How West African chefs, and a DNA test result, empowered me to find my food.

The bitter melon seed, pureed into a peanut-buttery paste, escapes into plump clouds around the lava of red palm oil, almost fecund in its floral, earthy depth. You’re looking for curds, typically a topic reserved for deep-fried cheese, at least according to my Midwestern sensibilities. But cheese curds don’t give the Parliament levels of funk brought on by dried crayfish, the vehement kiss of habanero, or the ferocity of Nigerian red pepper. The first time I tasted egusi, I knew that I had fallen inextricably, profoundly in love. And that was before I knew it was my heritage.

I’m a born-and-raised biracial Minnesotan chef who has been caught in a lifelong, uphill swim in search of “my” food. My local role models were few, and even while looking at the national food scene, I was living in constant frustration while searching to “see” myself. This is a story I’ve grown weary of telling. French technique always felt like a too-tight shoe, and soul food and Southern cuisine, in all of its ingenious progression—delicacies born from plantation food—often felt as foreign as anything by the time it reached me in Minnesota. While we are lucky to have any remnants of Africa in Black American cooking, some of our most revered traditions, including macaroni and cheese, sugary desserts like peach cobbler, and the liberal use of pork, are European introductions or evolutions. This didn’t always resonate with me.

“What kind of food do you cook?” is the most constant query heard if you’re a professional chef. I didn’t know how to answer the question. I didn’t know my true food identity.

I’m a born-and-raised biracial Minnesotan chef who has been caught in a lifelong, uphill swim in search of “my” food.

When Henry Louis Gates Jr. rolled out the PBS show Finding Your Roots, featuring the likes of Oprah Winfrey and Angela Bassettmore than a decade ago, I dreamed of a day when DNA technology would be available to me. It seemed like science fiction—as likely to manifest as Jane Jetson’s makeup machine. (I’d still love to get my hands on one of those.)

But then, of course, that day arrived. Several years ago, for my birthday, my mom gave me a 23andMe DNA testing kit. I opened the vial, walked around the corner (because generating that much saliva is best accomplished in solitude), and conjured enough spit to fill it. Off it went in the mail, and a few weeks later, there it was: my African ancestry was Nigerian.

Like most European Americans in this country, I already had a more-than-general sense of my European bloodlines, and I had heard and experienced plenty of what it meant to be Norwegian, Irish, and Dutch. We ate my nana’s Norwegian oyster stew some Christmases; I bought an “Everybody Loves an Irish Girl” T-shirt one year when those were popular (“Everybody Loves a Black Girl” wasn’t available); and I even wore wooden shoes one year during a preschool recital.

But because my Black father was both adopted and absent, being in touch with the African side of my ancestry is even more complex than for the average Black American—already a complicated wreck made up mostly of unanswered questions. Africa was not only out of reach, it was basically invisible, in spite of my brown skin and my curls.

Even after finally being armed with the word “Nigerian” in black and white on my ancestry papers, I didn’t run out and start making egusi. As Pierre Thiam writes in his 2023 book, Simply West African: “People used to talk about Africa as if it were a faraway place that’s hard to get to and different in every way possible from the rest of the world.” I was one of those people.

I watched as the French technique I had honed in every restaurant I worked in suddenly became inconsequential.

I met my friend Uche Iroegbu, a photographer, shooting stories I wrote about cultural home cooking—beloved dishes passed down through generations, mostly without recipes. One day he had an idea. “We have to do a story about Nigerian food! We’ll make fufu and eat with our hands.” I was both immediately down and also sheepish that the thought had never occurred to me. Aside from some Nigerian food brought to me by a friend and cooked by her neighbor—which electrified me at the time—I had never really eaten Nigerian food. I had zero frame of reference for it.

But now I had Uche, in his colorful dashiki and beaded jewelry, with Fela on the stereo, a bottle of Heineken in his hand, and a bowl of crispy fried chin chin and crunchy plantains at his side. We were going to make some fuckin’ egusi.

I watched as the French technique I had honed in every restaurant I worked in suddenly became inconsequential. Stock and stew bases got layered upon each other, not simply reduced. Entire knobs of ginger were pureed into stock, skin and all; bones with meat still attached were tossed in with abandon with chiles, too. If French stock is a minimalist uniform, these dishes wanted to leave the house wearing every accessory. There would be no chance of any flavor getting left behind.

If you’re cooking Nigerian, the neighbors are likely to know. The aromas of African spice blends, garlic, ginger, dried fish, and chile permeate the neighborhood. According to Uche, this—along with the inextricable and unfortunate reality of anti-Blackness and marginalization of Africa—can be what keeps West African food from mainstream appreciation. 

“Even your partner might say, ‘Are you going to make that?! Then let me go to my friend’s house, because I can’t stand that smell!’ But if you were in Nigeria, nobody would care about that smell! We would love that smell!”

As it turns out, I love that smell. And that intoxicating, profoundly assertive taste. The feeling, when I cook and eat Nigerian food, is like a long-sleeping giant has awoken. And she’s ready to party.

I recently had the pleasure of meeting cookbook author and chef Zoe Adjonyoh at a conference, and as luck (or serendipity) would have it, I was seated right next to her at dinner. We struck up a conversation, and I quickly realized that, like me, she is biracial. Like me, she was mostly raised by her white family. And, like me, she went on a quest to find her culinary identity (in this case Ghanaian). After an intentional and formidable search, she found it. I told her about my own.

She signed my copy of her book, Zoe’s Ghana Kitchen: “Your soul, your food.”

And with these four words, I felt free.