According to the United States’ National Institute of Health, fast food is any food that is prepared quickly and easily in a restaurant, which can be eaten there and then, on the go, or as takeout food. The catch, as we all know by now, is that the speed and ease tend to trump health and nutrition: “You cannot have your cake and eat it.” Or maybe you can. Welcome to Nigeria.
As of 2015, Nigeria had 800 quick service restaurants (QSRs) serving what was then its population of 181 million people. Canada, by comparison, had 25,410 QSRs by 2015 (and 31,577 as of 2022) serving a population that today is less than a fifth of the West African state’s. Issues with electricity supply, the high cost of living, and low purchasing power in part explain the Nigeria’s low numbers.
But these factors alone don’t really explain why QSRs haven’t taken off in Africa’s biggest economy and most populous country. Ultimately, for us Nigerians, fast food goes against our culture. Food is not just eaten in order to survive or as a convenient way to fuel ourselves during the day. Preparing, cooking and eating food is a communal event. It helps build relationships between family members and friends. It is never to be rushed. Food builds and binds families and communities.
Food has always been an event that includes everyone in the family. Traditionally, the men of the clan would gather food items in groups. They would hunt together, fish together, and farm together. The women in the community would then prepare the items with the children, who would assist every step of the way in their own specific roles. The meal is then eaten together, and family members serve themselves from one large central plate.
There is little space for fast food to take hold when it is against everything our food culture values as good and proper.
Today, bigger, communal meals are reserved for holidays. However, at the family level, these dynamics often still play out. Each member of the family knows and plays their role in each day’s dinner, before sitting down to eat as one. Children will set the table and clean pots, pans and dishes after dinner.
Dashing in and out of a restaurant for a quick bite runs totally counter to all ideas of how food should be prepared and eaten for Nigerians. There is little space for fast food to take hold when it is against everything our food culture values as good and proper. It is a food culture where hospitality is always baked in. As my grandma once said, “In Nigeria, you do not cook for yourself only; you cook for the friend who might stop by to catch up." Where does a food that’s designed to be quick and efficient fit in here?
In contrast to many places elsewhere in Africa and around the world — where fast food has become synonymous with a global, homogenous and Americanizing food culture — Nigerians have rejected common North American fast food staples, and fast food has had to adapt. Mac and Cheese, for instance, is almost universally disliked — you’ll meet few Nigerians who can say they genuinely like it. That creamy yellow dish just doesn't sit well with us, so much so that many QSRs have removed it from their menus.
Instead, fast food chains around the country have developed their menus to reflect domestic tastes, prioritizing traditional foods such as iyan (pounded yam) and egusi (melon soup), gbegiri (bean soup), and ewedu and jollof rice, among others. For many customers, this balance respects their cultural preferences and their desire for quick, easy food.
Some restaurants, however, have recognized this dynamic and pushed the boundaries even further. Open kitchen restaurants provide people with much of the speed and ease of fast food while also serving healthy and more traditional Nigerian food.
“The market will dictate your service,” says Mr. Tunde, who works as a chef at an open kitchen restaurant. “Nigerians are very socially hospitable people. People prefer traditional meals. However, the idea of an open kitchen restaurant goes beyond just the meal. It allows families to take a break from their busy schedules and experience the smells, the sights, and the joy of cooking, right before they sit to enjoy it together."
Open kitchen restaurants give people a view into the kitchen. The cooking area is close to the dining area, which allows the customers to see right into the kitchen. They can experience a little of what they might at home — the sights, tastes, sounds, and smells of traditional food — without having to lift a finger themselves. Customers can see the chef preparing their meals in real time. Open kitchen restaurants in part reflect the experience of home cooking while giving families a break from their own culinary responsibilities.
“We walk into a nearby restaurant with our two kids and order everyone's favourites. For the kids, it's typically jollof rice and chicken, but for my wife and I, it's Lafun (made from cassava powder), ewedu and stew.”
There are some obvious advantages to this approach. It prioritizes the Nigerian view of cooking as a process, while enabling customers to learn and see how their food is being made in commercial kitchens. Customers can sit and enjoy the aromas of their food while it cooks, just as they would at home. For people who can’t take the time to cook, it is a great way for people to enjoy the kinds of meals they love.
“My wife and I are very busy people. I work as an accountant in a bank. [It is] a full 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. and sometimes 5 p.m. job. My wife is a doctor and is sometimes not at home for days at a time,” says Mr. Olanrewaju, describing the appeal of open kitchen restaurants over other QSRs.
“We can both cook and we take turns doing it — this is the 21st century, after all — but sometimes, a decent home-cooked meal is not feasible. At times like this, we walk into a nearby restaurant with our two kids and order everyone's favourites. For the kids, it's typically jollof rice and chicken, but for my wife and I, it's Lafun (made from cassava powder), ewedu and stew.”
“As Nigerians, our food is part of who we are. It defines us, brings us together, and keeps us together.”
The appeal of open kitchen restaurants is clear and many chains are moving to adopt this model, sensing the benefits of a growing trend that also honours Nigerian food culture. While it is difficult to find an accurate number of how many open kitchen restaurants there are, some sources suggest there’s at least several hundred such restaurants scattered around the country. If Mr. Olanrewaju’s experience is anything to go by, that number will only continue to grow.
“These meal times are great because they draw us closer as a family, allowing my wife and me to catch up and talk with the kids. It's great for us all.”
Nigeria is not alone in seeing aspects of its culture fall away during decades of westernization and modernization. But its food culture is doing more than remaining intact: it is resurgent, forcing the cultural norms that have often erased local food cultures to instead bend to the demands of Nigeria.
“As Nigerians, our food is part of who we are. It defines us, brings us together, and keeps us together,” says Martha, a secondary school teacher of Home Economics.
Analysts project that the fast food industry will expand by more than 5% between 2020 and 2027. Fast food franchises will continue to push endless new ways to get us to eat their new products, but in Nigeria at least, they are having to adapt. It might not be the straightforward story of growth that fast food franchises were expecting. For other countries, the Nigerian experience shows it is possible to protect your food heritage.