“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.
The smell of stockfish is pungent and
clings to the back of your throat. No
wonder; the fish has been hung up to dry
for three months until it is as dry as a tree
As the moisture drips out, the flavour
of the fish deepens to create a rich, intense
and complex taste.
It is perfect for a Nigerian palate, which
favours big and bold flavours such as
fermented locust beans and chilli pepper,
says young chef Michael Elegbde.
Based in Lagos, Mr Elegbde is a rising
star in Nigeria’s culinary world – and his
signature dishes revolve around stockfish.
Growing up, he spent a lot of time helping his
grandmother in the kitchen, and she loved
stockfish as a key ingredient in traditional
“When we got home and we smelled
the boiling stockfish we knew grandma is
cooking, and now when I smell stockfish that
nostalgia of my grandmother immediately
kicks into my head,” he recalls.
But it was only later in life – when he had
followed in his grandmother’s cooking
footsteps – that he discovered the fish that
he had grown up with actually came from
almost half-way round the world, in the cold
Arctic waters off the coast of Norway.
“As a kid I was never told that this stockfish
was something from Norway. It was so
common that I couldn’t imagine it not being
Before Norway discovered oil and natural
gas, its wealth was built on fisheries. Today
fish exports are Norway’s second highest
earner, with stockfish going to Nigeria a
hugely important element in this trade.
The archipelago of Lofoten – up in the
far north of Norway – has the biggest
concentration of stockfish producers in the
That is because every year between January
and April, millions of cod migrate from
the Barents Sea to breed in the fjords – and
the climate is perfect for the natural drying
“You need both cold and dry weather, and
you need sun. We have everything here. We
are gifted from God,” laughs Erling Falchs,
whose family business Saga Fisk has been in
the stockfish trade for six generations.
After gutting, cod is hung out on huge
wooden A-frames, up to 10 metres high, and
left to dry for three months in in the cold,
crisp winter air. No salt, no additives – just in
the same way that it has been dried since the
time of the Vikings.
Although Nigeria has a long coastline
teeming with other species of fish, people
say the stockfish has a unique taste and so
it is Norway’s biggest export market for the
“We sell about 200 to 250 containers of
stockfish to Nigeria; that’s about 4,000
tonnes,” Mr Falchs says. “It’s around 20 to
30 million dinners.”
The past few years have been volatile,
however. As the price of Nigeria’s main
source of income – oil – fell, the government
restricted access to foreign exchange.
Stockfish imports fell as a consequence.
But the market is bouncing back. Last
year, exports to Nigeria have almost
doubled to just over 7,000 tonnes.
That is still not as much as in 2014, when
almost 9,000 tonnes of stockfish went to
And it is not just Nigeria that Norway is
As Nigerians have settled in other West
African countries – including Benin, Togo,
Ghana and Cameroon – they have taken
their beloved stockfish with them. And the
taste for stockfish is slowly spreading.
So how did stockfish first arrive on
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
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