Let's Talk Food & Dishes in the South-South of Nigeria with Koko!
Written by: Bethany
I moved from Nigeria when I was 10 years old. While I was there, I lived in three cities - Lagos, where I was born, briefly in Jos where my maternal grandmother lived and then the majority of early pre-teen years in Abuja. There is so much I don’t know about Nigerian food. There’s a lot to learn and I’m not naive to the fact that for some experiences, it’s not enough to just read about them. Until then, I’m happy talking to those around me.
“Proudly Akwa Ibom, Oron to be precise”; Kokoma Anderson is the Production Lead at Adùn and is the definition of a food lover. With a mom from Rivers, She lived most of her early life in Port Harcourt before transitioning to Lagos as a young adult where she owned multiple food businesses from catering to food stalls.
Being the last child in a family with 10 siblings, her own personal food and cooking journey started from watching her mom and sisters then officially, one day, an older sister passed on the chore of making family dinner to her and ever since then she became the official cook of the home. Now, she’s one of the first people I go to when I need someone to treat me to some real good South-South cooking.
The south-south states are Edo, Delta, Bayelsa, Rivers, Akwa-Ibom, and Cross River. Although this conversion mainly focused on Akwa-Ibom & Rivers, there are many similarities but also things can be very specific to each culture be it in the addition or removal of an ingredient or even the cooking method. I personally can not wait to eat food from each state.
Kokoma Anderson: We have different dishes that are particular to our culture. We have Afang, Edikang Ikong, Ekpang Nkukwo, and Otong, to name a few.The Akwa-Ibom people are known for using a lot of different vegetables and palm oil. I think that's one of our biggest things. We’re close to the water, so we're very big on seafood, palm oil, and crayfish.
Bethany Oyefeso: Now that you live in the US, How has your access to traditional ingredients been? Do you substitute ingredients?
Kokoma Anderson: I think living in Houston has been a blessing because Houston still kind of feels like home. I’m able to get a couple of things that are still traditional. Most of the things that I'd like to cook, there's really no substitute. For Afang soup, I’ve seen some people try to use other greens instead of waterleaf. I don’t know about that. I've never tried doing all of those things. I just like to make it how my mom would make it or how my sisters make it. For me, those things are important.
Bethany Oyefeso: Basically, if you don’t have access to certain ingredients, you're not going to make that dish?
Kokoma Anderson: Yeah, that's how I feel about it. For me, food is about memories. I want the taste of it to remind me of the first time I ate it. If I’m going to make it, I just wouldn't cut corners.
I asked her about one of her favorite dishes and a favorite memory attached to it.
Kokoma Anderson: One of my strongest memories with food would be with white soup. We used to do this thing back in the day, where during the Christmas period, we all had to go to the village with my dad. That was always fun. Then everybody had kind of grown up and no one wanted to go to the village for Christmas anymore so it was just me, one brother and my dad. I remember we were driving, and my dad stopped at this restaurant. We went in, and we had white soup. Oh my God. That white soup. I don't know who that woman was, but she put her foot into that white soup. It was too good!! like I have the strongest memory of that soup. I finished my own, ate out of my dad’s own, and he even offered me more of his meat.
Bethany Oyefeso: Sounds like your life changed that day. I love white soup so much and I definitely think it's one soup that a lot more people should try. Can you please share a brief description for those that might not know?
Kokoma Anderson: In Akwa-Ibom, we call it Afia Efere. Different people have different names for it, This might make it seem easier that it actually is, but it’s basically thickened pepper soup. You start it how you start pepper soup, I love to use goat meat with my Afia Efere, boil it with all the seasonings, and we have this root that looks like the back of a tree. We call it uyayak.
Bethany Oyefeso: Aidan fruit, Ghanaians call it Prekese.
Kokoma Anderson: yeah, we put that in with the amount of water that you need. Before we use the Uyayak, we heat it on the fire to enhance and release the flavors. While my meat is boiling, I’m heating that up, adding my spices. There has to be crayfish because what’s an Akwa-Ibom soup without crayfish and also chopping up some fresh yams inside. When the yam is soft, I blend it in my food processor to a good consistency because I don't have a mortar and pestle. I put it back in to thicken it, i dont like mine too thick, and I never eat white soup without pounded yam. So on the side I’m boiling more yams that’ll go with it. How can I eat white soup with something else? I need to get that memory back every single time.
Bethany Oyefeso: Wow. Thank you for that very nice description.
I shared one of my favorite Akwa Ibom dishes which is Ekpang Nkukwo and we both agreed that although it is extremely delicious and comforting, it can be a little tedious and time consuming to make for frequent consumption.
Kokoma Anderson: It's not easy to make it so if somebody makes it for you, they really like you. Grating water yam? Wrapping it individually in leaves? There’s Nfik (periwinkles) at the base of the pot with palm oil and you have to suck it out.
I went on to share how it reminds me so much of Ikokore, which is a dish from the Ijebu people in Western Nigeria. Then she also shared something about shared borders that I found very interesting. I definitely learned something new.
Kokoma Anderson: Cameroonians have a take on it as well. Akwa-Ibom is really close to cameroon. Oron is side by side and some people in Akwa Ibom actually speak French. In fact, my language sounds like french. I don’t speak Ibibio.
I asked about what dish she’d prepare for someone trying Akwa-ibom food for the first time and she chose Afang because of its versatility. It can be eaten with any swallow of choice, boiled yam and even rice. She compared it to the different ways people tend to eat efo-riro. We talked about some ingredients commonly used in south south dishes.
Kokoma Anderson: I'd say palm oil. I think the only soup we don’t put palm oil in is white soup. Every other thing has palm oil. Everything has Crayfish. We use a lot of dry fish since we’re close to the water. I remember my dad had boats, and he had fishermen, so once every week he’d go to the village, and he was always bringing back big fresh fish and dried fish in sacks like Ekpai. It was kind of like a staple and then periwinkle.
We talked briefly about some other foods from Rivers State that she enjoys a lot, such as bole and fish, a type of swallow called onunu, which is a blend of yams and plantains pounded together. We discussed a common meat across Cross River and Akwa- Ibom called “404”. She stated that although she’s never had it, dog meat is indeed a delicacy in these places. It’s sometimes hawked or sometimes enjoyed at the beer parlors. It could be grilled, peppered, or even in pepper soup. I wasn’t expecting her to bring this up but I was very interested when she did because growing up, I remember it being brought up amongst kids in a mocking way, almost an insult and that always felt somewhat controversial and stereotypical but this was the first time I had an actual conversation about it with someone from there and it definitely changed my perspective as I was always under the impression that it was meat eaten in secret.
Learning how widely accepted it is also pushes me to remember that even though certain aspects of a culture’s cuisine is not the norm in our own culture, it is extremely important to always be respectful and open to learning.
Before we wrapped up our conversation, I put two fire dishes up against each other and made her pick between Afang and eba or Edikang Ikong and poundo yam. This was a test because they are both correct answers but one is more correct than the other and she passed!
Kokoma Anderson: “Afang all day everyday. I'm not a big fan of poundo yam and I don't have time to boil and blend yams everytime so eba is my go to.”