Food and love in Lagos city.
It’s hard not to be hopeful in Lagos. It is a city that leaves repentant love bites as cool evening breezes that caress the same throats it chokes to near-death with smog and stress.
Here, the proverbial date with destiny happens in quaint restaurants and over fine china where she is courted like a coquettish mistress before she flits off to the next person willing to sacrifice even more for her burnt orange sunsets and ocean views. Love, on the other hand, is often pushed to the back burner of the mess that’s always cooking. It is served as a calorie-dense version sautéed on high heat before it is gulped down with casual nonchalance. Like batons of gala hawked in standstill traffic, love here has a purpose. It is transitory and transactional, fuelled by the same ambivalent urgency that moves everything. It remains holy because it is love. But all in Lagos, even love, na hustle.
Whether its inhabitants are surviving or thriving, the city is navigated on optimistic stomachs that stay hungry for the adventure of finding the one. There is the accurate assumption that if your love can survive Lagos, then it can survive anything. If it can cut through the noise of snake oil salesmen peddling emotional 419, then it can make it to the Ikoyi registry on its last legs as happy tears behind a veil.
In this game of love, restaurants have become new territories where the perennial battle of the sexes is waged. Conversations swing back and forth, deliberating a universal set of date expectations for all of us to live by. What price point is high or low enough? Who gets to go where? How much do you order? And, most importantly, who pays?
Going out to eat used to mean a trip to Sweet Sensation or Tantalizers. Rushed school mornings were an excuse for crisp hotdogs courtesy of Mr Biggs, and Sunday rice was dished with spring rolls and Peking soup at the occasional Chinese restaurant. It was an activity reserved for celebrations and family rendezvous, mostly because there were simply not that many places to go, but also because the concept of the modern restaurant is an 18th-century French invention that spread across Europe, before only recently making its way to Nigeria by way of the Lebanese migrant population.
Somewhere between fermentation, refrigeration, and now restaurants, mealtimes have evolved from the preoccupation of our day-to-day to stand-alone events that can take on any number of computations. It is fingers at bukas pointing at red stew and green vegetables behind plexiglass, forks and knives sectioning tenderloin steaks on expensive china, hands unsheathing golden brown meat pies, and cocktail glasses clinking in a bar diluting Chelsea gin for watery dry martinis.
In Lagos, restaurants operate as newly minted vignettes of a modern city where cosmopolitans nest and cluck about the craziness of their Lagos which spans Ikoyi to Lekki Phase one. They have become the backdrops of engagements, bridal showers and girls’ nights. The site for Taco Tuesdays and Wine Wednesdays, and the chaperone of hot date nights where lust is courted with overpriced pasta before it becomes a love consummated with party jollof.
Dining in the city has evolved to meet the demands of a society now defined by the calling cards of modern capitalism – speed, efficiency, and commerce. It’s not just about the food, it’s about the experience. Moreover, it’s about the aesthetic – what it means to eat what and where, and what it signals and determines in our platonic and romantic lives.
Like the rest of the world, young Nigerians participate in a dating culture that follows global trends. Instagram stories are awash with Boomerangs of cocktails and steak dinners captioned ‘date night’; and Twitter threads detail courtship in a set of rom-com deliverables: flowers, teddies, dinners, and, finally, a ring. But, if we zoom out several frames, restaurants stand as bizarre oddities; awkward sculptures woven into the architecture of a city that is a two-and-a-half-hour drive down the full spectrum of income equality.
If we zoom out even more, modern dating in this reality sits uncomfortably astride rules of engagement that are worlds apart. “The rules of hospitality work differently over here,” we loudly declare when we learn of stiff Brits splitting teas purchased in cafes down to the penny. We are a culture that lives and breathes in the more the merrier. For a large country, large parties and larger-than-life people come with the territory. Food is for sharing, and how much of it you have to give determines your position on the scale of Oga to small boy.
To say that food is gendered in Nigeria is to understate the way that food is folded and baked into every institution that defines manhood and womanhood. When Nigerians ponder the mystery that is feminism, the conversation inevitably circles back to the most important question: “But who will cook the food?!”
When Fela sang about African women who wanted to be called ‘Lady’, he summarized the anxieties of a newly independent Nigeria, one where its women rebuffed the expectations of traditional African womanhood which, in his opinion, totalled into domestic submission with a smile. As Nigeria’s colonial masters were swapped out for its founding fathers, there was an unspoken expectation that it would be business as usual, and women would remain culturally subservient even in these modern times – they would continue to cook the food and bear the children, with the newly added responsibilities of earning a living and being economically useful, of course.
A lot has changed since the release of ‘Lady’, but the moral panic surrounding Nigerian women’s liberation has proved as stubborn and unrelenting as Nigerians themselves. Nobody has done more justice to this panic than old Nollywood which filled boxy TV screens with narratives of girls gone wild in the big city. As the country wrestled with its new identity, the freedom of independence brought its own set of challenges to the cultural norms, the most devious of these being Lagos city girls: fast women who demanded cash with one well-manicured hand and expensive dinners with the other.
Where the women of the new Nigeria were supposed to be sequestered in lifetime careers of unpaid gastronomic labour in exchange for the titles of girlfriend, fiancée, wife, and mother, Lagos city girls were cast as disruptors of this economy where women traded labour for love and financial security. Instead, the Lagos city girl traded sexuality for social mobility and presented a threat to men and women alike.
The caricature of this character exists most vividly in drawn-out scenes at ‘restaurants’ that resembled living rooms. There, between sips of Fanta served in glass bottles, she would whisper her list of demands that often correlated with her list of damning qualities – blonde synthetic wigs with loose curls that matched looser morals, bold blackberries that went with even bolder bad attitudes. Fast forward to present-day and the Lagos city girl has been cast as a second-generation Nolly babe—an extension of the anxieties surrounding Nigerian women’s status in a modern nation. Her lore includes tales of the girl who brings five friends to dinner and expects her date to cover the tab, the one who orders a tomahawk steak and two starters plus dessert and, of course, the one who doesn’t put out after a bib-worthy lobster dinner washed down with a very long island.
In spite of all this, restaurant dates are, to me, a cornerstone ritual of love. There are things that only slowly getting to know someone over a plate of food can teach you, like how as men get older their misogyny tastes crisper, like the subtle difference between a can of Heineken and a draught on tap—the latter is still unapologetically bitter but sweetened this time by its shinier packaging of disposable income and the acquired taste for feminine tang.
My favourite dates in Lagos have always been brunch. For me, early afternoon occupies the same spot in temporality that sweet and savoury occupies in taste – a well-timed meeting in the middle. I remember ordering shrimp alfredo on my first brunch date. It seemed to be the perfect compromise for a meal I would not be paying for. We laughed, ate, and like with all the food I eat outside my house, the meal was markedly sweeter precisely because I walked into Crust and Cream with nothing but a smile and skinny jeans so tight that even Ginuwine would have guessed that there was in fact “no more room for him in those jeans” much less a bank card.
A lot has changed since then: I’ve swapped the jeans for sun dresses and palazzo pants—clothing that allows me to simultaneously eat more and exit swiftly—but, more interestingly, so too have the agitations around the cultural expectations of payment that hung in the air like the shavings of parmesan suspended over my pasta by a waiter instructing me to say ‘when’.
It’s never been about the food or the money, but more so about what Nigerian women have historically been allowed to demand. The subtext of it all is this: if a woman is given an inch of modern freedom, and a foot of autonomy, she is destined to go maniacal with power and use her sensuality to deceive innocent men for plates of fried rice and chicken washed down with chivita orange juice. Packet juices and curry-filled rice may have been the symbolic markers of the old Nolly babes, but today’s Lagos city girls are known for requests of creamy seafood pasta.
Behind the thinly veiled misogyny of Nollywood’s cautionary tales post-colonialism, is the reality that Nigeria’s colonial hangover has left women vulnerable to a new kind of exploitation, one where concepts like ‘independence’ and ‘equality’ are co-opted and weaponized to erase a reality of increasing wage gaps, disproportionate rates of domestic and emotional abuse, orgasm gaps, and illusions of workplace equality. Dubious and despicable but never foolish, the women of Nollywood gave vibrant life to the subversive resistance of Nigerian women that has always existed alongside the misrepresentations. In their risqué rebellion was the message that we may all chop breakfast, but the Lagos city girl never pays for pasta.
In Lagos restaurants, the cultural politics of food and love are laid open like the server book that holds the bill. On the white check, the transactionality of courtship is announced as service charges and VATs. Nowhere is it clearer that love does in fact cost several things than in restaurants, likewise whether men and women are talking to or at each, nowhere is it clearer that both still desperately want to connect. Both still hope to be seen and accepted, loved domestically and passionately, and treated gently even in the midst of the ever-brewing chaos.
In a city where it’s been borrowed and reappropriated as home-cooked meals of thick indulgent spaghetti simmered slowly in tomato stew, it should also come as no surprise that the pasta in Lagos is just alright. The staple of Italian cuisine migrated from North Africa to Sicily in the 9th century as a dried noodle made from durum wheat that was carried by Arab traders on long journeys along the Silk Road. Today, it sits on the world of the Lagos menu as the equator; the midpoint of price, taste and fulfilment; a step up from the casual Americanness of burgers and shakes, but still ubiquitous enough to fit on any iteration of an intercontinental menu.
On cool evenings, Lagosians indulge in Italian pasta and their love for Al Fresco dining. Over a standard carbonara, pesto, or ragu, men and women crowd tables where white napkins pose as the white flags of a peace treaty. The repentant evening breeze blows once again and the lovers’ quarrel is quelled for another day.
About the author:
Adaorah Oduah is a writer and podcaster based in Lagos Nigeria. She co-hosts a podcast on West African gastronomy and pop culture called Uncooked Women.