I grew up in Abuja, and okpa was one meal that I saw all the time. There were always women at street corners with basins and okpa stacked into transparent nylon bags. They looked like light-skinned moi-moi and didn’t seem particularly interesting to me. I didn’t think anyone cared for them but my Igbo friends thought otherwise.
In boarding school, every day, my mates would jump the fence to buy okpa from an uncompleted building close by. You could see the unbridled joy on their faces as they tore open the okpa nylons. But why was it such a big deal? I still haven’t been adventurous enough to try it, but I’ve never stopped wondering what makes it so special.
So today, I asked Oluchi to explain why okpa excites her Igbo blood. She explained her love for okpa, tricks to preparing it and why okpa has remained constant in her life as an adult.
As told to Steffi O.
Okpa was part of my childhood
Okpa is a local dish made from bambara nuts. As someone from Enugu, okpa has always been a part of my life. One way or the other, it was a treat my family found a way to enjoy in Lagos. If anyone was coming from Enugu, they’d make sure to bring it, specifically the ones from Ninth Mile. It’s said to be the best okpa spot in the East.
My mum would whip up a mean batch of the flour for me and my brothers to enjoy. It was a meal we constantly looked forward to having, and then it became much more than a great meal.
Experiencing okpa in Nsukka
When I was nine, I spent my first three years of secondary school at Nsukka. It was my first time away from Lagos and my family, so the culture shock hit me when the Nsukka dialect was so different. I was the girl that understood Igbo but couldn’t speak it and I had to learn quickly. Yet, being amongst my people was interesting even though I’d lived away from home for so long. In between trying to figure out life away from my family, okpa brought some sense of familiarity. I’d literally buy it every day during break time and each bite reminded me that Enugu was my home.
Eventually, I realised that okpa was part of the Igbo tradition. During festivals, a major masquerade that roamed the streets of Nsukka was called Ori Okpa which means “the Okpa eater”.
In Nsukka, I spent holidays with an uncle who was a traditional man. On one of my mid-term breaks from school, he’d asked if I could cook, and at that point, I didn’t know how. On one of my longer breaks, he wrote a letter to my mother about why it was important for me to learn how to cook as a woman. She didn’t want it to seem like I was being spoilt and so the cooking lessons began. At ten, I started learning to cook.
What exactly is okpa?
To anyone who hasn’t had okpa before, it’s a weird meal. I like to think of it as eating light-skinned moi-moi because of the palm oil that’s mixed into the okpa mix.
Okpa is simple to make, but one wrong move can ruin everything. Ground bambara nuts are the main ingredient. Like beans, the bambara nuts are ground without the back being removed and then milled dry.
My mother never adds seasoning cubes or chicken stock to the mix. To us, it’s sacrilege. Bambara nuts have a distinct flavour that needs only salt and pepper. My mother also never grinds or blends her red peppers. Everything is finely cut into the okpa as it’s mixed with palm oil and warm water. And unlike moi-moi, okpa is a watery mix. My mum’s trick to keep the flavour while the okpa steams is shaking the nylon or banana leaf right before dropping it into the pot.
Having a family that dislikes okpa
Okpa is something I loved to enjoy with my family — it still is. But unfortunately for me, I married a Delta man that doesn’t care for okpa. The first time I made it on my own was after our wedding, and I ended up eating the whole thing alone.
Our son doesn’t like okpa too. Funny enough, the only time my body has ever rejected okpa was when I was pregnant with him. I ate okpa and threw everything up. Imagine me not being able to stand okpa for nine whole months. There was no point trying to make him eat it when he was born. He’d already given me an answer right from the womb: he disliked it.
At least I still share my love for okpa with my parents and siblings. My brother and I live 20 minutes away from my mother, and every two weeks, we know there’s a bag of okpa waiting for us at her house. It’s become our own tradition here in Lagos. Okpa will always be a constant part of my life because of family.