Journey to the east: My food discovery in Igbo land
For the first 20 years of my life, as a semi-typical naïve Yoruba young lady, my experience with the Igbo food culture was limited to a one-time sample of yellow eba (garri mixed with palm oil) and okro soup from my neighbor’s plate. I remember thinking it was not bad at all, but my mother made better okro. And that was how I dismissed the entire Igbo food culture just from that one taste. Boy was I wrong.
Seven years ago, my friends and I went to Yellow Chili in Victoria Island and I decided to give Igbo food a chance again by ordering a plate of pounded yam with oha soup. It tasted really good but three hours later, my body fought a terrible battle against the contents in my stomach and that got me turned off a bit by the idea of Igbo food. I got sick from the food, so I figured that Igbo food spices do not work so well with my body. I was wrong again.
Fast forward to last year, I had the opportunities to visit Enugu, Abia, and Anambra at different points during the year. Enugu and Abia opened my eyes a whole lot to the rich and amazing flavors of Igbo food. The sauces, most of all have so many layers of flavor and my limited ability in waxing poetry cannot do it any justice. We had just about 24hrs to spend in Enugu and Abia, so I did my best in trying as much food as humanly possible.
My food discovery in Igbo land started with whetting my appetite with a plate of Abacha (a cassava rich dish with palm oil, also referred to as African salad), and a side dish of Ukwa (African breadfruit) with fried cow meat in Abia for lunch. For dinner, we went to a popular local outdoor joint in Enugu (Veronica suites), and luckily, I was with a group of eight other people, so the ability to try so many varieties of Igbo food was spread out amongst us and it became an adventure of food discovery for most of us.
I decided to tempt fate again by ordering Oha soup with wheat; luckily, there was no misadventure this time around, thank goodness! The other highlights were, Isi Ewu (saucy goat head innards), and Nkwobi (uber tender stewed cow foot).
While the Isi Ewu was a bit ‘yucky’ to contemplate eating, the challenge of finally trying out the famous Igbo delicacy charged me on and I was amazed by the surprising burst of flavors from the sauce used to cook it. With a flash of phone light over the mystery goat innards that I was consuming, I noticed the goat eyeballs and tongue challenging me to try them too. Challenge accepted.
Chewing on a goat’s eyeball was not bad at all. It was really tender, and the eyeball had sucked a good amount of juice from the sauce, so every bite brought on more of the great flavor from the sauce it was cooked in. Chewing on the tongue, however, was a different ball game for me. I ate a few bites of it, and despite how tender and tasty it was, I found the texture a bit too odd for me to fully enjoy. I will definitely eat Isi Ewu again.
Nkwobi, stewed cow’s foot, is not foreign dish to me. We Yoruba’s simply cook it with different spices and it is often found in our meat sauces. Nevertheless, it was nice to experience a different way of making something I already love to eat.
In December, I continued on with my haunt for more Igbo food when a friend invited me on a road trip to Anambra. The immediate thought of eating more Igbo food had me accepting the offer gratefully.
My foray into eating more Igbo food started with a bowl of Ofe Nsala (Igbo white soup) with pounded yam, catfish and chicken. And for the first time ever, I also got to see the preparation that goes into creating a typical Igbo food. My hosts used mortar and pestle to pound the vegetables into mush for the sauce, and then I watched them pound yam like pros. When the prepared food came to our table, I was already in awe of the time and effort it took for them to make it for us, and I was even more blown away when I had my first taste of it. I do not know how I managed it, but I ended up eating seconds…twice! I guess the good food inspired my tummy to quickly create some extra space.
My food adventure in Anambra got me to try out more local food like Ofe Akwu, to Nnewi’s version of Abacha, to an Igbo style of making Egusi soup, and finally, eggplant with peanut sauce. Of course, fresh palm wine was very involved in these adventures. I also tried out a local way of drinking it; palm wine mixed with stout; it was surprisingly good. Want to see the video of my Anambra experience? Click here for it and let me know what your favorite Igbo food is!