Small chops today are the delicious appetizers that are served at nearly every African party, wedding or food related event. Think of hors d’oeuvres, tapas, canapés, starters, meze or dim sum.
How did small chops get their name and become the West African appetizer? And while we are talking about Chop, why is this web site named African Chop?
Read on to learn the answers to these questions, and some interesting African food history.
What is African Chop?
When I was growing up in Nigeria, my family often bought tuwo da miya or kosai from African friends. At boarding school we had rice with palm oil sauce every Thursday for lunch. It was the best day of the week as the rich, spicy smells wafted across the campus.
We called it African Chop, and that is still how I think of African food. Chop is a Nigerian Pidgin term that means to eat.
What is Nigerian Pidgin?
Abeg come make we chop hunga dey catch me!
So what is Pidgin?
A Pidgin language develops naturally when two groups of people need to communicate, but they don’t speak a common language. In Nigeria, this language started way back in the 15th century when the Portuguese began settling in Nigeria.
This is how a few Portuguese words were incorporated into Pidgin.
Eventually the British became the primary colonial power in Nigeria. They communicated with the people of the area through Pidgin (2).
Nigerian Pidgin English is sometimes called NPE, but it has also become known as Naija (3). By the time Nigeria became an independent country in 1960, Naija already had a strong foothold in the country. While many countries might have one or two common languages, the people who make up Nigeria speak over 500 different languages and dialects. Naija is still an easy way for Nigerians to communicate with each other.
Today, more Nigerians speak Naija than any other language. Nigerians have carried Naija to communities in Europe, North America and many other countries (4).
But back to the word chop. In England around the 1600s, restaurants where workers, usually men, could grab a quick, hot meal were known as a chophouse. So when Britain melded languages with this West African country it makes sense that this word was associated with food.
What are Small Chops?
Since chop means to eat, it is easy to see where small chops got their name. Small bites in many forms are a daily part of Nigerian life.
History of Small Chops
In A West African Cookbook, published in 1971, Ellen Wilson Gibson describes how small chop fills in the cracks between meals. In her experience, West Africans only ate one or two meals a day, but snacks were available all day long.
These snacks could be bean balls, fried cakes, doughnuts, plantains, popped corn, roasted corn on the cob, peanuts and cashew nuts, coconut candies and coconuts themselves. She mentions kola nuts and sugar cane, and I will add tsire (suya) and kuli kuli to the list.
Street vendors do a good business In these populous West African countries, where many people are always out on the roads.
This casual, everyday small chop eventually took on the identity of appetizers served at events and parties. I think the British had a hand in this custom.
The wonderful Kitchen Butterfly describes an early example of a small chop event. In his book Sweet Pass Kerosene, a Scotsman named Ian McCall tells about a fairly large gathering back in 1951, where finger chop or small chop were passed around. These consisted of the very British foods of deviled eggs and anchovies on toast.
It makes sense that this custom would continue in Nigerian life after Independence, but instead of anchovies on toast, they would naturally use traditional Nigerian foods. Voila, the small chops of today were born.
Small Chops Roll Call
What will you find on a small chops menu at a Nigerian gathering today? It will be a mixture of traditional African foods, and foods from other cultures. After all, the foods on this globe have spread and melted over the boundaries of countries.
Here are a few of the delicious foods that you will see in a small chops array:
- Puff puff – a true Nigerian dish. It is a yeasty fried dough – light, round and puffy.
- Asun – spicy peppered goat meat bites. This might also be chicken drumsticks or turkey.
- Mosa – Another version of puff-puff made with plantains.
- Samosa – A very popular small chop adopted from Indian cuisine.
- Spring roll – Another staple of the small chops, showing Asian influence.
- Peppered gizzards and snails
- Stick meat – like a kebab on a skewer. This can be beef or goat.
- Buns – a sweet, fried bread similar to the puff-puff, but made without yeast. Crispy on the outside and soft on the inside.
- Scotch eggs – you guessed it – borrowed from Scotland.
- Fried plantains (dodo)
- Gizdodo – Gizzards and plantains
- Meat Pies
- Chin chin – A crunchy fried pastry snack.
The Last Morsel
Chop is a Nigerian Pidgin word that means “to eat.” We can trace Nigerian Pidgin and this word back centuries, to when colonial countries began to interact and communicate in Nigeria.
Small chop has always been a part of Nigerian culture. Today, this is how we describe the appetizers served at a dinner party.
During colonial times small chops were British faire, but these days they consist of mostly traditional Nigerian foods. There are also nods to Indian and Asian cuisine in some of the most common small chops.
It is easy to find recipes and videos all over the internet showing how to prepare different small chops the Nigerian way. I will add some of my own recipes to this web site in the coming weeks.