Iteration 9: Yvonne Maxwell "cooks" Yemisí Aríbisálà

Ogbono soup and the power of stories

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A few months ago on social media, someone started a trend of posting the first solid meal you were fed as a child, plus your country of birth. I found the idea oddly moving, marrying the extraordinarily intimate (the food which first gave you nourishment, often fed as an act of love), and the broader cultural context which means that food may be a watery congee, or daal, or pap. One theme that emerged from the exercise was that of mucilage, that semi-liquid state common to many of our first foods, such as the ogbono soup mentioned in today’s newsletter by Yvonne Maxwell. There is something primordial about mucilage, which is why some people can’t get along with it. It reminds us too much of the living, of the secretions animals leave. The Catholic Church are too cowardly to tell us the truth: we come from mucilage and it is to mucilage that we return. It’s no surprise that our first foods and our last foods also come in this mucilaginous state.

Yemisí Aríbisálà is the patron saint of mucilage. If you haven’t read her book Longthroat Memoirs, then you should, not just because she is one of the best prose stylists writing today in any genre, but to read how appealingly mucilage can be described by someone who loves it. Ogbono soup, Aríbisálà says, is “mucilage cooked to pinnacle of comfort food”, with a “smoothness to the movement” and “velvety on the tongue”. In her chapter ‘Okro Soup: Gorgeous Mucilage’, she describes the ideal ‘draw’ of an okro soup: “elegant, light enough for the uninitiated, mucilaginous enough for the lover of mucilage”. She called the draw ‘animation’, reminding us yet again of its living qualities, comparing it to the elastic strings of liquid left between the mouths of two kissers. She knows that the language we talk about things with matters, that these foods, in West Africa, in South Asia, have been scorned by colonisers with insults. But she’s also not above calling it what is is: a pot of goo.

If the first half of this cookbook season was straight iteration, then the second half of it has stretched the limits of its remit in ways I did not expect. Today’s newsletter on ogbono is not technically an iteration of a recipe, but of a story, of the preambles to a recipe which are increasingly integral in the Western canon but are not so common elsewhere. Longthroat Memoirs, in a sense, is nothing but these preambles. Although there is no written recipe for ogbono given in the book, Maxwell takes the spirit of the chapter to heart: that ogbono is a living tradition. That even if we must pay homage to the old hands, we need not be restrained by them.


Iteration 9: Yvonne Maxwell '“cooks” Yemisí Aríbisálà

There are so many stories we know before reading them. Stories by privileged middle-class white people line the shelves of every bookstore, exhibiting their authors’ access to travel, to eating for leisure, and to publishers, as they stumble their way through various food discoveries. 

These stories do not interest me. The stories I really want to know are those from voices I never hear: the non-white women staking their claims to the food traditions of their heritage; the recipes that have sustained communities for generations, migrating from across the world and taking on new lives.

As a pupil of West African and Caribbean cuisine, the cookbooks I’ve seen – often written generations ago – do not contain these stories. They are to the bones, purely about the recipes, and omit the anecdotal preamble so commonly used in Anglo-French cookbooks, where every recipe must include a sentimental origin story. For many West Africans, recipes have been handed down for generations via oral traditions, practice and fellowship, where the only unit of measurement is ‘as the spirit leads you’. Through the effects of time and distance, this intuitive nature of cooking has left some people – and the foods they grew up eating – in cultural purgatory, with some techniques and relationships left unnurtured. 

The 80s and 90s saw the early introduction of Black African-authored cookbooks. This followed a rise in emigration from Africa to the UK, with people seeking stability and new financial opportunities for themselves and their children, taking a huge leap into the unknown for what they thought would be a better life for their families. This, in my opinion, is when cookbooks became more prominent in African cooking, as they served to fill in the gaps of our second- and third-generational knowledge. These books continue to provide a traceable map through the past, equipping people with the tools to recreate dishes once prepared by their parents or grandparents and bringing ingredients and dishes from faded memories into life.

The introduction to Yemisí Aríbisálà’s Longthroat Memoirs: Soups, Sex and Nigerian Taste Buds touches on the notion of missing stories within food, and how this has led to foods being excluded from the world stage. She remarks that Nigerian food did not exist internationally until 2013 as ‘its stories had been separated from its consumption’. 

Nigerians have never created that person from speech and stories and exaggerations, so that when I brought him up, the response was like talking about someone who never existed. 

The idea that food must first be talked about and characterised in order to create and nurture its identity is still a fairly new concept within West African food writing. Through her intriguing stories that paint vivid pictures of a layered and complex Nigeria, Aríbisálà flies the flag for both Nigerian cuisine and food stories, showing the world that Nigerian food is a ‘multifaceted cultural treasure trove’ while writing for the Nigerian who already knows this. She writes beautifully on a vast array of Nigerian dishes and cooking techniques, from popular street foods like akara to the very regional (and taboo) consumption of dog meat. My favourite chapter in Longthroat Memoirs, though, is dedicated to the soup supreme: ‘A Beautiful Girl Named Ogbono’.

Ogbono soup is very dear to me. It was my first exposure to solid food as a baby, sat on my mother’s lap in a dimly lit kitchen in Benin, staring at her hand moving from the bowl of soup to her own mouth and then to mine. It is a tie to those I love; a link to my place of birth, to which I have not yet returned; and a connection to my faceless ancestors about whom I often dream.

...people talk about ogbono soup with reverence, longing, and unmistakable notes of addiction in their voice.

Ogbono soup is a classic Nigerian dish made from dried and ground bush mango seeds (known as ogbono) – the grinding of the ogbono releases a beautifully fragrant aroma. If following the basic method of cooking, this is combined with rich palm oil and fried until the ogbono is consumed by the deep red oil. Water or stock is then added until the mixture dissolves and the texture thickens to an okra-like consistency – what we Nigerians call ‘draw draw’, or the ‘animation of the soup’, as Aríbisálà so perfectly puts it. 

The soup continues to boil and is seasoned before an assortment of meat, fish and ugwu (chopped pumpkin leaves) is added. This is married with starchy balls of ‘swallow’ – a staple in Nigeria, these dense doughy balls of, for example, eba, pounded yam or amala, are typically served with soups and stews, segmented into mouthful portions and ‘swallowed’. They are sensually baptised with a glossy coating of ogbono, with its warm turmeric tones and specks of dark green. This is a soup like no other.

Aríbisálà does not include an actual recipe for ogbono soup, although she does gift us with a phenomenal recipe for stock, which she incorporates into her recreations, boasting layers of flavour from the inclusion of root ginger and both fresh and dried Cameroonian peppers. Based on Aríbisálà’s contemporary take on ogbono soup, and the universal debates on the correct composition of the ‘draw’, one can surmise that there is no fixed recipe for ogbono soup. It is a living organism that transforms based on how it is nurtured by the cook. Depending on your preference and experience, the soup may vary from a lightish brown to a deep copper in colour, the quality of the stock may impact the depth of flavour, the ‘draw’ may vary in viscosity, and the levels of umami you are chasing through the addition of dried or smoked fish and meat or seafood will affect the dish’s potency.

A child can rustle up ogbono with someone standing by calling out instructions, maybe helping with liquidity. But the palate, no matter how naive, knows ogbono soup cooked by an old hand.

I prepared the recipe below with my mother-in-law, who, like many West African women, has lived an ordinary yet remarkable life. Born in Islington, she moved back to Nigeria only to become a refugee during the Biafran War, and ended up running a successful business as a tailor before moving back to London with three children to start from scratch. She is one of the nameless women that Aríbisálà speaks of as a custodian of the ogbono tradition. Her consistency of flavours and the level of spice and warmth contained in each bowl of soup is remarkable. She achieves the perfect 'draw draw' each and every time: a true master in her preparation of this superior dish.

I, on the other hand, am not! I follow in Aríbisálà’s footsteps as an ogbono heretic, with countless tweaks and additions, some of which any self-respecting Nigerian would hiss at if merely suggested. For the most part, I have tried to honour the basic format and technique for ogbono. However, inspired and led astray by Aríbisálà’s musings on authenticity and chasing an unattainable high, I have added a rich stock with fiery root ginger, uda pods (grains of Selim), and cinnamon and cayenne pepper for added warmth. I have also added crayfish for extra umami, as well as a palm oil infusion of bay leaves and pimento (allspice berries) – borrowing from my mother’s St Lucian roots.

Trawling through the stories in Longthroat Memoirs brings to life food memories I have held since childhood and creates new imagery of a place I long to return to; flavours I yearn to taste again. Although not technically a cookbook, it provides the non-Nigerian world with an excursion into the richness of Nigerian food through tales of exploration, politics and eroticism, and for the Nigerian (because ‘Nigerian food belongs to the Nigerian’), Aribisala confirms what we have known all along – Naija no dey carry last!


For the ogbono soup – serves 4:

Ingredients

Building the stock/soup base:

  • 500g–1kg assorted meats – depending on how much you like offal, this could include goat meat, abodi (the large intestine of a cow), shaki (cow or sheep’s tripe), kidney, and other offals. Alternatively, if offal is not your thing, Aribisala prefers to leave the meat out entirely and throw in large king prawns right at the end to briefly cook in the heat of her ogbono soup. You can also use fresh mackerel, tilapia and catfish

  • 1.5–2 litres water

  • 3 tbsp ground crayfish (you can source this from your local African market)

  • 100g dried stockfish (you can source this from your local African market)

  • 1 inch root ginger

  • 1 red onion, halved

  • 1 tbsp cayenne pepper

  • 2 uda pods (grains of Selim)

  • 1 small stick of cinnamon

  • 2 Maggi cubes

  • salt, to taste

Preparing the ogbono:

  • 1 cup ogbono seeds – grinding in a mill will give you approx 1 1/2 cups (you can source this from your local African market; be sure to freeze any leftover seeds to maintain freshness)

  • 50g palm oil

  • 5 pimento seeds/allspice berries

  • 2 bay leaves (fresh if you can get them)

  • 1 big handful ugwu leaves, finely chopped (you can source these in your local African market; substitute with spinach if you can’t find them)

  • 1 cup okra, finely chopped into rounds

  • 2 scotch bonnet peppers

  • 100ml water

Method 

Wash your meat and place in a large pot with 1.5–2 litres of water, depending on the amount of meat you are cooking. If using offal, you will need to boil this separately, as some cuts may take longer to become tender (you can be less precise with the water for the offal – this will be discarded later). Season the meat by adding the ginger, onion, cayenne pepper, uda pods, cinnamon, Maggi cubes and salt, then bring to a gentle boil. Cover the pot and leave to simmer for 30 minutes. If you are not using meat, build your stock with the remaining ingredients.

While the meat is boiling and the stock is maturing, grind the ogbono seeds into a fine consistency – you will know the consistency is right when bits of the powder begin to stick to the edges of your grinder. Set aside in a dry bowl to prevent sticking.

In a blender, add 100ml water and the scotch bonnet peppers – blend until smooth and set aside. Thoroughly wash the ugwu leaves and chop finely, discarding the stalks (this will ensure a smoother texture once combined in the soup). Now wash and chop the okra – I tend to chop my okra quite thinly so as not to interfere with the velvety texture of the ogbono. Set both the ugwu and okra aside in separate bowls.

Return to the pot of meat and, using a slotted spoon, remove the uda pods, cinnamon, and pieces of onion (onions prevent the ogbono from forming its signature texture). Rinse the smoked fish, tear apart with your fingers, and add to the pot of meats, then drain the liquids from your offal (if boiled in a separate pot) and combine with the rest of the meats. Continue boiling for another 10 minutes.

Now that the meats are tender, add the scotch bonnet mixture and let this boil until the raw smell of the chilli disappears (around 5 minutes). Add the ground crayfish, stirring well until combined, and continue boiling for another 10 minutes – taste and add salt if required. Keep the pot boiling to maintain the heat for the next stages.

In a small pot, add the palm oil and heat gently on a medium flame. Add the pimento and bay leaves and fry gently for 2–3 minutes, allowing the flavours to infuse into the palm oil. Using a slotted spoon, remove the pimento and bay Ieaves and discard. Maintaining the heat of the oil, add the ground ogbono, then remove from the heat and stir to form a smooth paste before adding to the meat stock and stirring well. The stock must be boiling hot before adding the palm oil/ogbono paste mixture in order to prevent the palm oil from curdling. Once added, continue to stir the mixture to encourage the paste to melt evenly, then combine with the rest of the ingredients.

Important: do not cover the pot after the palm oil/ogbono mixture has been added as this will make the soup watery and cause the ogbono to lose its mucilaginous structure.

Continue to cook the ogbono soup on a medium heat for 30 minutes, stirring regularly. The amount of bubbles will increase quite substantially, as will the thickness of the soup and the fullness of the ‘draw’. If using prawns, now would be a good time to add them to the ogbono soup. Add the chopped okra and leave to cook for 5 minutes, then add the chopped ugwu. 

With all the ingredients added, you can now alter and amend the texture according to preference – use a ladle to test the consistency of the soup, and add more water if necessary. I prefer a superior ‘draw’ to my ogbono soup, so I like it to be very thick in consistency. 

Either serve immediately with a swallow of your choice – I prefer eba – or reheat the next day, when the flavours will have had time to fully combine. Let the ogbono soup cool completely before covering. Ogbono soup also freezes extremely well, and I always have some stashed away for a rainy day (or a sunny day … or any day).

For the ‘swallow’ – eba (bowl method) – serves 2

Ingredients

  • 350g garri (dried, fermented cassava flour) – can be sourced from your local African market

  • around 500ml boiling water 

Method

Boil water in a kettle. Once boiled, add the water to a mixing bowl, then add the garri. Gently turn the garri using a wooden spoon or spatula until it comes together, adding additional water if needed in order to achieve a smooth consistency. Form into a roundish ball and serve with the ogbono soup.


Yvonne Maxwell is a documentary photographer, cooking enthusiast and traveller, whose work focuses on telling stories of food, culture and people across the African Diaspora. Yvonne was paid for this newsletter.