It was one of those evenings, and all I could think of was food, not just any type of food but some traditional un-everyday-like food, the type that is best eaten or enjoyed in the company of friends and family in a gay environment, over some bottles of shine-shine bobo (Star beer), or odeku (big stout), best complemented by a football game showing on the small or large screen (depending on which joint you choose), and spiced up with arguments and debates over the different aspects of our national life.
I also wanted to listen in on societal gossips as well as hear the latest conspiracy theories making the rounds. More over, a friend (Chuks) was visiting from Nigeria, and we had been planning to take him out and so what better opportunity to do that than now, I thought.
As a South London resident, we narrowed down our choices to two joints along Old Kent Road – 805 and Presidential Suya. In the end, we decided against 805, although the restaurant has very good ambience and customer service, unlike most Nigerian restaurants in London, and also serve great roast fish with fried plantain (dodo) which they call Monica, we decided against it because we wanted someplace ‘very Nigerian’, where we could bump into friends, and visitors/politicians (real and wannabes) from Nigeria who are usually the ones that bring in the latest gist. And so off to Presidential Suya we went.
Parking is never a problem on Old Kent Road if you know your way around, even in the days of the now defunct Bamboo Inn and Nite club, then operated by Fidelis Abor, you could always make use of the parking facilities at the Tesco supermarket near the restaurant.
On this particular day, we parked at LIDL supermarket behind Presidential Suya, about two minutes walk away. We could already feel the buzz inside from outside the main door, as we stepped in, cigarette smokes swirled around the air as customers shout and scream on top of their voices in the name of having a conversation. This is home I thought.
Luckily, as our party was arriving, another was getting ready to leave, so we hovered around until they settled their bills. The leaving party was made up of two scantily clad women, probably of East African origins and 3 Nigerian men, the men seemed to be in their late 30s or early 40s and looked very married. Anyway wetin concern me? At that point I remembered the words I once saw on a car sticker that says – to wives and sweethearts, may they never meet, and chuckled.
Tips are not very high on the agenda of most customers in these Nigerian restaurants, and I wasn’t disappointed either, that the party leaving didn’t leave any.
We settled down in our seats, I recognised a few faces across the table, and we shouted Nna, Kedu Ije at each other. I never bother going through the menu cards each time I visit any of these restaurants because I already know what I want, the menu are fairly standard ranging from pepper – soup, pounded yam, fried, jollof and white rice, fried plantain and different types of soup such as Egusi, okro and so on, served with assorted meat – a mix of shaki, kpomo, tozo etc.
This particular day, pepper-soup was not high on our agenda; we were not in the Nigerian army officer’s mess, neither were we planning a coup (apologies Alozie Ogugbuaja). We had come to sample isi-ewu (goat head) once again, which is fast turning into a Nigerian national delicacy, but this time I was bent on dissecting fully its anatomy.
Our orders were taken after a ‘small’ wait (depends on which time you keep, African or European), we weren’t bothered by the delay either, it was typical and expected, the surprise would have been if the service had been faster. Funnily, Chuks who was visiting London from Nigeria for the first time didn’t also mind, to him it was all part of the fun and we joked about it.
As we waited for the arrival of our orders, we carried on with our conversations, our beers arrived, and we quickly rushed to douse our thirsts. The wait for isi-ewu continued.
And finally it arrived, two whole mortars of goat head, comprising mainly bones, conversations ceased momentarily as we got ready to settle down to business. Chuks however objected, his reasons being that the isi-ewu parts which normally come in a side plate was missing. To him, this was a serious offence.
“How can we eat isi-ewu without seeing the parts?” he queried. We all completely agreed with him, and attributedthis ‘great sin’ to the London factor. Chuks will have none of it, and demanded to see the restaurant manager. I loved this all the way, the scene reminded me of scenes in restaurants back in Nigeria, either at Mama Nnenna’s buka or at Nwanyi Nnewi’s mama – put joint.
Meanwhile, while these protests and summons were going on, we couldn’t resist the steaming hot contents set before us, and so by the time the manager arrived ‘decades’ later, our fingers had already dug deep holes and burrowed deep into the depths.
Stripped bare, you will be surprised that isi-ewu is nothing but bones, and some surviving thin skin layers from the boiling water used in cooking it, throw in the ‘parts’ (the ears, tongue and eyes) and some native spices, not forgetting the hype and you have your delicacy.
The question and answer session continued. The manager went on about policy, London, staff, and several other reasons, in an effort to justify his restaurant’s inability to serve us the isi-ewu parts in a side plate. Our friend from Nigeria won’t let him off lightly; he then launched another attack, querying the ingredients used in preparing the isi-ewu. He was piqued that the isi-ewu which had since settled inside our bellies had not been prepared with utazi (a native bitter leaf), and couldn’t understand why any restaurant worth its onions will ever think of serving the delicacy without utazi, arguing that it is actually the sweet-bitter flavour of utazi that makes isi-ewu the special delicacy that it has become.
At this point, I couldn’t fathom which was the greater sin, serving isi-ewu without the parts in a side plate, or the non-inclusion of utazi in the preparation?
Chuks promised to issue the manager a complete isi-ewu recipe before we leave. This then swung our conversations to the art or science of isi-ewu making, we explored many dimensions, including the various ingredients that can be used, we also recounted stories of the places where we had each eaten our best ever isi-ewu, here I gave the vote to my dear mum, who in her days held Aba residents ‘hostage’ with her isi-ewu making skills which they all came to taste and savour in her Amaka restaurant.
The discussions also covered which tribe in Nigeria could lay claim to the discovery of isi-ewu as a national recipe; we were both unanimous in that, as we all felt that the credit should go to Ndigbo, not for any bias because we were all Igbo but because the delicacy seemed to be served more in Igbo operated restaurants.
As we were leaving, Chuks called the manager once again and announced his all-time isi-ewu recipe; cooked goat
head cut into pieces, palm oil, onions, utazi leaves, Maggi or other flavourings and native spices such as salt, crayfish, and eruru.
Whether the manager will use this closely guarded recipe is still unclear, but I intend to find out during my next visit, just before we stepped out into the warm summer night, Chuks quickly pointed out to the restaurant manager that the same way the cassock does not make the wearer a priest, so also do the ingredients alone not make isi-ewu the delicacy it is, according to him “the perfect isi-ewu benefits from a combination of cooking skills and passion”.
Uche Nworah is a freelance writer, lecturer and brand scholar. He is the founder and project director of T.O.T.A.L PROJECTS, an NGO that promotes e-learning in Africa. He lives in London and can be contacted on firstname.lastname@example.org.