern variations. Nigeria is a place that Yewande once thought of as home. But as you may recall from an episode we did with her in 2018, when she moved to the U.S., she ended up losing her immigration status through no fault of her own. That meant she had to hide a part of herself. It meant she couldn’t go back. And it led her to ask: When you have to hide part of who you are, how do you connect with the taste of a place you used to call home?
Dan Pashman: Today, we’re going to re-air that original episode, then afterwards, we’ll share a new conversation with Yewande that we taped just a few weeks ago, on the eve of the release of her first cookbook.
Dan Pashman: Let's start at the beginning of her story. Yewande was born in Germany, to Nigerian parents. They moved back to Nigeria when she was very little, so she grew up in Lagos, the country’s biggest city. Looking back on her life in Nigeria, a career in food seems almost inevitable. After all, it runs in her family:
Yewande Komolafe: My mom's a food scientist, so I remember like growing up in test kitchens with her testing recipes and, like, using us as her little taste testers. I remember being surrounded by candy all the time because my mom worked for a chocolate company and I just thought that is how kids grew up.
Dan Pashman: Right.
Yewande Komolafe: Like surrounded by candy all the time. My grandmother would cook and have the whole family over, including my extended family. She had like a big outdoor kitchen. There was stories — I had never met my dad's mom, but there was stories of her running a restaurant in her little village. So yeah, women in my family always cooked. And I remember being really interested in food and thinking that I was also going to be a food scientist. And so when I signed up for college, I signed up to be a biochem major but really hated chemistry.
Yewande Komolafe: And then decided to go to culinary art school after college.
Dan Pashman: So you started going down the road of food scientist but you were sort of like, "Ehh, do you have anything with less science and more eating?"
Yewande Komolafe: Yeah, and like more eating ...
Dan Pashman: Right. [LAUGHS]
Yewande Komolafe: Or more, you know, cooler looking, you know more creative in that way.
Dan Pashman: Right. And so do you like when you are working in the kitchen testing recipes, do you call your mom? Do you guys compare notes?
Yewande Komolafe: We do. Yeah, it's actually one of our favorite things to do. It's a way that we bond now through talking about food because I haven't been back to Nigeria in a really long time. A lot of our conversations sometimes surround me trying to pull from memory, like encountering a food or a spice or a seasoning here and saying, "I remember this from Nigeria. It tastes like this. Like, what is it called?".
Dan Pashman: Yewande came to the U.S. from Nigeria when she was 16, to attend the University of Maryland. She came legally on a student visa. After she graduated, she enrolled at the Baltimore International College of Culinary Studies. A new school means a new student visa. But two years after starting there, there was a problem. Yewande didn’t enroll in summer classes, and an administrator at the school took that to mean that Yewande was no longer enrolled there, period.
Yewande Komolafe: The administrator was not experienced with dealing with international students. Like, you know, it was a small school in Baltimore, Maryland. And so she deleted my account for whatever reason and that's how I lost my documentation here.
Dan Pashman: Wait, so, you were here legally.
Yewande Komolafe: Yeah.
Dan Pashman: You were a student. You had all the — you had the student visa.
Yewande Komolafe: Mm-hmm.
Dan Pashman: And some person just like in a bursar's office?
Yewande Komolafe: In a — yeah, in a ... [LAUGHS]
Dan Pashman: Like hit delete?
Yewande Komolafe: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.
Dan Pashman: Ohhh.
Yewande Komolafe: Yeah.
Dan Pashman: What was it like when you figured out that that had happened?
Yewande Komolafe: It ... I ... huh. What was it like? Gosh. Shock? I realized that I was dealing with someone who had no concept of what she had just done. I realized how, like, my entire life depended on pressing a button.
Dan Pashman: And... What? Did you talk to this person about it? Like ...
Yewande Komolafe: Oh man, I did. [LAUGHS] [COUGHS] I remember going into the office and I mean, I don't yell a lot. [LAUGHS] But I remember, like, screaming at her and, like, losing my shit at her. But there was still no recognition or acknowledgement of what she had done. And so it was up to me to get reinstated. And I didn't get reinstated. Like, I applied, went through the whole process, and then waited about a year to hear back from them. But I didn't get reinstated.
Dan Pashman: We tried to confirm Yewande’s story with that culinary school in Baltimore, or get a comment from them, but the school no longer exists. As far as we know, the woman who messed up Yewande’s visa never faced any repercussions. And clearly, the school had a lot of issues. In 2011, it lost its accreditation. When this visa debacle happened, Yewande essentially fell into a bureaucratic abyss that she couldn’t crawl out of.
Dan Pashman: So you stayed here and you were left undocumented?
Yewande Komolafe: Yes. So I decided to stay, because at that time, I felt like going back to Nigeria was not really the option that I wanted to pursue. I had all my legal documents because I came here legally. I was still able to work because I had a social security number and I had a driver's license. I was still able to sort of be legal here, but I just couldn't leave the country. And if I left the country, it meant that I wouldn't come back at all.
Dan Pashman: Yewande felt like she had come to America to pursue her dream of a career in food, and she wasn’t ready to give that up. So she threw herself into her work. She spent long hours in high end kitchens, cooking mostly French and American dishes.
Yewande Komolafe: I took a huge break from Nigerian food, and I wasn't really interested in cooking. I really was eager to learn about the food of the country that I was living in, and get exposed to other cuisines.
Dan Pashman: Meanwhile, Yewande was navigating life in America as an undocumented immigrant.
Yewande Komolafe: It made it harder to talk about being Nigerian, and it made it harder to share, like, my being Nigerian.
Dan Pashman: So to move ahead in her career, Yewande ended up cooking less Nigerian food. To stay in the country, she had to talk less about where she came from. In other words, without even fully realizing it, she had to act less Nigerian. She went on like this for more than ten years. Her parents were able to come here to visit, and her brother moved here, but she couldn’t go there. Finally, it caught up with her.
Yewande Komolafe: I couldn't go back to Nigeria for so long and the one thing that I knew I had was food, and so exploring Nigeria and exploring my memory of it, the safest place for me to go was food.
Dan Pashman: Yewande decided to try to re-create some part of Nigeria in her kitchen. So she started gathering the staples. Now, traditionally a lot of Nigerian dishes start with a base sauce of bell peppers, tomatoes, onions, and habanero chilis. There are also a lot of funky fermented flavors that come from fermented fish and fermented locust beans. That funk is a real hallmark of Nigerian cuisine. It’s the kind of thing that if you’re not used to it, it can take some getting used to. But if you grew up with it, you can’t live without it. Yewande made cassava, it's also known as yucca. It’s a starchy root vegetable, somewhat similar to a potato. She also cooked lentils, plantains, and papaya.
Yewande Komolafe: It was a very private thing. I think a lot of it had to do with, like, the fear and anxiety surrounding not being able to go back. And so when I did cook Nigerian food, it was always at home and, like, the privacy of my own kitchen. And if anybody was coming over, like, that's what they were going to have. But it wasn't really something that I wanted to cook at a restaurant or wanted to share with, like, the larger world.
Dan Pashman: Around the same time that Yewande was reconnecting with her Nigerian-ness, she was reminded of just how dangerous that could be for her. I should say, Yewande is Black, and she started dating a white guy, an American.
Yewande Komolafe: One time we were in Marfa, driving through Marfa.
Dan Pashman: In Texas.
Yewande Komolafe: In Texas, and we got stopped by an immigration officer because it's really close to the border. And I was like, "This is it. My life is over." And Mark's just like, don't say anything. Like, let me handle it. To me, like, law enforcement is like, speak only when you're spoken to. Like, don't make jokes with them. But when Mark relates to them, it's just like, "Oh yeah, it's that guy." And, you know, the officer comes, and he's like, "What are you guys doing here?" Mark's like, "We're just driving to this ranch. Our friend owns a ranch right there on the border." And he's like, "Oh yeah, I know that ranch." And they start talking about this place. And like, the whole time, I'm just like, sunglasses on, like, don't even look at him. Don't say anything. And he let us go.
Dan Pashman: While Yewande was dealing with incidents like that in the outside world, she was still cooking Nigerian food for friends at home. But she thought of those dishes as totally separate from the fine dining food she was making at work. Then, she realized that she could use her training and experience in these high end kitchens to shape her idea of Nigerian food. At home in her kitchen, she began experimenting.
Dan Pashman: She turned fufu — a traditional pounded yam dish that’s eaten with Nigerian stews — into a dish like polenta, cooked with chicken broth, milk, and parmesan. She served cassava as a salad, topped with lime and cilantro. Then, she and Mark went on another road trip.
Yewande Komolafe: We had driven to Vermont that summer and came back with, like, two frozen goat legs. [LAUGHS]
Dan Pashman: Like you do. Right.
Yewande Komolafe: As you do when you're in Vermont. [LAUGHS]
Dan Pashman: You know, not natch ...
Yewande Komolafe: And so my mom came and I'm like, we should just have a big dinner where I cook with my mom and like, you know, share — goat is like one of my favorite meats to eat. And so my mom seasoned the goat and she, you know, put all her spices on it and, you know, let it marinate. And it also happened to be right around the time of the election.
Dan Pashman: That’s Trump’s election, in 2016.
Yewande Komolafe: And I really wanted to be more vocal about being an immigrant just because of the way the administration paints the picture of immigrants. Like I'm one of those people, and so I really felt the need to speak up.
Dan Pashman: It almost sounds like a superhero origin story. Follow me here. Yewande has this super power, but she has to keep it to herself. Then she starts sharing it in private, and she gets better, grows more powerful. Finally, when the world needs her most, she decides she’s not going to keep her Nigerian cooking and her identity secret any longer. She steps into a phone booth and transforms and comes out ready to fight for Truth, Justice, and the American Way, which in this case means hosting 60 people for dinner in her and Mark’s loft apartment, and talking openly about her experience as an immigrant.
Dan Pashman: But whenever a superhero goes public with their powers, there’s always a question: Will they be accepted? What will people think? Well, the dinner was a huge success. It became a regular event. Every month or so, Yewande hosted a dinner, open to the public, where she shared her food, and her story. She called it: My Immigrant Food Is. Most of the people who came weren’t familiar with Nigerian food. She did make certain accommodations:
Yewande Komolafe: If it was up to me, I would like explode people's palates, but I also don't — I want them to enjoy the food and it's hard to enjoy it if it's too hot.
Dan Pashman: Right.
Yewande Komolafe: And so, the way I deal with that is like, if I add heat, then add something like mint to be refreshing and to cool, you know? So ... Or serve something with, like, coconut milk at the end of the course, so it's like cooling. And I like that game that I play with, like, exploring ingredients and, like, trying to push them to whatever limit that I see fit. And I think that my approach to Nigerian food is also my approach to being Nigerian.
Yewande Komolafe: I was born in Berlin. I lived in Nigeria. You know, we moved back to Nigeria, speaking German. I think that the question of how Nigerian I am has always been a part of my story, like having to prove how Nigerian I was. And so I think I approach Nigerian food in the same way that like, I'm going to cook it and I'm going to cook it the way that's telling of my experience and it's going to be Nigerian.
Dan Pashman: Yewande says hosting that first dinner changed everything.
Yewande Komolafe: It felt freeing. It felt like I didn't have to avoid questions because what's also interesting is that I don't know that people know about the immigration process here. It's sort of like, oh, this person moved here and they're now living the American dream. And, you know, I'm always like, well, what was their process like? You know, like how many years did it take for like their paperwork to be legal or ... You know, like none of that gets told.
Dan Pashman: But I'm sure it's probably — there's a certain irony in the fact that I think in some ways immigrants know more about America than Americans do.
Yewande Komolafe: Yeah.
Dan Pashman: Yes, over the years, Yewande has become a real expert in our immigration laws in particular. She and Mark did get married. But marriage doesn’t guarantee you a green card. It’s still a long, hard process. You have to provide tons of documents to show that your marriage is real — joint lease, shared bank account, shared utility bills, holiday cards addressed to both of you, photos of you with your spouse and your families. And, it’s expensive. There are single forms that cost $500 or $1000 just to file — plus legal fees. Yewande says it took more than a year and cost about $5000 total. But in the fall of 2017, it happened. She got her green card.
Dan Pashman: Is it actually a card?
Yewande Komolafe: It's actually — it's like plastic.
Yewande Komolafe: I don't know what I was expecting.
Dan Pashman: Don't leave it in your pants when you wash your pants.
Yewande Komolafe: i know.
Dan Pashman: Can you imagine?
Yewande Komolafe: It's like... It's like this plastic green card that ...
Dan Pashman: I thought, it'd at least come like — does it come in a nice box?
Yewande Komolafe: No.
Yewande Komolafe: It came in a thing that said, "Welcome to America."
Yewande Komolafe: I'm like .... [LAUGHS] I'm like, I've been in America, you assholes.
Yewande Komolafe: Like, welcome to America? Like, okay. Yeah, whatever. You know? But, you know, so I'm processing what it means that I now have this thing that says I could be here.
Dan Pashman: But she didn’t feel like she was out of the woods. That’s because green card holders have never been fully shielded from deportation, according to Alejandra Molina, a reporter I spoke with who covers immigration. She said that in the political climate when Yewande got her green card, in 2017, many people with permanent resident status worried it wasn’t enough.
Dan Pashman: The Trump administration worked to find more ways to deport people, through policy changes and executive orders. People who, before Trump, would have been allowed to stay. For Yewande, clearly, having a green card was better than not having one, but it didn’t feel the way she expected.
Yewande Komolafe: What's surprising to me, on the flip side of getting my green card, is that the behaviors of, like, anxiety and fear don't immediately exit. You know, I still think that, like, if I'm in an airport, there's a chance that I could get picked up. You know, like that thought takes a while to dissipate. And it takes a while to, like, understand that like I'm allowed to be here?
Dan Pashman: And now you have a green card.
Yewande Komolafe: Mm-hmm.
Dan Pashman: You can come and go.
Yewande Komolafe: Mm-hmm.
Dan Pashman: Where are you gonna go?
Yewande Komolafe: Nigeria.
Dan Pashman: Coming up, Yewande’s trip back to Nigeria. Then later, we hear how all her travels informed her new cookbook. Stick around.
Dan Pashman: Welcome back to The Sporkful, I’m Dan Pashman. Last week on the show, we had a lot of fun taking a spin through some food hot topics in another one of our "Salad Spinner" episodes. We talked about the group of 20-somethings living in a “hacker house” who created a fake steakhouse in New York City, and Juicy Couture’s strange collab with Kraft Mayo.
CLIP (DAN PASHMAN): I feel like I'm going to get myself a mayo jacket ...
CLIP (AMANDA MULL): [LAUGHS]
CLIP (DAN PASHMAN): And I'm going to get some Blue Bottle Coffee New Balances, and I'm just going to walk ...
CLIP (DOUG MACK): You need a whole outfit.
CLIP (DAN PASHMAN): Yeah.
CLIP (AMANDA MULL): Yeah.
CLIP (DOUG MACK): You need a tie.
CLIP (DAN PASHMAN): [LAUGHS]
CLIP (AMANDA MULL): Yeah.
CLIP (DOUG MACK): A hat.
CLIP (AMANDA MULL): Yeah.
CLIP (DAN PASHMAN): I'll walk around my tub of ranch dressing ice cream.
CLIP (AMANDA MULL): And you'll be the weirdest hypebeast ever.
CLIP (DAN PASHMAN): [LAUGHING]
Dan Pashman: Listen to the episode to hear about other pressing news from the world of food, including Taylor Swift’s list of food demands backstage at her concerts. That one’s up now, check it out.
Dan Pashman: After receiving her green card, in 2017, Yewande was finally able to travel back to Nigeria with her husband Mark. She flew to Lagos, Nigeria’s biggest city, where her family lives.
Yewande Komolafe: What was really weird to me was that I got on a plane. And I was — that was taking me out of the U. S. And it wasn't eventful, it wasn't dramatic. And it was kind of disappointing. [LAUGHING] Like, I don't know what I imagined, but like, I wanted it to — like, is that how people do it? They just get on a plane and go to like, another country? Is that what happens? [LAUGHS]
Dan Pashman: So they got out of the airport, found Yewande’s parents, all good. Then, they went out to eat. This would be Yewande’s first bite of Nigerian food in Nigeria in 18 years.
Yewande Komolafe: There was a dish called Nkobi. It's a cow foot that's like cooked until, like, the tendons are really soft and then it's pulled off the bone and tossed with like a palm oil and, like, shrimp and locust bean — just like very intense flavors and it makes a kind of sauce, or to coat it. And then like, you know, the color is also just like bright orange when it comes to the table. And I — like tasting that dish just felt like, oh wow, like I'm in Lagos, you know, like I'm here.
Dan Pashman: Yewande had been away for so long. Her memory of the flavors themselves had faded, taken on a sepia tone. Now, she was experiencing those tastes in vivid hues, like when Dorothy lands in Oz and everything goes from black and white to Technicolor.
Yewande Komolafe: Everything was so spicy. I think I forgot how spicy Nigerian food is. And everything was so flavorful. It was salty and it was, like, a lot of fermented flavors and a lot of sour flavors. Everything was served with a chili oil. Like, I feel like I had been searching for that spice all my life. [LAUGHS]
Dan Pashman: Before this trip, Yewande talked about trying to balance the spice in her Nigerian cooking, using mint or coconut milk. But she says now …
Yewande Komolafe: I suddenly think of, like, my Nigerian cooking as too subtle. I mean, gosh, the flavors that I tasted there were just — like, everything hit my palate. If it was spice, it was fermented, it was smoked. You know, just everything was intense. Now in thinking of Nigerian cooking, I want to add that intensity to it. Like, I want to hit people's palates the way my palate was hit in Nigeria, because, like, to me, like, that's Nigerian cooking.
Dan Pashman: How will this trip change your dinners?
Yewande Komolafe: I made a chili oil when I got back, and I made it with, like — I got fermented locust bean, ginger, garlic and the chilis. And I have a huge like mason jar of it in my fridge, and I'm going to serve that alongside every course. I think also like another element that I really enjoyed was, like, the passing around of food and, like, the sharing of food, and not necessarily having plated food. But I love large platters of food and you get to, like, pass them around. Because I think it also just encourages conversation and it eases people up. It's like you can't really say no to like a plate of millet salad that's coming your way. You know, you can, but I say don't say no to that. You know?
Dan Pashman: Yewande will judge you, is what she's saying.
Yewande Komolafe: Totally. I can see you from the kitchen.
Dan Pashman: After talking about all that amazing Nigerian food, I really wanted to go to Yewande’s next dinner. But it was the night of my daughter’s birthday. So our friend Rachael Bongiorno went instead.
[DINNER PARTY AMBIENCE]
Dan Pashman: Yewande estimates that only about 10 percent of the people who come to her dinners have a lot of familiarity with Nigerian food. So the big question was: How would people react to Yewande’s new, more intense flavors?
[DINNER PARTY AMBIENCE]
Dan Pashman: Yewande and her husband Mark welcomed everyone.
CLIP (YEWANDE KOMOLAFE): So, uh, there's a There's no seating arrangements, so it's just ...
CLIP (MARK): Yeah, so feel free to seat yourselves. Um, there's a Hungarian rosé that a friend of ours imports. Do you guys want to talk about the soup?
CLIP (YEWANDE KOMOLAFE): The soup is a mango consommé, it’s a mango and habanero chilies. There's habanero chilies in everything ...
Dan Pashman: In case you couldn’t hear Yewande describing the first course, it was a mango soup with habanero chilis, served with calabash nutmeg crackers. She says calabash nutmeg is a smokier, milder type of nutmeg. After that, there was whole roasted fish with yaji spice relish. Yaji is a ground spice blend used to season suya – which is basically Nigerian BBQ. Then there was pea shoots with braised beef cheeks and fermented cassava cake. And for dessert, roasted pineapple and selim pepper ice cream. Selim pepper is a type of black pepper found in parts of Africa.
Dan Pashman: After the meal, Rachel talked with the diners. And pretty much everyone said the same thing. The food was REALLY spicy and that’s what they loved about it.
CLIP (GUEST 1): It was unexpected because you didn't necessarily taste the spice initially. It was a few seconds later and it really brought the dishes together.
CLIP (GUEST 2): I mean, I'm a professional chef and I've been in the industry for 20 years and I still — it's kind of like, yeah, cassavas, like ... I ... yeah, stews, right? Dried fish? Like I don't ... I don't really know, like it's a part of the world that I don't really know deeply.
CLIP (GUEST 3): The flavors of Yewande's food have definitely become bolder since she came back from Nigeria, which I love. It was amazing before, but it's just so much more now since she got back, and I'm super excited about it.
Yewande Komolafe: I feel like I've been floating for about 10 years, and I think I was hoping to feel more grounded and to, like, understand both where I come from myself. I needed something about being Nigerian to feel real and food was my approach.
Dan Pashman: So is it fair to say that this trip made you feel more Nigerian?
Yewande Komolafe: It made me feel like I am Nigerian. You know, like it sort of quieted those questions that I had about my identity. And it made me feel like no matter how long I spend away from it, or no matter how far away I am from Lagos, like that it's mine.
Dan Pashman: As I said that conversation with Yewande happened back in 2018. Now her new cookbook, My Everyday Lagos, is out. In the past she’s partnered with other chefs to write their cookbooks, but this is the first with just her name on the cover. So I wanted to hear more about that and get an update on what else has been going on with her.
Dan Pashman: So, here we are, Yewande. Hey.
Yewande Komolafe: Hi.
Dan Pashman: It's good to see you.
Yewande Komolafe: Yes, it's been a while.
Dan Pashman: In the last 5 years, Yewande has been back to Lagos several times, had two children, and gotten a job as a cooking writer for The New York Times Food section. But perhaps most relevant to our earlier conversation …
Yewande Komolafe: I am now an American citizen.
Dan Pashman: Congratulations.
Yewande Komolafe: I have a blue passport ..
Dan Pashman: Okay.
Yewande Komolafe: That says I'm an American citizen.
Dan Pashman: And there's no special conditions on it?
Yewande Komolafe: Surprisingly not. They just gave me the passport. Can you believe that?
Yewande Komolafe: They said, "Welcome to America".
Dan Pashman: Again.
Yewande Komolafe: Again.
Dan Pashman: Right.
Yewande Komolafe: And gave me this book and now I can travel without having to get a visa or or any of that paperwork that I had to do before ... but yes.
Dan Pashman: You talked — when you had just gotten the green card that the sort of the feelings of anxiety and stress being undocumented didn't float away as quickly as you had hoped. Where are you at with those feelings now?
Yewande Komolafe: [LAUGHS] You’re gonna find this funny. I walk through the border like I own the shit.
Yewande Komolafe: I'm like, you can't say shit to me. Yes, I'm American. What do you want?
Yewande Komolafe: Completely different aura.
Dan Pashman: So not only have you become an American, you've become a New Yorker.
Yewande Komolafe: Yeah. Oh my God, to the bone.
Dan Pashman: But the big headline now is that Yewande’s cookbook is here. Yewande made reference to the idea of writing on a cookbook when we spoke five years ago, but it wasn’t until a couple years later that she actually started working on it.
Yewande Komolafe: I had worked on so many cookbooks and I realized at some point that I had a story to tell. And it was unlike any other story that I'd seen in food media or the publishing world, and I think I started playing with that idea.
Dan Pashman: Yewande’s immigration status has been key to her being able to write the book, because it’s enabled her to visit Nigeria multiple times in the last several years, for research. She says spending more time there completely changed her perspective of the cuisine.
Yewande Komolafe: There’s so much nuance to the food culture there. You know, I set my book in Lagos because Lagos acts as a gathering place for so many of Nigeria's different cultures. The food in Lagos keeps evolving. They're doing things that I've never seen before in cooking or in our cuisine. And the food that we cook here in the diaspora is stuck in whatever time we left. And so my aunt, who left in like the 1970s, is cooking food as she remembers, you know? And I'm cooking the food that my grandmother cooked that I remember. But going back to Lagos, they're like, "Oh my God, that's the old way to do it. We don't do it. We don't do it like that anymore.", you know?
Dan Pashman: I’ve heard similar sentiments from other immigrants. When you leave your home country, your impression of the place you left gets frozen in time, including with food. So as the decades go by and the culture in your home country continues to evolve, you end up with a disconnect between the people who left and the people who stayed. But in recent years, as she’s worked on her book, Yewande has been able to reconnect with what’s currently happening in Nigeria.
Yewande Komolafe: It's been freeing to go back to Lagos and see all the wonderful things. Like, they had puff puff, which is like a fried dough, which every culture has a version of it, but they've been stuffing it. There's like savory puff puff now.
Dan Pashman: Ooh.
Yewande Komolafe: There's like versions stuffed with like guava jam or ... you know? And like that's not something I've ever, like I would — I hesitated to even put sugar in the outside of puff puffs because I'm like, when they sell them, they sell them with no sugar.
Dan Pashman: Right.
Yewande Komolafe: And ... you know? But it also just frees me up to experiment and make it my own and make it true to my own experience.
Dan Pashman: Are there a couple of dishes that come to mind that you feel like illustrate that from the cookbook?
Yewande Komolafe: I can think of Iwuk Edesi, which is also called native rice. It's a rice that's cooked in a very heavy palm oil stew. And so it comes out looking bright orange. It's so lovely and so delicious. It's got all the strong flavors of Nigerian cooking. So there's iru, which is the fermented locust bean. There's crayfish. There's really hot chilies, scotch bonnets ... Yeah
Dan Pashman: That's my all time favorite hot pepper, the scotch bonnets.
Yewande Komolafe: [LAUGHS] I know. So amazing.
Dan Pashman: Yeah.
Yewande Komolafe: But that dish, I cooked in one pot and cooked it with some chicken that had been pan seared. So I made it into like a skillet dinner. But like that, like you wouldn't really see it served that way in Nigeria. You'll probably see it with goat or beef. You know, it's still the same thing, but it's just a different take on it.
Dan Pashman: Right. But I bet it's got so much flavor.
Yewande Komolafe: It has so much flavor.
Dan Pashman: Oh, it sounds so good.
Yewande Komolafe: I call the Scotch bonnet, the Iru and the crayfish, the Holy Trinity. So I make a pepper paste that has all of those things that I add to all the dishes throughout the book.
Dan Pashman: Mmm. So Yewande, way back when there was a couple of dishes that you said were going to be in this cookbook when it was still just a glimmer in the corner of your eye that had me very amped. Is there a recipe for chili oil with fermented locust beans with garlic and ginger?
Yewande Komolafe: Yes, that recipe made it. [LAUGHS]
Dan Pashman: All right, amazing.
Yewande Komolafe: It's called Agonyi Sauce.
Dan Pashman: Okay.
Yewande Komolafe: Yes.
Dan Pashman: And then ... and then there was pineapple pepper ice cream.
Yewande Komolafe: [LAUGHS] That ... I will give you the recipe for that.
Dan Pashman: All right. [LAUGHS]
Yewande Komolafe: But it's not in the cookbook.
Dan Pashman: All right. All right.
Yewande Komolafe: It's not in the cookbook.
Dan Pashman: Okay.
Yewande Komolafe: That was like a dinner only ...
Dan Pashman: Okay.
Yewande Komolafe: Yes.
Dan Pashman: That was a one off.
Yewande Komolafe: That was a one off.
Dan Pashman: All right, maybe the next cookbook.
Yewande Komolafe: But it sounds delicious. I should have put it in.
Dan Pashman: Yeah.
Dan Pashman: As Yewande wrote her cookbook, one question she grappled with was who her audience was, and how she would write for that audience. And this actually relates to another conversation she and I had on this show, back in 2020. This was after our original episode about her immigration story, she was already working on the book. And at that time, Yewande wrote a feature on the 10 essential Nigerian recipes — it was part of a series they were doing on a range of cuisines. I played a clip for Yewande from that conversation in 2020.
CLIP (YEWANDE KOMOLAFE): I’ve had to work to not write recipes for the white audience, because I think that food media is steeped in that. If I'm developing a recipe for Nigerian cuisine, I have to tell you where Lagos is on the map. I have to explain what that palm — red palm oil is not going to kill orangutans. And so I'm going through this process now of, as I'm writing my own cookbook right now, I'm going through this process of like, who am I writing for? Why do I have to explain every single ingredient in here? How much explanation is enough? Should I — you know, like, part of it also falls on the consumer to do their own research. Like, if you want to cook a recipe from Nigeria, like, go do some work. Go visit African markets. Go ask questions there, you know?
Yewande Komolafe: Yeah.
Dan Pashman: So, here you are now at the end of that process. How did you end up navigating those issues?
Yewande Komolafe: For sure, I decided somewhere in there. And I think that writing the cookbook actually helped me do this. I decided that I just wanted to write for people who looked like me and people who could relate to the work from a place of knowledge. But also, I tried to like, not do it too much that it completely loses an audience that doesn't know anything about the cuisine. But I also want to push that audience to do some work. So I ended up not really explaining a lot. I would put things in the book that were in Yoruba and not explain why I put them in Yoruba. I would have, like, a definition for it, but that was about it. And so I firmly stood in that space I had arrived at in that interview, where I just want to write because the process of, like, having to stop and explain is inhibiting my creativity.
Dan Pashman: In that same conversation in 2020, Yewande was asked if she felt more or less optimistic about these issues in food media. I played her response for her:
CLIP (YEWANDE KOMOLAFE): I think I'm more optimistic because for a long time I was waiting for this industry to create a space for me. And now, I'm more of the opinion that like, you know what, fuck it. If you can't make space for me, I will make my own table.
Yewande Komolafe: [LAUGHS] So defiant, Yewande.
Yewande Komolafe: Yeah.
Dan Pashman: Yeah, if your kids start giving you attitude, Ywande ...
Yewande Komolafe: I know. I know where it comes from.
Dan Pashman: Don't blame Mark.
Yewande Komolafe: Oh shit, yeah. Oh, man.
Dan Pashman: Does it feel like publishing your first cookbook is sort of you making your own table?
Yewande Komolafe: Um... huh. That's such a big thing, you know, like creating your own table. I think that it's an accomplishment of sorts and I hope that I've made it easier for the Black women, for the Black people who come after me and work within the publishing industry or work within food media. I think that's my focus is making sure that they are supported in a way that I might not have been. So I guess in a way that is creating a table. I don't know that it's for myself. It's more for, like, the greater good of humanity, you know? It's more for Black humanity.
Dan Pashman: But, you know, who builds a table for one?
Yewande Komolafe: Mmm, that's true. Yeah. Yeah.
Dan Pashman: The point of a table is to gather people around it.
Yewande Komolafe: To share. Absolutely. Yeah, so I ... yeah, I had to think through that, but yes, I would say that it's building a table of sorts.
Dan Pashman: Well, I'll bet the food at that table is gonna be delicious.
Yewande Komolafe: [LAUGHS] It’s gonna be fucking awesome.
Yewande Komolafe: It's gonna be incredible.
Dan Pashman: That’s Yewande Komolafe. Her cookbook, My Everyday Lagos, is out this week and available wherever books are sold. I’m so glad Yewande finally wrote a cookbook because I needed that chili oil with fermented locust beans and garlic and ginger recipe, like, years ago. So thank you, Yewande!! Also, giveaway alert! If you want to win a copy of Yewande’s book — all you go to do is subscribe to our newsletter by November 12th, and you’ll be entered to win and all of our future giveaways. If you already a subscriber, you’re already entered. Sign up now at sporkful.com/newsletter.
Dan Pashman: Remember to stay tuned for a very big announcement this Wednesday. Then next week on the show my guest is Sohla El-Waylly, who talks about tuning out family pressure to follow her dreams, and why she thinks culinary school is a scam. That’s next week.
Dan Pashman: In the meantime listen to last week’s salad spinner episode. We look at why grocery stores might be able to learn something from Bass Pro Shops, and we analyze the foods Taylor Swift demands backstage at her concerts. That’s up now.