How We're Bringing a Taste of Nigeria to a London Cafe

From plantain waffles to kuli kuli chicken, Emeka and Ifeyinwa Frederick—founders of Nigerian pop-up Chuku’s—want Londoners to experience the flavours of Nigeria.

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Apr 7 2017, 8:00am

Chuku's is a new restaurant pop-up that celebrates Nigerian food and culture. Running two days a week at East London community cafe Canvas Cafe and at various other venues around London, it was founded by siblings Emeka and Ifeyinwa Frederick. They present their food tapas-style with the aim of introducing people to Nigerian cuisine in a relaxed environment.

Emeka Frederick heads up the Chuku's kitchen during service and was a strategy consultant before working in food.
Growing up in London and Essex—and going to university around the country and travelling—my exploration of different cultures has been huge. So, I found it frustrating that I had my own culture—Nigerian culture—which I hadn't had an opportunity to share with even some of my closest friends. You think, 'What do I do? Where do I show them? Maybe I should do something about it.' That's where the motivation to make Nigerian food came from.

It's very difficult to explain to people what Nigerian cuisine is because it is so broad. It's a country of 170 million people with 300 tribes speaking different languages. Within these same tribes, they'll still use different words. You have that diversity in the culture and when you talk about the food, it's the same. What my friend from another tribe eats compared to what I eat as an Igbo—and as an Igbo Londoner—is all very different.

For us, Nigerian food means home comforts—comfy food that's warm and healthy. A lot of dishes are heavy in greens and pulses and grains. We use a lot of cassava and yams. I always like to say that Nigerians were doing superfood before it was called a superfood.

Moi moi, made with oloyin beans, red onions, and peppers. All photos by Liz Seabrook.

Some of the main ingredients we use are beans which we call oloyin beans. They're beans with honey called ewa oloyin in Yoruba language, and they're a nutritious brown bean with a sweet taste. We use them in one of our dishes called moi moi, which is when you blend the beans with red onions and peppers, and then steam them. This becomes like a savoury bean cake. A lot of vegans who have come to the pop-up have loved it.

I recently discovered this purple pear called ube. It has the texture of avocado and you can turn it into a Nigerian-style guacamole. I also found out is that it's really popular in South East Asia and there's a restaurant in London which uses it in bubble tea. In Nigeria, we often eat it with corn.

Emeka Frederick in the kitchen at Canvas Cafe, the East London cafe hosting the Chuku's pop-up.

Then there's a fruit called agbalumo which is apple-sized but then inside it's very chewy. It's like a black cherry that people almost eat like chewing gum. We always used to have it when we were kids. Going to Nigeria recently, we saw that there was this "food fusion" going on—people were using this fruit but making ice cream or sorbets out of it, which we'd never seen before.

One of the other dishes we do is jollof quinoa. Jollof rice is hugely popular in West Africa and in Nigeria. In London, there's a lot of debate about who does the best jollof rice—which country, which restaurant. We thought we'd check out of that one! No one else does jollof quinoa.

Jollof quinoa.

Chuku's came from us wanting a Nigerian restaurant with a difference. We were thinking about presentation and small plates. I had been living in Spain and then there was the light bulb moment of doing tapas.

Tapas is also it's own culture of dining. It's a lifestyle in Spain—eating and relaxing. We felt like London didn't have a place where you could completely relax. It wasn't just the food but the whole culture which chimed in so well with how we do it in Nigeria. Meal times are very ceremonial. It's a very social culture. Combining the two allowed us to have the food presented well, but also celebrated our own social dining culture.

Kuli kuli chicken.

Ifeyinwa Frederick was an English teacher before co-founding Chuku's. She takes care of front-of-house.
Chuku's is the world's first Nigerian tapas restaurant and it exists to share the Nigerian cuisine and culture that Emeka and I both know and love. Growing up in London, we felt there wasn't a place where we could enjoy Nigerian food outside of our home. We knew the food tasted really good, so why weren't there more Nigerian restaurants? Nigerian restaurants did exist but there weren't many and they weren't in places that were easily accessible or that people knew about.

The cultural part is also really important because there is so much to Nigeria. There's a beauty in the culture that a lot of people in the UK haven't had the opportunity to see. We feel that it's really important in the restaurant to share that with people. It's more than just the food, it's giving you an introduction to the beauty of Nigerian culture.

Spice mixes in the Chuku's kitchen.

For me, Nigerian food is home. It's a happy belly! Like when you've gone to uni or gone travelling and you've come back and you have that meal, and you're like, "I've arrived. I am at home. I'm with family."

It's really diverse. Emeka and I were in Nigeria at Christmas and we went to the market and there's so much to explore. Growing up as a Nigerian in London, you become familiar with certain things and you think you know Nigerian food, but then you go to Nigeria and you realise you know this much. We always stress to people that Chuku's is also a result of our journey. A lot of the flavours and tastes that Emeka and I have discovered that we want to do something with aren't on the menu yet, but we have pages and pages of really exciting ideas.

Sometimes it's about changing the presentation. How would this work in tapas-style? But sometimes, it's a case of, 'Why hasn't this seasoning been tried with this meat?' Like the suya prawns we serve. Suya [a Northern Nigerian mixed spice] is most commonly used on meat like chicken and beef. We used to serve it on beef but one day Emeka said, 'Let's try it on prawns.'

Plantain waffles with cream and raspberries.

Some of the dishes are very traditional but when you're mixing it up, the challenge is making sure that the dish served is still true to Nigeria. If someone came to restaurant and said it was nice food but didn't feel that pull of Nigeria—that taste of Nigeria—then we haven't done our job.

We don't just want to serve nice food, we want to serve nice food rooted in Nigeria. It's important to us that it's centered around authentic Nigerian tastes and flavours.

Chin Chin Cheesecake.

The menu that we have now has benefitted from a year of tasting and putting on events. I know there are certain dishes that are never coming off, like Chin Chin Cheesecake [made with the Nigerian biscuit snack], because we'd be boycotted.

We had this guy who came to our December pop-up but he hadn't been able to try the Chin Chin Cheesecake. He came a couple of weeks ago, tried the Chin Chin Cheesecake and left smiling. The next day, this same guy walks in and says, "I told you I'd be back. I've bought a friend. I've come for the Chin Chin Cheesecake." When he left, he said, "You'll see me again." Last Friday, a booking request comes in and in comments section it says, "Make sure there's enough cheesecake for me." Because the tapas is made to share, when I took the order, he said to his friends, "This one is for me, I'm not sharing. You guys can get your own." He's fast becoming one of our most frequent guests!

Chuku's founders Emeka and Ifeyinwa Frederick.

We want to build a community both in the restaurant and also outside. We want to create that space in London where you can relax and you might just roll through by yourself, but you know you're at Chuku's so it's fine.

As told to Daisy Meager. All photos by Liz Seabrook