I love food… all food but let’s talk West African for a moment…

So I love food, this is no surprise. When I’ve been on my travels I’ve always tried to eat local food and have been a pain in the backside asking chefs and locals who have kindly showed me/us hospitality for recipes and methods and a million questions about ingredients and utensils. I’ve been given tours of farms, fisheries, vineyards and plantations across the globe out of my inquisitiveness to see how things grow.

When I lived in London most of my friends were from other countries, I had one or two English friends but in the main my dinner parties were like a United Nations summit and I would often purposefully try to ensure all continents were represented, it used to make for fantastic discussion and education. I miss those days so much, I miss the multiculturalism of London, I love that life where everyone’s together in a big melting pot, the vibrancy, the diversity the rich blends of language, fashion, culture and of course food.

I still keep in touch with my friends of course, many have long since returned to their homelands and I’ve been so lucky to visit them there, but that UN summit dinner party is something I don’t imagine I will ever be able to recreate, not living where I am now. I used to love trying out my friends’ favourite dishes, following recipes they’d shared and it wouldn’t be unusual to have a French starter, a West African main and a typical USA style dessert washed down with a Jamaican beer or an Australian wine.

Anyway, slight digression again there.

I couldn’t list my favourite national cuisine as I’d just list every country in the world, they all have something I love, it’s hard to find food that I don’t like, let’s be honest.

I do however eat a fair bit of West African particularly Nigerian food and find it not only hugely satisfying but super tasty with fantastically developed flavours, tangy super hot scotch bonnet peppers and its use of  unusual cuts of meat and innovatively preserved varieties of fish.

Besides all of that I love the way this cuisine uses parts of fruits/vegetables which we Westerners often discard and am reminded of the versatility of the garden of the world and how some of the recipes and techniques, let alone the foods consumed have been around since time began and have been made best use of. True sustainability began in such places, farming your land, taking what you needed and putting every part of a plant or tree or animal to use, wasting nothing. Take palm trees for instance, they yield wine, oil, coconuts (husk, shell, milk, pulp), palm fronds, the bark, the wood, nothing goes to waste and this is typical of many plants put to use for food, medicine, hair and skin care, dental care, for clothing, utensils, even weapons and shelter.

Of course as such cuisine shifts to our shores it is adapted to suit widely available food stuffs here to replace those traditional ones which may not travel so well but by and large many of the traditional ingredients are available in the UK now, especially in larger cities and more and more by mail order via online companies.  Thank heavens for migration and multiculturalism! People like me love that this is possible now because there is no way that I would find ingredients to cook West African food in this town and it means I can enjoy it still and bring my own little part of West Africa to my home here in my north eastern coastal retreat where the most multicultural it gets is a pizza shop.

When I cook food from any country I like to theme it up a bit. I like to introduce my local friends to it, accompany it with some local drinks if possible and of course with some traditional music, include some tales I’ve heard on my travels and even now and then dress up if I can dig out an outfit I bought from a street seller in a bustling market somewhere or which I was gifted by amazingly generous people I met on my travels. I even give little language lessons, sharing the few words or phrases I’ve picked up along the way.

I love people, I love broadening my mind, I’ll talk to anybody, I genuinely love hearing the stories of others and I like to be reminded of the huge diversity of life that exists on this planet and to be reminded that regardless of where we find ourselves born or living on it, we are all the same at the end of the day, we all want the same things, we worry about the same things, we love the same, we laugh the same and we cry the same, we hurt the same, we live and die the same.

My kids have done a fair bit of globe trekking with me and they also have a love of these kind of dinner party affairs where we momentarily ‘visit’ another land from the comfort of our own dining room.

So one day last week, can’t remember which we had a West African night, we had modern music, Nigeria and Ghana in particular, along with Senegal are producing some fabulous music, they always have, but it’s hitting the mainstream UK market now and that’s great news for the youth market. We practiced an Azonto (this track below is an English guy of Ghanaian heritage who is making an impact in the UK youth market) and had a giggle (that was exercise for the day believe me), we dressed up, with hair wrappers and beautiful printed fabrics from my travels.

I read the kids some of Kingsley’s posts from his fun blog here Kingsley’s Blog and we ate Okra soup with pounded yam.

This is it and this is what goes into it (there are some nutritional links further down the post):

  • Oxtail (I was lucky to get some fabulous oxtail which had been cut into smaller than usual pieces which meant I didn’t need to cook it for so long to get that succulent meat falling off the bone and my butcher cut off the fat much to my dismay as I love the taste of the fat on Oxtail but not anymore)
  • Stock fish (check out what this is by clicking here, it’s naturally dried fish from Norway/Iceland) when it’s cooked in a soup it has a fabulous texture and rich flavour. My kids love it.
  • Dried cray fish (I should have used this ingredient but I couldn’t get any so I used some dried smoked catfish that I had and ground it up and it did the trick perfectly of permeating a very subtle fish flavour throughout the soup)
  • Onions chopped up very finely
  • Scotch bonnet peppers, I used 3 but removed the seeds from two so it wasn’t too spicy for the kids
  • Water of course about a litre for the amount of soup I made but this was after it had reduced from boiling the meat so I started with more than that.
  • A tablespoon of pure red palm oil Find out more here
  • Tons of fresh spinach finely chopped or you can use Okazi/Okasi a similar but more bitter flavoured leaf which is usually only available in dried form in the UK as it doesn’t preserve well once cut. I don’t put Okra in Okazi soup and make it much thicker because of the lack of binding agent from the okra
  • Tons of fresh okra finely chopped although I like to have some crunch in my okra so I cut it a bit bigger than it would traditionally be cut
  • Salt and pepper

Some people add Magi cubes at the meat boiling phase I don’t use them and don’t miss them and some tribes add tomato to this soup.

All you do is take a blender and blend up the peppers, cray fish (or in this case cat fish) and a little water add this to a large pan containing your meat covered with filtered water. Add to this at least one large finely chopped onion, your chunks of stock fish and leave to boil then simmer until meat and fish are really tender add your palm oil (I reduced the amount to a teaspoon to get the right flavour and colour and to cut down on fats) let the oil cook in or dissipate. I soak my dried fish in boiling water before I use it, I wash it and strain it and then immerse in still hot boiled water for a few minutes, wash again then use in the soup.

When this point has been reached make sure you don’t have too much liquid left in the pot or else your soup will be difficult to eat in the traditional way and won’t taste as good as if it was thicker. It’s hard to say what is enough liquid and what is too much or too little, it’s an eye judgement. I’d say if you have a two litre bowl full of chopped spinach and around half the amount of Okra you would need your liquid to just reach the top of your meat without covering it. The next step is to add the spinach and Okra. These vegetables soon almost disappear into your soup so don’t feel you have to cover them with liquid, the spinach in particular will wilt down easily.

At this point you can continue to simmer until the vegetables are softened and well incorporated into the soup or you can just stick a lid on and let the heat soften them (I do this as this leaves my okra nice and crunchy but cooked).

Close up of all those lovely ingredients fused together to make a delicious soup
Close up of all those lovely ingredients fused together to make a delicious soup

Leave the seeds in the okra they give a slimy texture to the soup and act as a binding agent for when you’re eating it besides packing it with vitamins and minerals that will give your body a fantastic boost. Have a look at the nutrients in these babies by clicking on the links Okra and Spinach.

You would serve this traditionally with a starch which is mashed with water into a thick doughy consistency, that might be ground rice, gari or it could be casava or yam (you can buy all of these in powder form like instant mashed potato and make it up pretty much as you would instant mashed potato but a much denser consistency and much smoother using the back of a wooden spoon and boiling water to smooth it out). You know you have the correct consistency when you can pull a piece off and roll in in your hands without it sticking.

This is how you eat the soup. You would serve with finger bowls half filled with warm boiled water, a helping of pounded yam or whatever starch you choose and a bowl with your soup, making sure to give a decent helping of meat and fish in each. Alternatively you can serve in one big bowl with one big helping of pounded yam or you can serve individual soups with a central pounded yam. I’ve seen it done all of these ways. I’ve eaten this at a table or seated on the floor cross legged, it’s entirely up to you how traditional you want to be and how communal an experience you want this to be. When I serve this or any of the other delicious Nigerian soups (Ogbono, Egusi, Okazi for insance) at dinner parties if my guests are not used to communal eating I tend to serve it at a table in individual portions, if cooking for African friends I’d be more likely to serve individual soup with a central heap of pounded yam.

It’s good exercise making the yam believe me! It’s not for the weak biceped among us.

This pic shows my heap of yam too
This pic shows my heap of yam too

So what you do is you clean your hand, take a small piece of the yam and roll it into a small ball shape and then you indent with your thumb to make a kind of bowl or spoon effect and you use that to get yourself a mouthful of the soup (this is why the okra is great to bind the soup a bit) and you pop into your mouth and swallow. If eating communally it’s good to take a larger piece of yam, roll it into more of a sausage shape (still only using one hand) and then break off small pieces with your fingers and do the small bowl thing holding he rest of the ‘sausage’ in your same hand. It just saves you going into the yam or soup too many times. Each time you do go into the yam or soup if eating communally be sure to use the finger bowl first.

Afterwards everyone is stuffed, this is some satisfying tasty food and you all sit around telling stories and digging away with a tooth pick for all of those little stray strands of the delicious meat that got stuck in your teeth. Communal tooth picking is an absolute must.

There are variations on this soup across Africa, particularly West Africa but this is how I was taught to make it and how I like it. Sometimes I’ll make it with chicken either as well as everything else or instead of the fish or the oxtail and sometimes I’ll use some lean steak cut into big chunks instead of the ox tail or I might use goat meat.

It’s always a hit with African friends, especially Nigerians and eventually a hit with other friends once they have overcome the look of it, it can look quite slimy and the fact that they have to eat soup with their hands. That can be quite a strange experience for a lot of people. I always offer a spoon but insist that they won’t get the same experience as if they do it the traditional way, it only takes a little bit of practice to avoid getting it all over yourself, running down your arms and chin, but that’s the fun of it, that’s the joy of trying something new.


5 thoughts on “I love food… all food but let’s talk West African for a moment…”

  1. That sounds delicious! It was fun to read about your love of different cultures and foods. I have that same love, but have not explored it anywhere near as much as you. I just might have to now!


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