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Nigeria’s Love For Norwegian Stockfish

“The taste of stockfish is life… We can’t cook without stockfish.” That’s the verdict of women at the bustling Onyingbo market in Nigeria’s
commercial capital, Lagos, as they carefully choose pieces of the specially dried cod. Heads stare up from market stalls while whole bodies hanging on metal hooks sway in the humid breeze. Bundles of the golden-coloured fish have been cut into different sizes and are sold by weight.

So how did stockfish first arrive on Nigerian shores?
The process of drying it means that stockfish can last for years – and that made it perfect to be used as food for the West African people enslaved and sent on long sea voyages to the Americas, says Norwegian historian Frank Jensen.

But, as Mr Jensen points out, it was the Biafran civil war in Nigeria 50 years that really set the scene for stockfish to become a must-have ingredient in Nigerian cuisine.

In the course of three bloody years, more than a million people died – mostly from hunger. It was a humanitarian crisis on an unprecedented scale, and churches and relief agencies from all over the world joined together to fly in emergency supplies. Norway’s contribution was stockfish.

It doesn’t need refrigeration, and it is full of protein and vitamins – perfect to combat kwashiorkor, the malnutrition that characterised the Biafran war.

“The single weapon against kwashiorkor was stockfish,” says Edwin Mofefe, who was five years old when the war broke out. “It was our medicine.”

For years Mr Mofefe couldn’t eat stockfish because it brought back too many harrowing memories of the war.

Now, finally, he can not only stomach it, he has come to adore it for the depth of flavouring it brings to his favourite egusi or melon seed soup.

Fifty years on, stockfish has turned from an emergency, life-saving ration into a staple food – and a key part of Nigerian culinary identity.

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