Exploring Isi-Ewu, The Igbo Delight That Wakes Up Even The Dead
Nigeria is a land of a million dishes and yet there are only a few that qualify as true national dishes eaten by every tribe in every region. Sure they may go by different names but they are truly universal. One that comes to mind is Jollof rice. The Senegalese specialty from the Wollof people has become so popular that both Ghana and Nigeria are now fighting to brand it
However, another such a dish is the fabled Isi Ewu or the Goat's Head Pepper Soup and today we will take a thorough visit with this delicious broth. To do this we will first start with the origin. Though it had been cooked before in Igbo land in various forms it became a staple during the Biafran War where a single pot could be stretched into 4 or 5 to feed the starving masses by being creative and adding more ingredients - as well as the water of course, and buckets of it to balance out the just as much pepper that was added in to induce the even more drinking of water and fill up peoples stomachs faster. The accompanying oft tiny morsel of the goats head in your bowl would make you feel special and rejuvenate you to continue to face the hell of war.
Since then it has evolved into something really special and literally an art form.
Though the dish can be cooked very satisfactorily with the Sahel or Sokoto Red it is best served with the West African Dwarf goat which is an Igbo indigene. Goats have always played significant roles in Igbo society where a man's wealth was judged by the size of his yam barn and number of goats first, and then the number of his wives. The sharing of goat meat among the community is of such importance that it has its own set of rules and occasion
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It is called Anụ Ụmụnna (above) and during this rite, a lot of historical stories are told just to set things straight before the sharing of the meat. No amount of affluence or wealth can disrupt the process as one celebrates the time when the tribe were true hunter-gatherers and not sedentary farmers. It is used to share all forms of meat out of which goats are the most popular.
But back to the West African Dwarf (below).
In fact, there are so many different versions of it that you have quite a variety. Though the West African Dwarf, Forest Goat and Pygmy are the most popular in the South-East of Nigeria there are also the Djallonké or Fouta Jallon, Grassland Dwarf or Chèvre Naine des Savanes, and Guinean Dwarf to pick from. This goat has a muskier aroma, especially in the male called a Nkpi and when the head is properly roasted (below) infuses the soup with a distinct flavour that eventually seeps through the whole dish. Note getting the head right during roasting is half the battle.
Here is how to cook my version and though it is not as amazing as General Nwanpki's at Orlu, who is the undisputed King Cook of Isi Ewu - it is quite delicious. I tried to mimic Nwaknpki's famous version from when I used to spend my school fees on it in the late '70s when he was still a mere Colonel at the Anara junction.
Enter my kitchen:
1 Goat head (largely cubed)
2 teaspoon of Ehuru (calabash nutmeg)
1 handful of sliced Utazi leaves
1 teaspoon of edible potash (Akaun)
3 cubes of seasoning
2 medium-sized onions
2 tbsps of blended fresh pepper
1 cup of palm oil
1 tbsp of crayfish (optional)
Salt to taste
* In a pot, place the meat with the brain included, adding an onion (grated), the seasoning, a tablespoon of pepper, salt, water and allow to boil until the meat is tender.
* While the meat boils, slice the other onions into rings, dissolve potash with a little amount of water and sieve.
* A while into the meat boiling, take out the brain and place in a small mortar, add the other spoon of blended pepper and mash. When the meat is ready, separate stock from meat.
* Pour oil into another dry pot. Little by little, pour potash into the oil and stir with a spatula until palm oil turns yellow and thicken.
* Add the mashed brain, the stock of the meat, Ehuru, crayfish, and continue to stir until blended.
* Place the meat into the mixture and stir. Turn on the heat, until steaming hot.
* Garnish with sliced onion rings and Utazi leaves. Serve in a small wooden mortar.
By now your kitchen should be suffocated by a beautiful aroma that should make even your neighbour drool. Please make sure you serve it very hot and pair it up with a cold drink of your choice. I normally when in Nigeria couple it with my favourite Lager - Gulder. I suggest you stay away from Stouts unless its all you drink as the Utazi leaves are naturally already bitter and may drown out other flavours.
It is a combination that has severed me well for more than 50 years, never one time going wrong.