Food Matters: Ila cocoa

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Simisola

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y Yemisi Ogbe

March 17, 2011 01:47AMT


If I didn’t understand Yoruba’s musically intoned words, I would imagine ila cocoa to be the perfect marriage between something sweet and something savoury, or the name of a beautiful country. I’m allowed to imagine. But ila cocoa is a soup made from young cocoa pods. I love the way food becomes animated when introduced to words. Even if you don’t speak Yoruba, there is an expectation of a treat when you hear ila cocoa. The words are resonant and soft and sexy, especially the ‘cocoa’ that knocks twice on the roof of your mouth. Better than mundane recipes are descriptions of how flesh and blood and food interact. What you get are engaging stories; muscular images that connect the mind to the emotions to the gastric juices.

The story of ila cocoa belongs to Festus Adetula who insisted that his wife, Oyebola, must never cook him okra soup in that lazy Yoruba way. The Yoruba cut up or grate okra pods, stir them into boiling water with salt and potash (‘kaun’ is the bell-like Yoruba word for potash), serve the briskly cooked okra with pepper stew and a choice of gari, pounded yam or fufu. This simple treatment of okra is scandalous to people from other parts of Nigeria who dress up the vegetable with as many as 10 other ingredients. Mr Adetula considered it an abomination for a strong brewed Owo man from Ibami Mose’s farm to eat such spiritless food.

As a child approaching his adult years, Mr Adetula’s life moved seamlessly between work and hard work; from school to the farm and back to school. When he and his wife moved into their marital home, one of the first things he did was to plant his own cocoa trees. His wife thought that he grew them for the childhood sweet treat of sucking on cocoa beans, or to beautify the garden, but he grew them for the nutritious mucilaginous ila cocoa soup. He taught his wife how to harvest 20 to 25 very young pods of cocoa. The green, grooved elongated pods of cocoa are like oversize okra pods, and perhaps this is what inspired the Yoruba to cook them down into soup. The cocoa pods are wrapped and tied in glossy green cocoa leaves and steamed until the skin of the cocoa is very soft. They are then mashed in a mortar, not with heavy pounding but with a measured firm back and forth movement of the pestle. This produces a mucilaginous coarse mash of cocoa skin, beans and pulp.

In a pot, the stock for the ila cocoa is put together from ground pepper; chopped onions; boiled stockfish that flakes under the pressure of a fork; periwinkles; iru pete (fermented locust beans processed into a mushy consistency); ogiri (fermented sesame seeds) and the holy grail of Yoruba delicacies, the legendary eja osan. Eja osan is a freshwater knife shaped fish. It is so highly esteemed that King Sunny Ade immortalised it in song. Forty-two pieces of fragrant smoked eja osan are presented by the groom to the bride’s family during traditional Yoruba weddings. Stewed eja osan is a strong aphrodisiac and a recognised ‘husband-bewitching’ device. Mrs Adetula uses the smoked eja osan.

Water is added to the stock ingredients and everything is brought up to boil. The mashed ila cocoa is added to the stock with salt and a little palm oil. Shredded ugwu may be added at the end, just before the soup is taken off the fire.

This soup’s ingredients are so dear that it is really only practical as a meal for one or two persons. It must be served with authentic pounded yam made from yams grown specifically for pounding. The yams must be worked in a mortar and must at the end of pounding give a smooth supple texture; otherwise, Mrs Adetula says her husband would not eat it.

A few years ago, I met a Nigerian pastor who lived in Houston, Texas. He confided in me that there was no question of him coming back to live in Nigeria because he won’t be able to buy his sausages here. I was so astounded, my mouth hung open in anticipation of the punch line. I can’t resist contrasting the shallowness of living in a foreign country because of cheap sausages to the integrity of being opinionated about nutritious home grown food. If Mr Adetula had not turned his nose up at a dull bowl of okra soup, what sort of ila cocoa story would we have to tell?

Mar1711 Food Matters
 
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