When we first started dating my now husband had no idea that I was a foodie. I suppose he suspected I ran on the twin fuels of mineral water and champagne as this was all that was in my fridge in sunny Lekki at the time. However, the cat was let out of the bag some months later in New York although long enough for me to know that it wasn’t my culinary skills that did it! Since moving back to Lagos I have been keen to widen my repertoire and where better place to start than his favourite soup?
Okro Soup and Eba
Difficulty Rating: Easy Enough but wow, very time consuming
600grams of assorted meat
400 grams Okra
1 Fish Head* (today’s random but magic ingredient)
3 red onions
50 grams of cray fish
50 grams of Uziza Leaves
3 Scotch Bonnet Peppers
3 tablespoons of Palm Oil
1 stock cube
Salt (to taste)
For The Eba
250 grams of Cassava Flour
500mls (approx.) of Hot Water
Okro Soup, is not really a soup, it is more like a stew or casserole in look and consistency. Like many of the dishes in Nigeria, it is quite flexible in terms of what protein you use. Beyond the principal ingredient of Okra, you can put whatever meat you wish in the stew. What was also an eye opener was the freestyle mixing of meats; think surf and turf, the extreme edition. But if you don’t come to the dish with a blinkered view that it ‘won’t work’ you can be surprised by the merging of flavours, and Okra, being a very robust vegetable can more than handle it all.
As with all good stews which essentially is what Nigerian soups are, one needs quite a bit of time and patience to make the perfect Okro. This is definitely not a whip up after one has sat in traffic forever and a day. It is probably best to make it on the weekend and freeze for a midweek feast. First prep all of your elements so that they are ready to be added in the pot as required. Chop the onions finely as the aim is from them to completely break down in the dish as they cooked. How you cut the okra is entirely down to preference and there are variations within Nigeria, with some areas favouring cutting the okra in thin sized circular slices and others chopping the okra in circular slices and then again vertically. Cutting the okra severally will ensure that the fleshy membrane is released, and it is the slimy to the eye flesh that gives Okra its distinct elasticity when it is spooned, and gives its local name of ‘Draw Stew’ as it draws up from a plate.
Next prepare your meat, cleaning it and cutting it into medium sized pieces. As it is mixed meat, try and make the pieces of similar size so when served a delicious combination will find itself onto everyone’s plate. For the stew I made I used beef and snail. I know, edgy, but not too far conceptually from an old English favourite of beef and oyster. Once you have cut the meat put in a pot with one sliced onion cover with water and sprinkle in your stock cube and boil for an hour and a half minimum, you may have to replenish the pot with water so that it does not dry out.
Whilst the meat is doing its thing, using a giant mortar and pestle grind the scotch bonnet and dried crayfish. One could of course use a blender, but there is something very ‘ye olde village’ about doing this by hand, plus think of it as a fantastic arm work-out.
Once they have become a paste add to the pot. At this point I also added my bonus ingredient, which was looking lonely in our fridge, a giant dried fish head. Again, this is to add another layer of flavour to the stew once it is cooked. Finally add the Palm Oil to the dish. Palm Oil can be a tricky one, with some people addicted to the red oil, but it can take over a dish when added in excess. It is also no friend of one’s heart, arteries or dress size, when consumed in large quantities. So, in this instance I added 3 table spoons to the pot only and stirred in. Allow the stew to simmer for a further 30 minutes or until you can see it has taken on a deep red rich colour.
Next add the okra, stir it in thoroughly, so that all the stew will have the ‘draw’ quality and simmer for a further 20 minutes.
The last element you add are your washed and chopped Uziza leaves. Local to Nigeria, the Uziza leaves seem to sit somewhere between a spinach leaf and a chard leaf in terms of consistency, although as they derive from a pepper plant, have a spicy herby quality to them, so do not need long to cook. I simply stirred them in right at the end of the dish, so that they wouldn’t have lost their vibrant green quality entirely. Your soup is now ready and can be left in the pot whilst one prepares the Eba.
Swallow for Beginners
Most Nigerian soups as the stews are known have a starchy accompaniment to go with them. The starchy accompaniments are often known as ‘swallow’ as when eating with one’s hand, you roll them up in a mouthful size ball and dip into your soup and eat. Everyone has a preferred ‘Swallow’, from Pounded Yam, to Fufu to Semo. My favourite for eating with Okro Soup is Eba, a swallow made with cassava flour and probably the easiest to make as no heavy duty pounding is required.
First, put the Cassava flour in a large mixing bowl. Next add boiling water slowly into the cassava flour. To ensure your Eba is not lumpy, distribute the water evenly in a circular motion, it should cover the flour by an inch or so. Now, like couscous cover the mixing bowl with a damp tea towel and allow the water to be absorbed by the flour. To test that you have the right consistency, your Eba should be robust to the touch and not have a granular quality to the taste. Next, scoop up your Eba into the portion size of your choice and wrap in cling film. If one goes to a lot of Nigerian events one will notice that the Swallow is often wrapped in cling film, and apart from creating a uniform shape, it allows moisture and heat to be retained.
Your meal is now ready to be served. Double wrapper wearing and praise singing before dinner are an optional extra!
My first effort was rated well, but I have already warned my best-beloved that as I learn the Nigerian classics, I am definitely going to riff on them, and there might be some deconstruction in the mix. Watch this page, for the re-interpretations.