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The 10 Biggest Food Recalls in American History

The 10 Biggest Food Recalls in American History

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Food recalls are no fun for anybody involved. Hundreds of millions of pounds of foods have been pulled from the market for various reasons in the past several decades. We’ve rounded up the 10 biggest recalls from this time.

The 10 Biggest Food Recalls in American History (Slideshow)

A food recall, by definition, is “any corrective action by a company needed to protect consumers from potentially adverse effects of a contaminated, adulterated, or misbranded product.” They can happen for a whole variety of reasons, some far more benign than others: A Class III recall has nothing to do with the food itself, and involves improper labeling; a Class II recall is issued when there’s a remote possibility of medically reversible health consequences, like when a potential allergen is included in the food but not labeled; and Class I, the most severe recall classification, is issued when consumption of the food in question carries a reasonable probability that it will result in serious illness or death, as in when ready-to-eat food is infected with E. coli.

Food recalls happen all the time, and the vast majority of them don’t make headlines. Recent examples include Kraft taking 6.5 million boxes of macaroni and cheese off grocery shelves after metal was discovered in a box, Breyers and Pepperidge Farm recalling their products over unlisted allergens, 4,000 pounds of beef recalled over a mad cow disease scare, Hot Pockets pulling products that may have included “diseased and unsound” meat, and Chinese Walmarts recalling five-spice donkey meat (a popular product, apparently) for containing fox. Recalls happen more often that you think, and the majority of them take place because of undeclared potential allergens. Less than a quarter of food recalls are due to foodborne pathogens.

The vast majority of food recalls are voluntary; that is, the food company recognizes when an error has been made, or when a product doesn’t pass a test (be it for metal or pathogen contamination), but in extreme cases the federal government steps in. Most recalls are handled swiftly and efficiently, and most of the time nobody is sickened, because the system that’s currently in place is so well-managed. But occasionally there are huge recalls, ones related to problems that put consumers’ lives in danger and cost the company millions and millions of dollars. These are the 10 largest food recalls in history, ranked by the sheer volume of food affected.

#10 Wright Country/ Hillandale Farms Eggs, 2010

More than half a billion eggs were recalled in 2010 after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tracked a salmonella outbreak to a plant in Iowa. More than 1,900 people were infected by the outbreak, but, thankfully, no deaths were reported.

#9 Menu Foods Pet Food, 2007

Wheat gluten linked to a Chinese supplier used by a pet food company called Menu Foods, was the source of a major recall in 2007. The gluten was contaminated with a chemical called melamine, which causes kidney failure when consumed. After the deaths of 14 cats and dogs, the company recalled about 60 million cans and packages of their pet food.

List of foodborne illness outbreaks by death toll

This is a list of foodborne illness outbreaks by death toll, caused by infectious disease, heavy metals, chemical contamination, or from natural toxins, such as those found in poisonous mushrooms. Before modern microbiology, foodbourne illness was not understood, and, from the mid 1800s to early-mid 1900s, was perceived as Ptomaine Poisoning, caused by a fundamental flaw in understanding how it worked. While the medical establishment ditched Ptomaine theory by the 30s, it remained the public conscience until the late 60s and early 70s. Proper noting of such events only properly started after the Bon Vivant Outbreak of 1971, and was still limited in scope, thereby it was highly likely many large scale outbreaks from the 60s or earlier occurred, but were poorly documented and may have gone unnoticed, as even after the Bon Vivant case, prior to the 92-93 Jack in the Box Outbreak, many outbreaks were not widely reported. As such, the majority of entries on this list post-date that outbreak.

The Ten Best Books About Food of 2020

This stay-at-home year has translated, at least for me, to more time spent in the kitchen, baking and cooking comfort food, and to feeling nostalgia for restaurant chatter. Of the plethora of food-filled books published this year, these are some of my favorites, selected so there will be, hopefully, a morsel for every reader—those in search of new recipes to add variety to their quarantine kitchens, people seeking to experience travel through taste, the chemistry-curious, and others striving to make sustainable and healthy food choices.

The Man Who Ate Too Much: The Life of James Beard

This riveting biography chronicles the life a towering figure in American cookery, tracing James Beard’s rise to culinary fame from his boyhood in the Pacific Northwest to catering gay cocktail parties in Manhattan to the publication of an American culinary Bible, James Beard’s American Cookery. While Beard was gay, his closeted public persona became that of a “sexless bachelor,” two-time James Beard Award-winning author John Birdsall writes. His book pulls back this veneer to show a more complete portrait of Beard’s life, examining the cook’s use of coded language in early cookbooks and his place in New York City’s LGBTQ community. Birdsall’s multi-layered account also doesn’t shy away from darker parts of Beard’s life. The language itself is as rich as Beard’s fried quail. Birdsall describes his subject’s love for butter-saturated oysters, for instance, “hissing and foaming, edging into brownness, with a scent so rich it would seem capable of tinting the air gold.”

Falastin: A Cookbook

Sami Tamimi, a co-founder of London’s famous Mediterranean Ottolenghi restaurants, and Tara Wigley, a food writer and Ottolenghi alumna, delve into the food of Tamimi’s homeland, Palestine. (There is no letter “P” in Arabic, they explain of the book’s title.) The recipes in the cookbooks—like chicken shawarma pie, labneh cheesecake and tamarind-slathered eggplant—are intended to be doable for home cooks, with friendly notes about what can be prepared ahead of time, and paired with enticing photography of herb-studded food. Falastin also seeks to capture the political reality of life in an embattled land through vignettes about the people who live and cook there, from Islam Abu Aouda, a woman who offers cooking lessons in a Bethlehem refugee camp, to a family of farmers enmeshed in lawsuits to keep their land on the West Bank.

How to Be a Conscious Eater: Making Food Choices That Are Good for You, Others, and the Planet

This digestible book is meant as a one-stop guide for people who have wondered about how to eat responsibly and ended up in the “dark, dank rabbithole of twenty-seven different browser windows” with no good answers. Sophie Egan, a journalist and director of health and sustainability for the Culinary Institute of America, isn’t interested in strict moralizing—she offers guidance for the “conscious carnivore,” for instance—but rather helping readers decipher ingredient lists and nutritional claims. She explores the phenomenon of “food fraud” (like cutting Parmesan cheese with wood pulp), points out that a bar of chocolate takes a whopping 450 gallons of water to produce and offers a list of numbered tips for reducing your reliance on single-use plastics. As evidence of the 270-page book’s practicality, each chapter concludes with a bulleted “Top 5 Takeaways” list and an appendix of other trusted resources readers can turn to for more information.

In Bibi's Kitchen: The Recipes and Stories of Grandmothers from the Eight African Countries that Touch the Indian Ocean

Somali-American cook and food entrepreneur Hawa Hassan’s debut cookbook welcomes readers into the kitchens of dozens of bibis—the Swahili term for “grandmother”—from East Africa. In Bibi’s Kitchen, write Hassan and her co-author Julia Turshen, “is not about what is new and next. It’s about sustaining a cultural legacy and seeing how food and recipes keep cultures intact.” Each section opens with a brief history of each country and features interviews with each matriarch, asking the women about their culture, cooking and what home and community mean to them. Ma Penny, originally from Kenya but now residing in Massachusetts, shares a recipe for mukimo (mashed green split peas, corn and potatoes) while Ma Zakia fixes up a fudgy wedding sweet in Comoros. I tried out Ma Shara’s recipe for Tanzanian stewed eggplant, and it’s just as homey and celebratory as the cookbook itself feels.

The Best American Food Writing 2020

Some may say it’s cheating to include an anthology of standout food writing on a best books list, but to that I say: Think of it as a sampler platter. This mélange of food journalism includes historian Cynthia Greenlee’s account of “How Grits Got Weaponized Against Cheating Men,” New York Times writer Kim Severson’s profile of celebrity chef Jamie Oliver, and Washington City Paper food editor Laura Hayes’ exploration of how restaurants often fail to address the accessibility needs of disabled customers. The collection also tackles thorny questions of “authenticity,” with Texas Monthly taco editor (that’s right, taco editor) José Ralat recounting how a debate over authenticity threatens the homegrown tacos of Kansas City while food educator Sara Kay takes on how “authenticity” and racist stereotypes often go hand-in-hand in Yelp reviews.

The Flavor Equation: The Science of Great Cooking Explained in More Than 100 Essential Recipes

Filled with fascinating factoids and mouthwatering recipes, Nik Sharma’s new book outlines the scientific building blocks of a delectable meal. Sharma draws on his background in biology and chemistry and upbringing in Bombay (now Mumbai) to present a comprehensive and clear theory of cooking, complete with eye-catching diagrams about the properties of different sweeteners or the minute-by-minute chemistry of boiling an egg. He explains the Maillard reaction that occurs when food cooks and why blanched greens retain their vibrant hue but overcooked veggies turn a dull olive. To me, the book, with a trove of flavor-rich recipes like crab tikka masala dip and chocolate miso bread pudding, seemed like a cousin of the fantastic Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat . (Each recipe comes with notes breaking down why it works the pudding, for instance, has coffee to bring out the chocolate, a sweet-salty note from the miso and a punch of tartness from the dried cherries.)

Cool Beans: The Ultimate Guide to Cooking with the World's Most Versatile Plant-Based Protein, with 125 Recipes

Washington Post food editor Joe Yonan’s legume-centric cookbook debuted just a month before Americans panic-purchased pounds of beans from their supermarkets’ shelves, making it a collection of recipes well-suited to 2020. Drawing from bean preparations across the globe, Yonan presents an impressive array of ideas for incorporating beans into a tasty, plant-based meal. There are the usual suspects—many types of hummus and bean-and-rice dishes—as well as cannelini canneloni, Georgian bean-stuffed bread and lupini bean ceviche. Yonan works beans into desserts and even drinks—his salty margarita sour puts aquafaba, the liquid that comes with a can of garbanzo beans, to use instead of egg white. Yonan also answers pressing bean questions—To soak or not to soak? Is there a way to reduce beans’ flatulence potential?—in zippy prose.

Xi'an Famous Foods: The Cuisine of Western China, from New York's Favorite Noodle Shop

Even if you haven’t waited in the long lines for Xi’an Famous Foods’ famously spicy noodles (and you’ll find the recipe for those and many others here), this account of how a restaurant empire was born from a street stand in Flushing is engrossing. In between recipes, Jason Wang, the New York City mainstay’s now-CEO, and writer Jessica K. Chou tell a story about Xi’an, the “city of fiery desert food” Wang’s family left in the 󈦺s for America, and how his impetuous father, David Shi, bounced between restaurant jobs cooking “the type of Americanized Chinese food we’d never eat at home” until he eventually opened the first XFF in 2006. Shi’s rendition of the food of Xi’an caught the attention of scores of New Yorkers, among them Anthony Bourdain. Wang’s voice is conversational, peppered with cussing, a bit of braggadocio and bluntness about the realities (unclogging grease traps the basement apartment his family shared) of the restaurant industry and his immigrant experience. The entire book has the cadence of an assured Food Network documentary, with a liberal dose of extra-spicy chili oil on top.

The Secret Life of Groceries: The Dark Miracle of the American Supermarket

Benjamin Lorr’s exposé opens with the cleaning of a Whole Foods fish case: crystal-clear ice and fresh fish cuts on top of a putrid, rock-hard layer of frozen fish sludge. Based on five years of immersive research, including infiltrating an industrial swine farm and accompanying a female trucker, Lorr’s expansive book digs into the place the average American will spend 2 percent of their lifetime—the grocery store. He meets with the Trader Joe, writes about how modern-day slavery is part of the complex Thai shrimp supply chain and lays bare the danger and exploitation of the trucking industry. Lorr’s frank tone and detailed descriptions carry the reader through the splendor and horrors of your neighborhood retailer.

The Mexican Home Kitchen: Traditional Home-Style Recipes That Capture the Flavors and Memories of Mexico

Beloved food blogger Mely Martínez started recording the recipes she’d accumulated in her travels throughout her home country of Mexico for her son, so that he could replicate her food himself. But, she writes in her first cookbook, “I realized that I wasn’t only writing these recipes for my son, but also for the many immigrant sons and daughters who were missing the home-cooked meals of their childhoods.” Accordingly, the recipes in The Mexican Home Kitchen are tried-and-true, comforting staples: nopales (cactus paddles), both sweet and savory tamales, menudo (tripe soup) and salsas galore. Sourced from varying regions of the country, Martínez’s recipes include both simple, everyday fare and special-occasion showboats, with notes on easy substitutions if an ingredient proves hard to come by.

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About Lila Thulin

Lila Thulin is the digital editorial assistant for Smithsonian magazine and covers a range of subjects from women's history to medicine. She holds a degree in Human Biology from Stanford University and wrote for Slate, Washingtonian, Nautilus and the Denver Westword before joining Smithsonian.

2. Pannenkoeken

Pannenkoeken have remained a staple of local cuisine in the Netherlands for centuries, and it’s not hard to see why. These hearty Dutch pancakes can be topped with sweet or savory ingredients such as bacon, salmon, apple, cheese, chocolate, powdered sugar, and stroop (a treacly Dutch syrup). But don’t be fooled into thinking they are similar to the American or Scotch variety, because they can be huge! As a result, they can be enjoyed as a main course for lunch, dinner, or dessert – if you have room.

Pannenkoeken are made from a simple batter of eggs, milk, flour (traditionally buckwheat flour), and a pinch of salt. They are then cooked quickly over a pan on high heat and flipped until golden. Fortunately, there are countless pancake houses dotted all over the Netherlands, meaning you are never far away from your next big feast.

Make your own

  • Follow this simple recipe and practice your Dutch along the way!
  • Get inspired by these 15 Dutch pancake variations – both savory and sweet (also in Dutch)
  • Make a delicious Dutch apple pancake in just half an hour

15 Dry Dog Food Brands That Have Never Had A Recall

We know how deeply you care about your dog, and I, for one, am especially sensitive to the kinds of food I put in my pup’s belly. It amazes me how much I scrutinize the nutrition label on a bag of dog food, yet I don’t give my foods a second glance when it comes to ingredients.

Your dog is family, and so he should be fed with the same amount of care you feed your fellow humans. After a bit of digging and contact with representatives from each of the following companies, I present to you a list of 15 high-quality dry dog foods with no recalls, ever.

***Please note that this small list certainly does not contain every single brand of dog food that is recall-free.***

Fromm Family Foods is a 5th generation family-owned pet food company, with each entree prepared in small, controlled batches. The ingredients are all natural, and you can even find the best products for your dog with a few simple questions on their website.

With natural, wholesome ingredients and the option to go grain-free, this kibble’s got it all, and their small-batch cooking system ensures the best quality in each bag.

Good for your pup and good for the planet, Earthborn foods bring awareness to the environment. By tailoring the size and weight of their packaging, and using renewable resources in the production process, they strive to shrink their ecological footprint.

Specializing in foods “based on the nutritional science of the glycemic index,” and with the goal of mimicking a raw diet without the inconvenience, this brand brings your pup one step closer to nature.

This brand functions on the belief that total body health begins with the digestive system. Their “Unique Digestive Health Support System” uses natural ingredients along with pre and probiotics, fiber, digestive enzymes and botanicals to make one happy belly.

No fillers or artificial preservatives and the right balance of ingredients results in healthy skin, a shiny coat, and bright eyes. In other words, your dog will have the energy and spirit to play ball as long as his heart desires.

These foods are a “reflection of the safe and wholesome foods nature supplies,” and the brand boasts that they never cut corners with ingredients or quality. Our dogs truly do deserve the best.

All dry foods are produced in-house with no shortcuts on quality. Their reputation for safety is right on target with meticulously tested products to meet their equally strict standards.

Founded by a man whose Great Dane lived to be 17, Canine Caviar is known for its alkaline based diet. The company says that this diet “helps put more oxygen into the blood to allow the DNA’s self-recovery mechanism to function more efficiently and effectively.” AKA, long live your pup!

Currently the only formulas to contain freeze-dried LIVE probiotics, VeRUS is the convenient equivalent to a homemade meal with high-quality nutrients sourced from whole foods.

This kibble is continuously analyzed by independent labs to “maintain [their] strict standards of quality control.” With holistic and natural preservation methods as well as antibiotic-free ingredients, Annamaet lives up to its precise standards.

Using simple, real ingredients, Nature’s Recipe puts the emphasis on your dog’s skin and coat, healthy digestion, and healthy weight to keep them at their best. Their “Pure Essentials” ingredients come together to create a limited ingredient formula for pups with sensitive tummies, too!

With a team of dedicated nutritionists and strict quality and safety standards, this food has both excellent nutrition and safety measures for themselves, their suppliers, and their partners. Testing is done with every batch and at every step of the production process.

These guys use organ meats instead of muscle meats as their main protein source. Organs are 10x more nutrient-dense and are packed full of important vitamins and minerals. It is most definitely a pup-ruvin’ superfood.

Slow-cooked for easy digestion and manufactured in small batches, Blackwood is extremely passionate about the care and quality of their pet foods. The bag even gives you all the important information, including the percentages of protein, fat, and fiber in each bowl.

To see if your dog food has ever had a recall or to check the status of a brand you are interested in, visit the FDA recalls & withdrawals page.

Top 10 Foods of the Maya World

We may not realize it, but many of our favorite foods—from guacamole to tamales to chocolate—were discovered, developed, and refined centuries ago in the Maya world. Here are a few of our favorites.—By Michael Shapiro

Cacao is endemic to the lands of the Maya, who were the first to take the seeds of the fruit and roast them to make hot chocolate. The ancient Maya didn’t make candy bars, nor did they add sugar and milk to the cacao. Instead they took their chocolate as a ceremonial elixir and a savory mood enhancer. For the Maya, cacao was a sacred gift of the gods, and cacao beans were used as currency. Ek Chuah, the Maya god of merchants and trade, was also the patron of the cacao crop. When the Spanish invaded Maya lands in the 1500s, they adopted the beverage, adding sugar and milk to make it sweet and creamy. To learn more about cacao and taste chocolate, visit the Ecomuseo del Cacao in the Puuc region of Yucatán,

Avocados and Guacamole
The avocado, originating in southern Mexico and Guatemala, is loved for its rich taste and creamy texture and was a treasured crop of the ancient Maya. Even today a person from Antigua Guatemala is called a panza verde, or green belly, because of the region's reliance on avocados in hard times.Combined with chilis, garlic, cilantro, onions, and lime or lemon, avocados become guacamole, a sumptuous appetizer. Don’t expect to find lots of Hass avocados in the Maya world—there are many other varieties, most of which are bigger.In 1917, Wilson Popenoe, a California Avocado Association explorer, reported why Guatemalan avocados are best: “The flesh is of a deeper yellow color, smoother, more buttery [in] texture, and richer [in] flavor than any varieties yet known in the United States.”

Poc Chuc
This distinctly Yucatecan dish dates to the days before refrigeration, when meat was preserved with salt. Slow-cooked pork is combined with sour orange juice and vinegar to temper the saltiness of the meat. The orange juice refreshes the salted pork and gives it a tangy flavor—“sour orange” is a variety of orange the juice hasn’t gone sour. The dish is topped with onions sauteed with coriander and a bit of sugar.Julio Bermejo of Tommy’s Mexican Restaurant in San Francisco, which serves Yucatecan specialties, says his favorite restaurant in Yucatán is Restaurante El Príncipe Tutul-Xiu, in Maní: “They make the best poc chuc on Earth!”

Southern Mexicans like to add some spice to their food—and their beer. A michelada (or chelada in some parts) infuses cerveza with lime, coarse salt, pepper, and shots of Worcestershire and/or Tabasco sauce, served in a chilled, salt-rimmed glass. Some versions also include soy sauce or Maggi seasoning. It sounds odd, but it’s refreshing and well suited to a hot day—or a rough morning.If the spices sound a bit much, try a simple version, which blends just lime juice and salt with a light beer, like Corona or Tecate. It’s so popular that Miller and Budweiser have created their own versions of michelada, but of course there’s nothing like the real thing.

Corn Tortillas
Handmade Guatemalan tortillas provide an elemental satisfaction. In outdoor markets, you can hear a rhythmic clapping as women pat them into shape, then cook them on a comal, a big wood-fired iron or clay pan that looks like a Caribbean steel drum. These tortillas are only three or four inches across but thicker than what North Americans are accustomed to.The Maya creation myth says people were made of masa (corn dough), and this remains the essential element of the indigenous Maya diet. Hot off the comal, tortillas are immensely satisfying, an ideal accompaniment to Guatemalan black beans, a perfect base for a layer of guacamole.

Traditional Breakfast
Simple foods are often the best. The typical Maya desayuno includes scrambled eggs, a side of black beans, fried plantains (akin to bananas but larger, with more complex flavor), a bit of queso blanco (white cheese), and a cup of rich coffee made from local beans. It’s all accompanied by a cloth-lined basket of warm yellow corn tortillas. After an all-night flight to Guatemala, I head straight to Antigua Guatemala’s Posada de Don Rodrigo and enjoy a morning feast in the hotel’s leafy courtyard, as a marimba band plays.

Seeing where your coffee comes from is an eye-opening experience. The typical coffee plantation tour includes a visit to fields (and often an explanation about the virtues of shade-grown coffee), continues to areas where the beans are dried and processed, and ends with a cup of café. Finca Filadelfia, with views of distant volcanoes, offers tours near Antigua Guatemala. If you want more kick than a cup of joe offers, cap off your day with a ride on their zip line. Near Quetzaltenango, in Guatemala’s western highlands, an organic coffee and macadamia co-op farm called Comunidad Nueva Alianza is well worth visiting.

Two Refreshers: Jamaica and Horchata
At cantinas throughout the Maya world you’ll see big glass jugs with aguas frescas. The bright red drink is agua de jamaica, known simply as jamaica, (pronounced ha-MY-ka) made from hibiscus flower calyxes, water, and sugar. It’s high in vitamin C and an ideal way to temper the summer swelter. Another popular refresco in the Yucatán Peninsula and beyond is horchata, a blend of rice milk, ground almonds, cinnamon, and sugar. Some varieties have chufa (tiger nut), vanilla, or barley. The result is almost like a milkshake but not as thick or rich. A horchata complements spicy food.


Markus Laeng / EyeEm/Getty Images

There is evidence that peanuts were domesticated in around South America's Paraguay and Prarana rivers over 7,000 years ago. Now, China is the world's largest producer of peanuts. It was brought to China by the Portuguese in the 1600s and became a very popular addition to many dishes, as anyone who frequents Chinese restaurant knows. These nuts are also used prominently in African cooking and are often referred to as "groundnuts."

To a cook, a peanut is certainly a nut, but to a botanist, it's technically a "woody, indehiscent legume," which means it is really a bean.

6. Pasticho: Venezuelan cuisine meets Italy

Buon appetito!

Some Venezuelan recipes have Italian influence, so it is not surprising that they call this dish the “Lasagna of Venezuela”.

Pasticho is made with thin layers of pasta and blended with meat, tomato and cheese. It may sound like your typical lasagna, but the difference lies in the mix of spices they use to really kick up the flavour and the bechamel sauce that makes it extra creamy. Muy caliente! It makes for a hearty and filling Venezuelan dinner.

See Also

Pie Town, New Mexico. Photo: Alamy

2. The Hamburger

Every single American will have a different idea about where to find the best hamburger in the country, ranging from fast food on the West Coast (In-N-Out Burger) to fine dining in New York (The Spotted Pig). But only one place is recognised by the Library of Congress as being the birthplace of hamburgers: New Haven, Connecticut. The year was 1900 and the establishment was Louis' Lunch, run by one Louis Lassen. Today his great-grandson, Jeff Lassen, guides the ship, which still serves burgers made from five-meat blend and cooked in a century-old cast iron grill. See

Everyone argues about where you'll find the best burger in America.

Top Rated and Reviewed Recipes

These recipes are the best of the best. With 5-star ratings and 500+ reviews, you can't go wrong with these user favorites.

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Mac and Cheese

Here's what one recipe reviewer had to say: "This mac and cheese is all grown-up. It was tasty, cheesy and easy to make. Have made it a few times in the last 2 months and it is a hit each time."

Yewande Komolafe’s 10 Essential Nigerian Recipes

“We don’t say a dish is spicy — we say it has pepper.” The recipe writer Yewande Komolafe, who grew up in Lagos and found herself searching for the heat and flavor of Nigerian food in New York, chooses the dishes that define the cuisine for her.

Credit. Johnny Miller for The New York Times. Food Stylist: Rebecca Jurkevich. Prop Stylist: Paige Hicks.

There is a saying in Yoruba, one of the languages spoken by the people of southwestern Nigeria, that translates as “The soul that does not eat pepper is a dead soul.”

The saying refers not to just one single element, but to the variety of ingredients in Nigerian cuisine that add heat to a dish: the mild tingle and smoke of selim peppers, the sudden rush of alligator peppers, the sustained heat of a habanero. We don’t say a dish is spicy — we say it has pepper. Pepper is not meant to overburden your palate, but to stimulate it with an interplay of flavors, and to bring your mouth to life.

One way to capture Nigerian cuisine in a sentence is to say that, for me, it provokes the senses in a way that mashed potatoes, cheese pizza and chicken noodle soup simply do not. I was born in Berlin and raised in Lagos, Nigeria. Although I’ve lived in the United States for two decades, I still remember my first few weeks exploring the food of downtown Newark , a sometimes lonely, sometimes exhilarating confrontation with a question that many immigrants ask: Where are the flavors and spices that I knew back home?

If you have to experience culture shock, New Jersey is a fascinating place to do it. I was 16 when I arrived, and I was required to attend classes at a community college for a semester before I could join my older brother at a four-year school in Maryland. I didn’t understand any of America’s systems. Do the ticket machines on the bus break $20 bills? Where do quarters work aside from laundry machines? It was bewildering in every way.

These memories also linger as food experiences: What is a fried chicken sandwich? What is a slushie? The heat of the summer, the stuffy and humid avenues — those were familiar. But my life in America, and my career in food, began with this sense of bewilderment, and a search for that which would anchor me.

My quest to connect with the food of my childhood really began only a few years ago. The past, no matter how distant, grows within us. After 15 years working in the food world — in bakeries, restaurant pastry kitchens and test kitchens — and developing recipes in cuisines familiar to American readers, I began asking questions about whose culture was being reflected in the food I was making. I realized that I had not included myself in the conversation.

Now I have been asked by The Times to develop a collection of 10 essential Nigerian recipes. It is a responsibility that I do not take lightly.


Nigeria is a country t hree times the size of Italy , and it has just as many regional cuisines. The food in the north is influenced by the availability of cattle and other livestock our coastal regions use more fresh fish than their neighbors, which highlight dried or smoked fish in their dishes. Red palm oil suffuses dishes from the south. In a country where dozens of ethnic groups interact, we have developed a cuisine that transcends tribal boundaries, recipes that can be considered national dishes.

My approach in selecting these 10 recipes is to reveal two complementary qualities of Nigerian cuisine: its singularity and its accessibility. (As such, I had to leave out recipes that are among my favorites, like nkwobi. As much as I’d like readers to spend a day off from work perfecting a long-simmer cow’s foot, I want these recipes to be practical.)

These dishes are primarily informed by the cuisine of the southwest, the part of the country where I grew up. I would love for them to serve as a starting point — there’s nothing definitive here, though all are, I hope, recognizable to Nigerians, and most West Africans. They are what I share first when I cook in my Brooklyn home for friends old and new.

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I have found that it’s important when cooking Nigerian food to trust the ingredients to do their work. The ingredients are “Nigerian” only in their interactions with one another, and will take time to conspire in your pot. To accomplish the variety of textures that make the dish stand out, each recipe should be approached with patience and a sense of adventure. Do not be burdened by notions of authenticity .

Also trust the preparation and techniques — with a long braise, the muscle fibers in the goat leg will tenderize and surrender to the peppered juices of the obe ata, a bright red purée of red bell peppers, onions and tomatoes, with habanero for added heat and complexity. A whole habanero with seeds will lend its gentle, lingering heat to the jollof rice. Fermented locust beans will plump up nicely with a soak in warm water, and will collaborate with crayfish and red palm kernel oil to make an umami-rich pot of efo riro, or stewed greens.

You may go to great lengths to find selim pepper, calabash nutmeg and uziza seeds, but it will be worth it: Each sip of the whole fish pepper soup is like a loud refrain singing to your senses. The peanut-based dry spice mixture that seasons beef suya, the ultimate Nigerian street food, will have you licking your fingers. The beautiful complexities revealed in these flavors and textures are the most satisfying aspects of Nigerian cuisine.

In a funny way, that term — “Nigerian cuisine” — is a lovely bit of enthusiasm, but it’s almost too broad for its own good. Nigeria is vast, and its dishes reflect the geographic, cultural and ethnic divides that exist within our country. When it is explored in depth, our cuisine reveals the nuances of regions and peoples, and those of diaspora and return.


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