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
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.
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.