The Ground­nut’s light touch with lady’s fin­gers

Okra, or lady’s fin­gers, is a sta­ple veg­etable across the African di­as­pora. Folyemi Brown of the Ground­nut supper club re­calls his mother’s home cooking and love of this sim­ple soup

The Guardian - Cook - - Front Page - The Ground­nut sup­per­club is run by Du­val Ti­mothy, Fo­layemi Brown and Ja­cob Fo­dio Todd. Their first book is out in July the­ground­

When I found out that okro could be spelt with an ‘a’ – okra – I thought it couldn’t be. It might well be pro­nounced “oh-kra” in the Queen’s English, but it will al­ways be okro to my mind.

You see, I only ate th­ese green, bristly lit­tle pods – oth­er­wise known as lady’s fin­gers – at home dur­ing my ten­der years, so I fig­ured they were a specif­i­cally Nige­rian thing. Okro soup was the flag­ship dish in our house, where mar­bles of green and white veg swirled within a lava of stew, thick­ened by the okra, and the con­tours of chicken, beef and ese-eran (cow’s foot) to the side. It all slipped down ef­fort­lessly, at a fran­tic pace, though I would slow down as the meal drew to an end. I’d al­ways save the ese-eran un­til last, as many kids do with their favourite sweets; it’s a cut that’s packed full of deep flavour, and its flesh is warm and com­fort­ing, like a savoury gummy bear.

With time, I’ve come to re­alise that Nige­ri­ans aren’t the only ones who love okro, and that peo­ple are raised on “lady’s fin­gers” all over the world. It goes by the name of bhindi in the east, and gumbo in the Amer­i­can south – a word sup­pos­edly bor­rowed from the An­golan noun quin­gombó (mean­ing, lit­er­ally, ‘okra’) in the west where, not un­like the afore­men­tioned soup on which I grew up, seafood and okro are com­bined with the holy trinity of onion, cel­ery and bell pep­per.

Lady’s fin­gers have long been a favourite in West African cui­sine, and its migration across the globe ap­pears to have fol­lowed the move­ment of the re­gion’s peo­ple wher­ever they have gone. Syn­chro­nised steps such as th­ese, taken in tan­dem by peo­ple and food, fas­ci­nate me th­ese days. If okro were a per­son, she’d have a big mouth and a great story to tell.

Okro soup varies from re­gion to re­gion in Nige­ria, in terms of in­gre­di­ents, con­sis­tency and part­ner­ing sta­ples. The way I knew it grow­ing up in Lon­don, two soups –

If okra were a per­son, she’d have a big mouth and a great story to tell

tomato and okro – were pre­pared separately, then eaten to­gether. The for­mer was made with a base of onions, gar­lic, gin­ger, pep­pers and as­sorted meat that was smoothed with palm oil, while the lat­ter was boiled vig­or­ously with wa­ter and a lit­tle salt.

The two were only bound in the hand of the diner, on his or her terms, and de­liv­ered into the mouth in mat­ri­mony, ide­ally with eba, my per­sonal favourite of all the pos­si­ble ac­com­pa­ni­ments. For those who don’t know, eba is a dough made up from hot wa­ter and garri, which is mashed, fer­mented and toasted cas­sava root. It has a dis­tinc­tive flavour and coarse tex­ture, and off­sets the slip­pery okro soup well. So well that I once claimed: “If Lon­don were made of eba I would eat the whole city!” A quote I live by to this day. The story got around and, when I visit rel­a­tives in La­gos nowa­days, they al­ways pre­pare it for my ar­rival. I once han­dled three sit­tings in one day, and got home feel­ing like I was car­ry­ing a baby.

West African okro soups typ­i­cally con­tain both ground and fresh seafood – hardly sur­pris­ing given they are most prom­i­nent in coastal re­gions. A Nige­rian recipe cooked from scratch might call for ground cray­fish and prawns – both smoked and dried, and large and fresh – and could be laced with palm oil and lo­cal greens such as pump­kin leaf.

My recipe is an amal­gam of my favourite mem­o­ries, up­dated with some tweaks to ease the prepa­ra­tion. Stay­ing true to what I grew up on, I’ve gone for a tomato base, and in­stead of cooking the two separately I found it worked just as well in the form of a one-pot dish. In a nod to the coastal roots of this dish, I’ve called for an­chovies in my recipe, but it could just as eas­ily be made with­out fish and meat al­to­gether, in which case I’d rec­om­mend adding a pinch of smoked pa­prika to the base sauce. You can go fur­ther still and sub­sti­tute cer­tain in­gre­di­ents – feel free to add any meat or fish as you wish. That said, (sus­tain­able) red palm oil is the one thing that I’d en­cour­age you to track down for au­then­tic depth of flavour. Even though I gave my mum a hard time when she cooked with it at home – clothes smelling of palm oil eau de

toi­lette wasn’t what I was go­ing for back then – it has a colour­ful aroma that I’ve grown to love.


Bright green okra pods can be pan­fried whole in chilli oil with a lit­tle cit­rus and honey, or they can be finely chopped to re­veal silky white seeds and then boiled for a com­pletely dif­fer­ent ex­pe­ri­ence. Pre­pared this way okra thick­ens soups, stews and sauces – three terms that many Africans use in­ter­change­ably.

Serves 3-4

2 medium onions 1 scotch bon­net pep­per 2 gar­lic cloves 10g fresh gin­ger 1 tsp salt 2 tbsp olive oil 400g ripe plum toma­toes 1 tsp tomato puree 250ml veg­etable stock 1 tsp red palm oil (or olive oil) 300g fresh okra 60g tin an­chovy fil­lets in oil (30g drained weight)

150g fresh spinach, washed

1 Finely dice the onions and set aside. De­seed and finely slice the scotch bon­net pep­per. Wash your hands af­ter han­dling the pep­per as it stings if you accidentally rub your eyes!

2 Crush the gar­lic, gin­ger and sliced scotch pep­per into a paste along with 1 tsp salt in a pes­tle and mor­tar.

3 In a large pot, fry the onions in the oil on a medium heat for 5 min­utes, stir­ring of­ten. Add the gar­lic, gin­ger and pep­per paste, then fry for an­other 5 min­utes over a medium-low heat.

4 Dice the fresh plum toma­toes, then add them to the pan along with the puree. Stir for a minute or so. Add 250ml stock and the red palm oil; re­duce to a low heat, cover, and sim­mer for 15 min­utes.

5 Mean­while, finely dice the okra and dis­card the top. It can slip and slide while do­ing so, but per­se­vere be­cause the finer you chop it, the bet­ter the fi­nal tex­ture.

6 Drain the an­chovy oil into the soup. Make the fil­lets into a paste, then add them to the pot along with okra. Mix well and sim­mer on a low heat for 5-10 min­utes.

7 Roughly chop the spinach if the leaves are large, then add to the pot. Take off the heat as it be­gins to wilt.

8 Serve with eba, or plain white rice.

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