My first summer in America, I temporarily moved into a fraternity house to avoid paying exorbitant summer dormitory fees that didn’t promise much of a fun summer. After a semester of microwaved instant noodles and cafeteria fries, I was excited to finally have access to a kitchen. The first thing I decided to make? Fried chicken.
Growing up in Lagos Nigeria, fried chicken was a Sunday staple in my home. It was the cherry on top of our elaborate Sunday meal filled with jollof rice, fried rice, fried plantains, and coleslaw. We made the chicken by slow-cooking it in a slew of spices before deep frying. I knew I wanted my first “home cooked” meal away from home to bring back memories of summers spent cooking ‘concussions’ with my cousins—a term my mother used to refer to our cooking experiments. But that first bite didn’t taste quite right: the fried chicken wasn't as hard as I was accustomed to back home.
It wasn’t that I hadn’t eaten fried chicken since arriving at college a few months back. The issue was that I was certain that the reason the school cafeteria chicken tasted different was the cooking process and not the meat itself.
“When my mum comes to visit, she tells me, ‘can we go to the African store to get African hen? I don’t want that chicken that tastes diluted’,” Nneka Owens, a Nigerian American food blogger and medical researcher shares. To a woman accustomed to eating chicken that’s so tough you could slow cook for 30 minutes-plus and not lose form or texture, poultry in America would certainly feel like mush.
Due to a variety of factors, including different agricultural practices, Nigerian chicken compared to American chicken is tough. It is much chewier and drier once prepared. Raw, it looks less plump. Agricultural entrepreneur and poultry farmer, Umar Ga explains that this toughness comes from the age of the chicken and how it is reared. “In our system, our chickens are allowed to roam around the farm, self-sustaining, and so they grow naturally slowly and by the time they are ready to sell, they are matured,” he shares.
This toughness, which may be off putting to some, fits perfectly into Nigerian cuisine. You see, many Nigerian meals are rewardingly laborious—dishes can take several hours and a multitude of processes to make. And so this chicken, tough as it is, complements traditional Nigerian cooking methods, because its toughness allows it to stew for hours without crumbling under the heat. This process builds an irreplicable flavor and creates a stock that serves as a base for other meals such as our infamous jollof rice.
Preparing Nigerian fried chicken starts with boiling the chicken in curry, thyme, onions, ginger, garlic, and red hot pepper for 30 minutes to 1 hour depending on the toughness. This is because tough chicken is nearly impossible to fry immediately without rendering it a jawbreaker. Then, the chicken is deep fried and sometimes covered in a pepper sauce before serving.
Speaking on the technique behind the process of making Nigerian Fried Chicken, British Nigerian Chef Akudo Agokei says, “it’s quite weird isn't it? Most other cultures marinate raw chicken in spices first, then batter and deep fry. But our process of cooking prior to frying allows a semi-dry chicken to be covered in a thin liquid coating of cooked spices and it's own fat (if cooked with the skin), which is then deep fried at high temperatures, causing a maillard reaction that creates a flavor that is so finger-licking good."
For immigrants like myself and Nneka, cooking Nigerian chicken in America can often feel tedious because African grocery stores are few and far between. “I remember when I found some rare cuts of meat like I would find back home in the Asian supermarket, I was like a kid in a toy store,” Nneka says. For convenience and to replicate the flavors she’s accustomed to, Nneka has found a multitude of hacks. “I'd rather just buy beef cuts or even turkey because those can better withstand our Nigerian cooking process,” she explains. “And sometimes, I say screw it and make American fried chicken. Southern fried chicken cooking methods already consider the texture of chicken in the United States. The method helps retain moisture, form, and flavor.”
As a private chef, Agokei finds it impossible to offer Nigerian fried chicken to his fine dining clients. He explains that the process of eating Nigerian fried chicken is untenable to the West due to its toughness. “When we make fried chicken, as Nigerians, we know that hand combat is going to happen as we try to enjoy it,” he jokes. By hand combat, he refers to the struggle to cut into it the chicken with a table knife—but he is also speaking to the Nigerian culinary experience where eating your chicken with hands and breaking into the bone marrow is expected.
These hindrances notwithstanding, for many of us Nigerians, Nigerian fried chicken brings memories of celebration and joy. Nigerian home cook and caterer Rolayo A shares that Nigerian fried chicken “brings back memories of simpler and sweeter times of my family celebrating. I don’t think it’s as popular as it used to be when I was growing up in the 80’s and 90’s.” Like Rolayo, the stress of making Nigerian fried chicken in America still makes home feel much closer for me.