• 500 grams of assorted meat (cut beef, shaki [cow ripe], oxtail)
• 200 grams of assorted fish (frozen fish [mackerel/titus], dry fish, stockfish)
• 300 grams okra
• 1 tablespoon of crayfish
• 1 small onion, chopped
• 2 handfuls spinach (fresh or frozen optional)
• 2 stock cubes
• 2 tablespoons red palm oil
• Pepper (to taste)
• Salt (to taste)
Before starting the soup:
1. Boil the oxtail, beef, and cow tripe over-night so that the meat is falling off the bone (this step is optional).
2. About two hours before preparing the soup, boil the stockfish for 20 minutes and cover in a pot with hot water.
3. Cut the okra fingers into fine pieces. The tinier you cut the okra, the more it will draw together and stick. To avoid this, you need to make a few vertical cuts followed by horizontal cuts on the okra fingers.
4. Grind the crayfish and the dry pepper.
5. If you use frozen spinach, defrost and cut into tiny pieces.
Preparation of soup:
1. Throughout the process, add water or cooking liquid from beef sparingly because this soup needs to be thick.
2. Add the soaked stockfish and dry fish to the cooked shaki. The length of time it will take to cook shaki depends on the cooking appliance utilized. You can take a bite to confirm this. The meat should be tough, yet a little gummy.
3. Add the beef, onion, and stock cubes and boil together. Then, add the frozen fish and do the same.
4. Pour red palm oil (optional) in another pot and heat the pot to dissolve the oil if it is congealed.
5. Add the diced okra and start frying to kickstart the drawing process. Add some meat stock from time to time until you notice the okra start to draw. This process should take a maximum of 5 minutes to avoid over-cooking the okra.
6. Now add the vegetables and stir well. Add all the meat and fish, crayfish, pepper and salt, to taste. Then, stir well.
7. Cover the cooking pot and leave to simmer until it is ready to be served.
When Americans first try okra soup, they always say it is slimy, sometimes chewy and a little salty, but no one makes it like my mother. I grew up on hers. I always look forward to it because it’s not made often, so when it is, you know it is a special occasion. When I eat okra soup, it tastes heavenly. I love the way it warms me in the winter months and how it’s not taboo to eat with your hands. But, most of all, I love the way every flavor and ingredient seem to flawlessly merge together. It creates one bite with so many flavors and textures that it creates a delicious havoc on your taste buds.
My mom came to this country on Halloween night in 1990 (she still doesn’t understand the purpose of the holiday); it was an experience. She was a petite, wide-eyed eighteen-year-old Nigerian who had never been out of the country, but who was brave enough to go into the unexpected. She was pushing towards another life outside of what her parents expected of her back home. It was dark and cold, and she felt as if the little children in masks were a projection of what she felt inside. She went to her cousin’s house in Rockville, Maryland, and the first thing they tried to feed her was pizza, but she was not having it. There were too many new and unusual flavors that she was not used to all on one slice that she could not handle it. It just tasted artificial. So she made them go out in the middle of the night to get some okra soup because, after such a long journey to a foreign country, she needed something to remind her of home and what she was used to. She needed the sliminess of the okra and the chewiness of the cow skin to let her know, no matter how far away she was from home, no matter how much things changed, she would always have the comfort that the food would always be the same. She came to this country with the prospect of babysitting but has done so much more.
Every holiday my mom makes the same things. They are the perfect mix of who I am, American-Nigerian: my favorite American food, baked macaroni, and my favorite Nigerian food, okra soup. This is also one of the few times my older brother comes around because now he lives with his fiancée and her family in Virginia, and it is too long of a trip to see him as much as I did before. I never met my father, so the closest replacement I had was my brother. Six feet of pure muscle, and a little fat if we’re being honest. You always notice his presence in the room because he just takes so much space and is usually taller than everyone in it. People sometimes confuse him as the father of the family, and our mother as his daughter. Being that he is nine years older than me, he was always my confidant and even my protector when needed. He met his fiancée and eventually moved in with her. I saw him less, talked to him less and, worst of all, had someone to help me less. But his fiancée can’t cook, so when my brother wants traditional Nigerian food like my mother’s famous okra soup, he has to come home and I get my brother again. It may only be for a little while but, in those moments, it’s like he never left. We still joke the same and gang up on my sister together because, let’s face it, that’s the only time I can do it without being scared of the repercussions to follow.
I remember this one time about three or four years ago in our two-bedroom apartment back on Georgia Avenue that we had stuffed with four people. You can only imagine what kind of dynamic that had caused. My sister and I were sharing a room, and two teenagers in that tiny space was a disaster. She is very forceful and opinionated in everything she does. She’s three years older than me, a little taller, and bigger than me so, when we got into fights, I’m sure you know who won. It was bad. We always argue because we are so alike, and it’s hard not to bump heads.
I still remember it exactly to this day. It was a regular school morning but this day my sister and I were arguing more than usual. She had on my shirt and wouldn’t give it back. One second I was yelling and, the next, hands were flying. I felt nothing but pure pain, then the hard, cold floor.
The next second, I was picked up off the ground and looking into the eyes of my savior, my brother. He started yelling at her and doing what I couldn’t, which was defend myself. Things ended with a broken fan and a dent in our room door. When he lived with us he would always be there, until he wasn’t.
To me, okra soup is more than just a dish, but a reason to bring the family together. My brother comes home to eat, and my sister and I stop arguing. She’s allowed to take the cow skin out of my bowl because, for some reason, she loves the stuff. No matter how far apart we may be, or if we were arguing five seconds before, okra soup brings us back together to common ground filled with love than can only be described as a mix of so many great emotions that create havoc in your heart.