Eating My Way Through The Coal City

August 28, 2018
It’s impossible to drive through Enugu and not think of food.
The entire city just says “come and eat” and with two free days to spend in Enugu, I planned to do just that.
When exploring a new city in Nigeria, guides are great but no one knows the city like a Keke rider, a curator at the museum or the bellhop at your hotel. If you plan on eating your way through a city, ask them. It’s how I got the best and most diverse food in two days, ever.
I wasn’t going to be doing all of it alone. My friend, Omesham came in from Abuja to join me on this.

Abacha at Fire For Fire

My first plug was a Keke driver, who I picked up from the front of my hotel on Independence Layout. His name is Arinze, but everyone calls him Terry G. Keke riding is how he makes a living, but dancing is how he wants to make a life.
“Where can I get the best local food?”
“Timber!” he said, excited. “They have the best Abacha in the East.”
He sounded so sure, you’d know for sure it was his fave.
My next stop was the National Museum. By the time the guide took me around and I asked her the same question, “where can I get the best local food,” she knew we were new in town.
She dragged everyone around that she could into the conversations, and the suggestions didn’t stop coming. What to eat, where to go.
The most recurring place? An Abacha place called Fire For Fire. One museum worker even offered to take us there in his car.
All of Fire For Fire is one large canopy and two umbrellas, somewhere off Abakaliki road in Enugu G.R.A. It’s a blend of mismatched chairs and tables, with the magic being made at the center of it all.
Several people were crammed beneath the canopies and spilling out of them. Another constant stream of people continued to come and go. Business is obviously going great for them.
I’d had Abacha before, but now I know that you haven’t really had Abacha until you’ve had Enugu Abacha. Being born, raised, and currently living in Lagos, all I’ve really had is Lagos Abacha.
The textures and tastes were different. The Ugba in the Abacha is fresher than any I had ever had, and I’ve had a lot.
By the time I cleaned up my plate, I knew I’d never again be able to have Abacha in Lagos without longing for ‘Fire for Fire’.

Ofe Onugbu and Akpu at Mama Onyinye

If you ask ten Enugu people to recommend a food joint, eight will recommend Mama Onyinye and ten of them will ask you to try out Agbugbu. Agbugbu is a porridge made out of a kind of beans and yam, something Enugu is proud of. I headed to Mama Onyinye wanting to have Agbugbu, but by the time I got there, sold out. Why do bad things happen to good people?
I settled for Akpu and Ofe Onugbu, mostly because I’d never had it before. I’d always been put off by the strong smell of fermented cassava, so I tried to go with the safer option; Eba.
“If you want to enjoy Onugbu, you have to use Akpu,” Mama Onyinye insisted.
Discovering the gloriousness of this Akpu is probably the highlight of my trip. The light, fluffy, and sweet aftertaste will make you keep going until you are done, even if the mound is almost the size of your head. Akpu and Onugbu is like bread and butter, like Jollof Rice and dodo.

Ofe Aku and White Rice at Ntachi Osa

Mama Onyinye might be great, but a carousel operator at the mall wasn’t so impressed.
“Nobody dey cook pass Ntachi Osa,” KC argued. “Go there, buy correct Agbugbu and step down with one Coke”.
And so I did, first thing the next morning, but unfortunately, the Agbugbu that KC swore will change my life, wasn’t ready. Strike two.  
I settled for Ofe Aku and white rice.
Ofe Aku is just like Banga soup, but there was a difference in taste that I couldn’t place.
“Curry”, Omesham said. That was it.
I could definitely taste a bit of curry and a healthy dose of pepper. I’m Urhobo and very loyal to Banga soup and although Ofe Aku was admittedly tasty I couldn’t get past the extra ingredients which felt off for me. Ofe Aku and White Rice is an interesting twist, but now I know I’m definitely going to try banging Banga with White Rice.

Ukwa at Open Sheraton

Before heading to Enugu I had a friend put out an open call on Twitter for people to point me in the direction of the best local food in Enugu. One response I really liked was from Lekan, who pointed me to Open Sheraton. I had Ukwa with a side of dodo and fried yam. I tried my best but I couldn’t get past two forks in.  Although it looked like beans and kind of smelled like beans, turns out Ukwa is actually made out of breadfruit. Only reason I didn’t already know this was because I promised not to Google anything I ate, just so I’d be surprised.
It’s safe to say I was. I’d never had breadfruit before and I’m not sure what in the name led me to believe it was a sweet and supple fruit, maybe like a peach.

Akidi at Open Sheraton

We were already at Open Sheraton and I couldn’t for the life of me manage to stomach the Ukwa. Ukwa is not bad, it’s just not for me.
So I decided to try something else off my list.
Akidi was up, and it turned out to be beans, albeit black beans. The irony. I couldn’t place all the ingredients so I asked one of the food sellers. Turns out they add spinach and Ugba. By the time I finished, I knew I wanted to have it again.

Ofe Nsala and Akpu at Odi Okwu

Odi Okwu was my last food stop. Even though I was spoilt for choice, I ended up going with it. I took Odi Okwu which literally translates to “it’s fire!” as a good sign. I’d asked for Agbugbu, and it was unavailable, again. I had to ask.
“It’s hard to make, and many places don’t bother making it,” the manager said. “The places that make it do so early in the morning and it’s usually finished by noon.”  
I’d heard my Igbo friends rave about Ofe Nsala so I was excited to try it. I paired it with my new love – Akpu.  
If the smell is why you haven’t had Akpu, you need to get past it and get familiar with the greatness that it is.
Ofe Nsala had me asking myself why it had taken me so long to explore Igbo food. I could have been having Ofe Nsala all my life, instead I’ve been drawing Ogbono. And Ogbono is great, but it’s just not Ofe Nsala.

Ofe Oha and Akpu at Odi Okwu

Omesham had been on the lookout for Oha the whole trip. I had also never had Oha so I dug into her food too. The cook was a little heavy handed with the salt and my taste buds closed shop at the very first taste of the soup.  
Because I’m Urhobo I had subconsciously keyed into the Nigerian stereotype that culturally I was very similar to an Igbo person in terms of dressing, which is true, but false as regards local food.
My palette wasn’t prepared for the cultural shock and it’s going to take some adjusting for it to go back to eating rice and stew in Lagos every day, right after a diverse food explosion over in such a short time. Why do all good things come to an end?
When I go to sleep at night, there’ll be a bittersweet feeling at the back of my throat, because as much as I ate through the old city, canopy restaurants, and gracious Abacha, I didn’t try Agbugbu.
Now, I’ll have to find someone who’s Enugu enough to make me some Agbugbu.

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