With technology sneaking into every aspect of life including the kitchen, how does one sustain the sumptuousness of native dishes? Self-taught chef, food writer and food blogger, Mrs Nma Okpara speaks with BLESSING GBARADA about her culinary journey and how she incorporates the new with the old.
When did you first begin to cook?
I was about 16 when I really started cooking. I didn’t like cooking at that time because I just wanted to write novels, but I had to cook.
Can you recall your first cooking experience?
I was about 8 years old and my friends and I used to cook for our neighborhood ram “WakeyWakey”. Little did we know we were fattening him up for the Easter celebration. But seriously, my first experience was preparing oil-less okra soup for my dad. It was a pain as I had to cut every finger of okra with a knife.
Do you have any particular mentors or people you look up to when it comes to cooking?
My mother is my mentor.
What are some of the lessons imparted that has stuck with you the most?
She taught me the old methods of cooking. It’s in the way she uses her hands, in the way she lets each ingredient cook before introducing another. Ultimately she taught me patience in the art of cooking. She also taught me to respect old recipes and the efforts that were put towards making them what they are.
Do you get to eat out a lot?
Not really. I like the smell and wholeness of a home-cooked meal. I only eat out when I have to do a restaurant review or take my kids out for a treat. Cooking what we eat is like therapy for me.
How do you pick the right restaurant from the get-go?
The internet. Google is my friend when it comes to picking restaurants. I check out the reviews, I check out their menu and read up on how their staff members relate with customers.
If you’ve had a really bad day, what negative traits would you demonstrate in the kitchen?
After a bad day, I can’t even go into the kitchen. The kitchen is like my holy place. If I take any bad vibe into my kitchen, everything goes crazy…the food would be so bad; photography would be worse.
How do you go about updating traditional dishes while remaining faithful to the culture, or about creating new dishes within the culture?
When updating a traditional recipe, I make sure I stay with the basics and if there is any new ingredient or method, I do it as an extra step. I never do a dramatic recipe change really. Remember, mother taught me to stay close to home as much as I can.
What’s your number one priority in the kitchen?
To make sure that whatever I’m doing or producing in the kitchen makes the receiver happy. That is my ultimate goal.
Any memorable kitchen disasters?
I have so many but I clearly remember one morning while I was in the process of making some bean fritters. I mistakenly poured too much water into the beans while blending them. I mean, I was feeling like a superstar as I had made bean fritters several times. But by the time I scooped the batter into the hot oil, it was a total disaster. That experience humbled me.
What would one always find in your refrigerator?
Ginger, tomatoes and soy sauce. Ginger is one of my favourite ingredients and as a Nigerian woman, I always have tomatoes for stew and Jollof rice.
What is your favourite/signature dish?
My favourite dish would be anything with plantains. My signature dish would be my goat meat and rice sauté.
Can you share the recipe for oil-less okra soup?
The ingredients needed are two cups of chopped okra, two smoked turkey wings, one finger of cayenne or chili pepper (you may use habanero/ata-rodo), one tablespoon of chopped uziza leaves, one red bell pepper, one tsp of dry pepper, salt to taste, ¼ cup of whole dry prawns, half of a seasoning cube, 1½ tbsps of ground crayfish, ugwu (optional), half a cup of chopped mushrooms.
In a pot, boil smoked turkey along with whole dry prawns (this helps to reduce the saltiness in turkey and soften prawns). Roughly blend peppers with little water and set aside. Chop okra into whatever sizes you would prefer. Check turkey and when softened, remove from heat and drain while running cold water on it. Pour prawns into separate bowl. Then with a knife, remove skin from the turkey (optional) and cut into bite sizes or whatever sizes you prefer.
In a soup pot, pour in turkey, pepper blend, crayfish, salt, whole dry prawns, and dry pepper. There should be water in pepper mix; if not, add a few table spoons. Bring pot to a boil to combine all ingredients. Once pot comes to a boil, reduce heat, add okra and uziza leaves; then check for seasonings. If you need any more seasoning, add half of the seasoning cube making sure you do not over-season so that you would be able taste the freshness of the soup. Quickly remove soup from heat. Wait a few minutes to rest before serving. Serve with rice balls, rice or any accompaniment of your choice.