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Time’s Table with Lopè Ariyo – pounded yam, rice and vanilla strawberries

30/10/2023

Twisted: Unserious food tastes seriously good.

Article by Joanna Sarah-Freedman

05m read

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Every now and then a meal becomes more than just a meal. It could be innovative and exciting – the kind that shapes your cooking going forward – but there’s something equally magic about the dish your mum used to cook you growing up, or even the reliable weekly staple you knock together on repeat.

In this new series, Time’s Table, we chat to people about the food that has left an impact on a time in their life – be it their past, present or future. Trust us, you can learn a lot about someone through what’s on their plate. 

Time’s Table with Lopè Ariyo

Lopè Ariyo is a star of the UK’s West African food scene, having made her mark in 2017 after winning a cooking competition organised by Red Magazine and Harper Collins.

She had been cooking since university – inspired by the food of her Nigerian heritage and the years she had spent prior at a boarding school in Lagos. Then, the cooking turned into food blogging and sharing recipe videos, and what started as a hobby evolved into something more.

After her win, Lopè released her first cookbook, Hibiscus, which takes traditional Nigerian ingredients and recipes and puts a different spin on them, riffing off more modern cooking techniques or fusing European flavours.

With innovative dishes such as hibiscus chicken and plantain mash with ginger, corn, and okra gravy, Lopè’s book was met with acclaim, and the likes of Yotam Ottolenghi were left “genuinely inspired”.

But what are the three dishes that shape Lopè as a cook today? We ask the chef to list a nostalgic dish from her past, a staple in her day-to-day and a recent inspiration, which she believes will impact her cooking going forward.

Lope Ariyo speaks exclusively to Twisted (Credit: Twisted)

Past – Pounded Yam and Egusi

“I was in a single-parent home. It was me and my mum pretty much all my life. Food would range from takeaways – lots of Caribbean takeaways, Indian takeaways, and Chinese takeaways – to our take on Nigerian food. I say our take, I mean, ‘what’s the easiest way for us to make that?’, because my mum didn’t like cooking, and during the week you kind of just wanted to get cooking out of the way.

“So, for example, okra soup is a labour of love. In Nigerian restaurants, when they make it, they’ll spend a long time chopping it up, whereas we were happy to just put it in the blender. Egusi [melon seed soup] is something that would usually be stewed for hours and hours, whereas I would just roast it in a pan, then the moment it had all smoothed be like, ‘yeah, that’s done!’

“Between year seven and year six I was in Nigeria at boarding school and [that’s when I got to try] all these other Nigerian foods. Most days we’d have this dish called abba, which is like a fermented cassava ground up into granules, and [for breakfast] we also had an egg stew paired with agege bread, which is a really soft brioche-style bread. That’s probably my favourite breakfast ever, actually.

“If I had to pick a favourite dish, though, it would be pounded yam with egusi and efo riro – I haven’t had it in a long time, but I’d still pick that today! It’s boiled yam, pounded, then egusi is made from melon seeds and palm oil, and efo riro is stewed greens.

Egusi is a melon seed soup popular in Nigerian cuisine (Credit: Getty)

“In Nigeria, there’s this thing called buka restaurants, and it’s basically where you have lots of aunties on the side of the street and they’ve got their own little restaurant making these foods. I remember eating this at one of those when I was about 10. I was at boarding school but was taken out by family for the day.

“The reason I remember it so specifically is because the taste of freshly made pounded yam versus what you get here, which is usually powdered, is what made me love it so much – it’s very creamy, sweet, soft, and pillowy.

“I’ve made it back in England and you basically have to stand over the hob with the water, pour in the powder, and then there’s a continuous stirring and pounding. If you don’t have any arm strength then you’re not in for a good time!

“I don’t know what it is about that meal, but it makes me very happy. It’s what I crave when I feel detached from my culture, because I think food is probably the easiest way to ground me. I don’t speak Yoruba, but the food is a way for me to feel Nigerian.”

Lope Ariyo has fond memories of eating pounded yam and egusi (Credit: Getty)

Present – Rice

“I’m not the kind of person who likes cooking the same thing all the time, so I don’t really have a staple, but the one thing that I really like cooking is rice.

“I cook it in lots of ways. I like Korean food a lot, so I make a very basic version of bibimbap, or if I’m having an Indian dish – like butter chicken, for example – it’s always there. 

“I love Caribbean dishes as well, and tend to cook them quite a bit. I’m very much a fan of oxtail, rice, and peas. Then, my cousin had her 31st [birthday] recently and I made two Lebanese rice dishes. One that featured was boiled rice with feta, pomegranates, and mint, and then the other one was a kind of cinnamony rice dish. 

“I think the reason I picked rice [as my day-to-day dish] links back to my culture, because it’s a very big staple in Nigerian [cooking] anyway. Other people might have picked pasta or potatoes, but I don’t have the same love for them. That [nostalgic] kind of love. 

“Rice just feels like the core… the essence of the plate! As long as it’s at the centre of a dish, I’m very happy. What comes with it often changes!”

Future – Vanilla Roasted Strawberries

“I recently made these roasted strawberries dressed in vanilla paste from Benjamina Ebueha’s cookbook [A New Way To Cake]. They’re so simple but also a big cheat in terms of [providing] a dessert to impress. It’s part of my date night repertoire!

“It’s something I’ve recently made and I’m gonna be making again soon. It’s a very quick dessert to knock up but it still has really big flavours. 

“You just put the strawberries in a pot of sugar and macerate them, and then you put in the vanilla, mix that about, and put it in the oven to roast. It doesn’t take long at all – it’s probably like 10 minutes, tops.

“[Usually] I enjoy the calmness of slow cooking. But unfortunately, in this day and age, time just isn’t a thing. This recipe is perfect for those moments.

Lope was recently inspired by a roasted strawberry recipe (Credit: Getty)

“I [also] think Benji is able to combine flavours and methods you wouldn’t really think about for everyday ingredients.

“Unlike cooking, baking requires more care and precision and simple recipes like that feel more accessible to the novice baker and equally inspire me to be creative with flavours and ingredients I combine in my cooking.”

Featured image: Twisted/ HarperCollins

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