the grub street diet

Yewande Komolafe Obsesses Over Perfect Bites

“All of these strong flavors can play so well together — let’s do it.”

Yewande Komolafe. Illustration: Lyne Lucien
Yewande Komolafe. Illustration: Lyne Lucien

Yewande Komolafe creates the kinds of recipes that become staples: One night, you might decide to make her baked tofu with peanut sauce, and then next thing you know you’re telling everyone it’s part of your weekly rotation. (We were scandalized to find out that Komolafe cannot even eat tofu, though others may point to this as evidence of her flavor prowess.) This month, the Times “Cooking” writer will publish her first cookbook, My Everyday Lagos, which she says is “infused” with the cuisine and culture of her hometown. (To promote the book, she’s doing four events here in New York, including a lunch at Frenchette.) The project is the culmination of three and a half years of work, and throughout, Komolafe resisted the desire to oversimplify the cooking for American readers. In the end, she didn’t: “People are curious — they want to know,” she says. “I don’t have to give them everything on a silver platter.”

Thursday, October 12
Glass of water with oil of oregano. I felt a cold coming on and who has time for that? Through this diary, I realized I do a lot of tinctures, things that I think are going to improve my health or make me feel better, and that I also like warm bowls of stuff.

Oatmeal with a sprinkle of kafe hawaij, raisins, and oat milk. I’m a creature of habit. This is the way I’ve been having my oatmeal for a long time. I don’t really eat oatmeal in the summer. But fall, September, October? It feels like something’s shifted and it’s time to make the oatmeal. I’ve also been using sea salt and maple syrup that we got from Canada.

Now, cinnamon. I have so many thoughts on cinnamon. They’re bad thoughts because I feel like Americans use a lot of cinnamon in sweet things. It’s the go-to spice. I’m like, There are so many other spices, and there are so many other ways you could use cinnamon. I get so annoyed.

Drank a glass of kefir that my friend made when I was over at their place. They sent me home with a bottle. I used to make mine. I realized the kefir in the market wasn’t creamy enough for me and at the time I was, like, making kombucha, so I thought, Well, why not just go all out? I’d do it with half heavy cream and half milk, and it was so creamy and so chunky. It was perfect. Except it fell by the wayside this summer because we left for a month.

Recipe testing is a Tuesday-Wednesday-Thursday thing. This afternoon, I was working on cookie dough. I don’t know if I can tell you what kind of cookies these were — that’s top secret. I will give you a crumb: Every single cookie I’ve made for the Times is a variation on shortbread because that’s my favorite cookie ever. Butter, flour, sugar: That’s the base for every cookie that I’ve made.

While the cookies were baking, I went to the Black Flamingo for a coffee. I walk in, the guy at the counter already knows my order, so he pulls it up on the screen, and, yes, it’s an oat-milk cappuccino. I went home and tossed in some panela sugar that Burlap & Barrel had sent me. Then I ate five to six cookies before I glazed them.

Made a fruit smoothie with baobab, moringa powder, and a bunch of frozen fruits. Strawberries, mango, banana, blueberries.

In exchange for the kefir, I took some cookies over to my friend’s place. We ended up warming up a bunch of leftovers, and hanging out for a bit. Back in early September, I was a little sick, and they ordered me food from this Malaysian restaurant called Langkawi. The curry chicken was so good that I eat it every week for sure — maybe twice a week. We also ate jollof rice, suya, and peppered snails that we got from Divine, this Nigerian catering company and food truck. The jollof rice was nice and smoky, the suya was perfect. There was also frozen roti that we heated up.

Friday, October 13
Snacked on an apple, because they’re perfect right now, and drank a glass of kefir.

I’d been staring at a bowl of cherry tomatoes from the garden, so I seared a few in salted butter. These were probably the last of the season, the last nice bowl of tomatoes.

When I was a kid in Lagos, my dad had a garden, and he definitely passed on that love of nature to me. Growing up, it was something that I didn’t cherish, though. It felt like work. Why do I have to be the only one picking the tomatoes? But now I love my backyard and garden.

Buttered sourdough toast with some scrambled eggs and three maple sausages. I got them while we were up in Montreal, where we spent some time this summer, from a butcher at Atwater. We’re slowly going through them and the rest of our stock from Montreal. Honestly, the reason we go there is that the food is so good. We stock up on all our favorites, then drive back with a cooler full of cultured butter and sausages and frozen food.
Brewed coffee — 25 grams, 300 ounces — plus cookies from the day before. I come from a background of very precise methods of recipe writing and recipe development and recording everything that I do. I make my coffee in the morning with a scale and I don’t know how to make it without one. When I worked in restaurants, I used to write on any recipe I developed, “Do not veer from these standards.” Intense precision.

We got sushi hand rolls from Osaka for my 4-year-old daughter, Aṣa. I had two. We do that once a week. She only likes sushi from Osaka. If it’s done any other way, she’s not going to eat it. I haven’t had to make her hand rolls yet. She doesn’t know yet that I can make sushi, but also I’m not going to make it better than Osaka.

Then we picked up my other daughter Midé, and we all went for after-school hot chocolate, with marshmallows of course.

For dinner, we had Le Taj! We heated up coconut rice, beef vindaloo, and chicken xacutti. Warmed up frozen roti, sautéed kale. These were dishes we lugged back from our favorite Indian restaurant in Montreal. When we know we’re having to come back to the U.S., we start ordering an extra dish every time we get food from Le Taj. Then we just put it in a quart container or a pint container and freeze it. We’ve also done some trial and error, figuring out what dishes freeze well and the ones that don’t. The saag shrimp doesn’t really, so we just eat as much of that as we can while we’re in town. We’ve done our research.

Saturday, October 14
Decided to juice all the ginger, which was about one and a half pounds. It’s one of my fall routines. I like to take a shot every day. Drank some orange juice with a shot of the ginger juice.

Then a clementine — I want my kids to get in the habit of just having fruit around the house — and more oatmeal with kafe hawaij and raisins, plus eggs and sausage on an English muffin.

My husband, Mark, picked up some pastries and a baguette from Brooklyn French Bakers. I had half a pain aux raisins with a pandan waffle from Bạn Bè. I try to go to Bạn Bè every Saturday, but because I’ve been so busy I’ve been ordering in bulk and freezing the waffles. Bạn Bè is the only place I have store credit — we accidentally paid twice for a recent order. So I told Doris to keep the money for future orders because I love her pandan waffle. It’s got some coconut, and I love anything with coconut in it.

We had defrosted strip steak from our monthly meat delivery from Walden Local. Saturday was so rainy that I decided to make this German stew, eintopf. I stirred in a handful of spinach, used the rest of the cherry tomatoes from the garden, and had it with a baguette. I was born in Berlin, and my interest in the dish totally came from my family’s time there. My parents were both students at the university there, and that’s how they met. I was probably two when we moved back to Nigeria, but I grew up with a lot of things that both my parents remembered from living in Berlin. Eintopf is something that my mom would make over. She’d also make this brandied fruit for the holidays. There were all kinds of German cookies.

I had some more clementines and Malteasers. They are candies of my childhood — there’s a heavy British influence in snacks and in the food culture in Lagos. Maltesers, Smarties. I stash Hobnobs. Now my kids are getting into them.

Sunday, October 15
Sundays are my personal days where I don’t have any obligations to the kids. If I want, I can stay in bed all day, or if I want to be out all day, I can do that, too.

Drank OJ with a shot of ginger, oatmeal, and a cappuccino from Black Flamingo. I got two ham-and-cheese quiches there and then went over to my friend’s place to hang out. We shared the quiches and some Hawaiian chocolate from a company called Hawaiian Host. I’d never seen it before. They looked like Malteasers, but they had toasted coconut and macadamia nuts in the center.

For lunch, I got Red Hook Lobster Pound with the family. The kids love their little burgers and macaroni and cheese and fries and mini lobster rolls. Midé only had her fries, though, so I made her a fruit smoothie and drank the dregs from the blender.

Ordered the nasi kemak and curry chicken from Langkawi. This place has just become an obsession of mine. The curry chicken came first, the nasi lemak is new. That combination of coconut rice, the pickled vegetable, the sambal with fried anchovies and fried peanuts in the corner of the plate? It works really well.

I love Nigerian food because all the components are perfect on their own, but put on a spoon together they all just mix and become this incredibly perfect bite. And this nasi lemak? Well, if you put a little bit of rice, a little bit of the sambal, a little peanut and anchovy, a little pickled veg: a perfect bite.

It’s all strong flavors too. Learning how to cook in restaurants here, I think that we’re told that strong flavors don’t really go together. You don’t mix them. You want some acid to cut the fat and blah blah blah. But I feel like non-Western cuisine throws that out the window. The attitude is, all of these strong flavors can play so well together — let’s do it.

What I realized going back to Nigeria, and re-familiarizing myself with the food culture, is that there’s this unabashed embrace of strong flavors. The whole time I was in Lagos, my senses were just on fire. They kept getting stimulated in a way that they hadn’t been by food in America and it helped me reconnect with that side of myself. Who thought to put anchovies together with a bunch of spices and peanuts and chilies and coconut rice? Just go for it. It’s like there’s no intimidation — there’s a confidence that this is going to work well together.

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Yewande Komolafe’s Grub Street Diet