A Possible History of Nigerian Small Chops [In Their Present Form]
Or The Evolution of Nigerian Small Chops. And how Indian Samosas and Chinese Spring Rolls became Nigerian Small Chops Essentials.
Foodways and food mapping are amongst the things I love about food – all the things that lie on and beyond the plate, somewhat unseen but present, shaping, defining the plate. These fascinate me. Like small chops. Where did that come from? The name but also the specific combinations which the name defines – today, puff puff, mosa, Indian samosas, Chinese spring rolls and meat?
Where did India meet Nigeria, and China too?
‘Come, it’ll only be small chops, nothing heavy’
‘Come o, na only small chops o, nothing major’
Small chops, by name might have begun as perhaps an invitation to a hangout, a gathering with friends. I imagine these words are the birthing lines of this genus, this family of eats Nigerians now call ‘Small chops’.
Appetisers, Hors D’Oeuvres and Canapés are all in the same league – small bites often consumed with drinks or prior to the main dinner event.
I’ve attempted to pull together information from books, conversations and memories of what there was growing up as a Nigerian child in the ’80s to map the cultural hybridisation that has created a ‘new syncretic small chops culture.’
Syncretism is a union or attempted fusion of different religions, cultures, or philosophies…
Syncretism may apply to something whose parts sync well, like salsa dance (a merging combination of African, Latin American, and European cultures), or something whose parts merge less successfully; Source
Small chops have existed at least since 1951, and I dare say before, but 1951 is a good place to begin for it was the year in which Ian McCall, a Scotsman arrived to work in Lagos. I say this with confidence because he writes about it in his memoirs ‘Sweet Pass Kerosene: Nigeria – A Personal History’.
On Page 195:
‘…finger chop’ or ‘small chop’ was provided for a fairly large gathering and only the older ladies had chairs to sit on. The majority stood and conversed in informally well-dressed groups which would change their composition in the course of the evening as guests circulated assisted often by introductions, where necessary, from their hosts or willing others. The food consisted of goodies like anchovies on toast, devilled eggs and various canapés which were available in sufficient quantity to make dinner later a matter of choice rather than necessity.’
Interesting. And easy to see why. Anchovies on toast? Devilled eggs? Both popular in Britain, before and during the time when they colonised Nigeria.
…modern-day deviled eggs can be traced back to ancient Rome, where eggs were boiled, seasoned with spicy sauces and then typically served at the beginning of a meal—as a first course known as gustatio—for wealthy patricians. In fact, serving eggs while entertaining was so common that the Romans had a saying, “ab ova usque ad mala”—literally from eggs to apples, or from the beginning of a meal to the end…
The first known printed mention of ‘devil’ as a culinary term appeared in Great Britain in 1786, in reference to dishes including hot ingredients or those that were highly seasoned and broiled or fried. By 1800, deviling became a verb to describe the process of making food spicy. But in some parts of the world, the popular egg hors d’oeuvres are referred to as “mimosa eggs,” “stuffed eggs,” “dressed eggs” or “salad eggs”—especially when served at church functions—in order to avoid an association with Satan; History.com
But these aren’t the small chops we know now – they have evolved to puff puff and more. How did that happen? How did they become what they are today – a medley of Nigerian, Indian and Chinese bites. It’s a no-brainer thinking of the Nigerian elements, but how did Indian and Chinese cuisine blend with Nigerian?
‘India’ in Nigeria
Indians have been in Nigeria on and off since the late 1800s. The earliest set probably where those brought by the colonial British to construct and manage the railways. The next set were traders and merchants – the Chellerams – since the ’20s, Bhojsons and others.
In the late ’50s and early ’60’s, relations improved, with India opening a small diplomatic office in Lagos and then in 1962, Nehru – India’s first Prime Minister – visited Nigeria. This however didn’t materialise into strong, beneficial relationships till much later.
The relationship between India and Nigeria is deep-rooted, characterized by inner warmth and generosity. The colonial backdrop of Nigeria and India makes both of them historical friends and thus natural allies. The independent India, having itself gone through the travails of colonialism, stood in solidarity with Nigeria during its colonial struggles and championed the course of decolonization process. This is validated by the fact that India established its diplomatic Mission in 1958, two years before Nigeria’s independence; Source
India and Nigeria have cooperated in the fields of defence and education for many years. NDA, Nigeria’s National Defence Academy and Naval College, established in 1964 began with Indian trainers – officers from the Indian Army. From 1964 to 1969, Brigadier M.R. Varma, an Indian national was the first Commandant of the NDA [also previously known as the British-run Royal Military Forces Training College (RMFTC) and then after Independence, renamed Nigerian Military Training College (NMTC) before being called the National Defence Academy].
And then came the civil war of the late ’60s which led to Indians leaving the country, returning in the early ’70s in various capacities.
So how did samosas come to feature in small chops?
- It is possible that the merchants and traders as they grew began to stock Indian delicacies in their supermarkets which at first might have catered to the local Indian population, and then spread through friendships to non-Indians
- The Indian and Nigerian armies were very friendly and it is likely that cultural exchanges occurred which introduced samosas into the cocktail and dinner party sphere. (Former) Presidents Buhari, Babangida and Obasanjo and a number of Nigeria’s top military personnel received training in India’s defence establishments.
So…the Indian imprint and I dare say cuisine was familiar in some circles in Nigeria. I can imagine that with supermarkets and stores, they stocked Indian produce and snacks. With time, this expanded to the non-Indian masses causing it to become a staple ‘eat’.
Across Africa, the ’70s were tumultuous for many expatriates.
In Nigeria, the end of the civil war, military rule and the rise of economic nationalism reduced the footprint and opportunities for British-led organisations and corporations. British presence was withdrawn across industries, and a lot of British and western expatriates returned to their home countries. The Indians, Lebanese and others who’d come here as merchants and traders stayed. They filled the gap that austerity measures, reduced imports and more created.
At the same time (1972), in East Africa, Idi Amin of Uganda expelled Indians, giving them 90 days to leave the country. The Indians in Uganda and the rest of East Africa had been brought by the British in the late 1800s to mid 1900s. A lot of Indians moved to the midlands in the UK. Cities like Birmingham, Leicester
Indians and Asians from Uganda are “one of the most successful groups of immigrants anywhere in the history of the world”. This strand of migration – from India to Africa to Britain – is unique in the history of Indian diaspora.
Indians first moved to East Africa in the 1890s to work in large railway and infrastructure projects. By the 1970s, they were leading in business and other fields — enough to worry dictator Idi Amin, who gave them 90 days to leave Uganda, with only $50 each.
This community left behind homes, businesses, friends and memories for an uncertain future in Britain and elsewhere; Source
As things settled, the Nigerian government and several private firms began to hire Indian doctors, teachers, engineers and other professionals. I’m reminded of growing up in the 80s with a lot of Indian friends and trying various Indian delicacies at theirs.
Towards the end of the 1980s, many of the Indian experts returned to India when, with the substantial reduction in the country’s oil revenues, the country began to face severe economic problems. In spite of this, over two hundred thousand Indian expatriates live in Nigeria. And samosas remain, available in supermarket deep freezers and a popular addition to small chops packs. Like spring rolls too.
‘China’ in Nigeria
When the British left in the late ’70s, the Chinese ended up providing huge catering resources, supplying homes and hotels and perhaps this marked the introduction of Chinese cuisine to Nigeria.
There have been Chinese in Nigeria since the ’30s.
In 1930, colonial Nigeria‘s census showed four Chinese people living there. Hong Kong investors began opening factories in Nigeria as early as the 1950s. By 1965 there were perhaps 200 Chinese people in the country. By 1999, that number had grown to 5,800, including 630 from Taiwan and 1,050 from Hong Kong; Source
By the 1960s, a mix of nationalities lived in Nigeria – Greeks, Cypriots, Lebanese, Chinese, Japanese, Iranians, Indians, Turks and more including the English and French. Some came on diplomatic missions, others – notably the Chinese of Hong Kong and the Greek-Cypriots of Mandilas and Leventis – on entrepreneurial journeys.
One of the most prominent, Hu Jieguo – owner of the Golden Gate Chinese restaurant moved to Nigeria in the late ’70s to live with his father who’d moved here in the ’50s and ran a textile business. Though Hu worked with his father, he always had an interest in food and hospitality.
Prior to his move to Nigeria, he was an English teacher at the Shanghai Nanhai middle school during the Chinese Cultural Revolution. This knowledge of English was to serve him well during his move to Lagos. He secured a role in one of the high-end hotels and ended up learning about hotel management from its Western managers. He then went on to Canada for a degree in hotel management at the University of British Columbia.
At the same time, the Nigerian oil boom created opportunities for major development projects as it had began to pull in foreign investment. The Chinese government at the time had a ‘going out’ strategy underpinned by a desire to internationalise their operations. With the growth in the Nigerian economy, Hu observed that there ‘a supply shortage of decent local hotels had become an issue for multinationals in Nigeria at that time,’.
In 1983, his first related business, a restaurant, opened in Lagos. He says his place was called Shangri-la, located on the top floor of the largest and best hotel of the city, and occupied more than 700 square meters.
“It was a time when Chinese food was so popular overseas and we had the idea of eating Chinese food in a Western style to satisfy our local customers’ demand,” he says. “We decorated the place in a very European style and provided a sea view location. We proudly served former American president James Carter and former UK prime minister Margaret Thatcher.”
The restaurant was too popular to accept reservations and people had to tip to get in, he says. The landlord, however, did not renew the lease in the 1990s; Source
In 1995, he invested $8 million to develop the six-story 4,000-square-meter Golden Gate Hotel in Lagos which opened in 1997 and remains a popular destination for Chinese food in Lagos.
It was a golden time for oil and gas exploration in the country and people from outside were queuing to join the industry. There was a severe shortage of hotel space. Hu’s father bought a sightseeing cruise with accommodations in 1975, which is when the family broke into the industry.
Hu says after decades, more than a hundred hotels of different category have been set up in the country’s economic hub, Lagos, and capital, Abuja. He has four hotels in Nigeria and Liberia, and another is being constructed in Ghana.
“For me, the hotel industry has a special meaning. That is to enhance mutual understanding between two peoples,” he says. “When two cultures are too different from each other, we must talk and communicate with each other to understand each other better. I think a hotel is a very realistic and good place to start.”; Source
Isn’t it easy to see thus how spring rolls – and tiger prawns if I might add – have become embedded in our culinary arsenal?
Hu and his family brought Chinese food to Nigeria at the time when China was broadcasting its cuisine to the world. A consistent, targeted globalisation of Chinese cuisine.
The Chinese also have a thriving ‘small chops culture’ by way of ‘dim sum’, meaning to ‘to touch your heart’. Dim sum consist of a medley of steamed and fried small bites from spring rolls to dumplings and more.
I remember growing up with Jade Garden restaurant in Warri where I had the best dish ever of beef in green peppers. Chinese cuisine was the first cuisine I was introduced to beyond the Nigerian, and it remains a very popular choice with Nigerians. Nigerian restaurants will have a ‘Chinese special’ as a tribute :).
So yea, interesting to see how relations with countries – economic, political and other ties have such strength, such power to define and shape cuisines. Food is powerful. I hope with these few points of mine, I have been able to trace possible histories and make small sense of why our small chops are as they are…today.
And that, ladies and gentlemen is where I’d like to end this. Stay well, eat small chops and share anything that could improve this xxx