The Legend of Ofada Stew - and a Recipe

Everyone's talkin' tuna

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Lunch Counters With Max Falkowitz

Three or so years ago my friend, the writer Max Falkowitz, took me to Eisenberg’s for a taste of old-fashioned New York lunch counter food and attitude. We almost got the famous tuna melt (the very one pictured above), but ordered a whitefish melt instead and watched the counterman go quietly wild with rage. The sandwich was life-changing.

So naturally Max was the one to talk to about, well, all of the above. We discussed the non-accidental creation of the tuna melt, the difference between lunch counters and delis, and why lunch counters were the perfect places for civil rights protests. You can listen here.

As it happens, tuna and canned fishes are in the news this week. How zeitgeist-y!

  • The tuna sandwiches at Subway may or may not have any tuna, much less seafood, in them. No one’s saying, but they are suing.

  • Canned salmon is all the rage. Or a little bit of the rage. As Max noted in the podcast, that’s great for smaller fisheries.

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The Legend of Ofada Stew

By Linda Egbuna

It’s time for everyone outside of West Africa to know more about Nigerian foods. From jollof rice and pounded yams, to pepper soup and all the other abundant and diverse local soups, there are classic Nigerian dishes for every home, regardless of where one lives. Each of the three major ethnic groups in Nigeria have their own traditional cuisines, but the Yoruba near-obsession with food is simply legendary.

The Yoruba saying “Oun t'a óję l' àgbà oun ta o se,” which directly translates to “what we eat is, on the hierarchical scale, superior to what we do” is a testament to this. Visit any Yoruba-dominated region in Nigeria and you are bound to see bankers and mechanics alike sitting in crowded bukas and sweating it out over hot plates of amala, ewedu, or other homegrown favorites. And visitors won't find a traditional restaurant here that doesn’t offer at least one ofada stew-related dish.

Ofada stew is a simple, spicy one-pot dish usually comprising some mixture of tomatoes, poached eggs, onions, seafood, meat, Scotch bonnets and bell peppers, flavored with smoked dried shrimp and fermented locust beans (iru). This dish originated with the Yoruba tribe in the southwestern regions of the country and is a delicacy often shared in their communal gatherings, festivities, and owambe. Over the years, ofada stew’s allure gradually brought it to other ethnic groups, and now it reigns supreme over the entire country’s palate.

This dish is also referred to as Ayamase (meaning “wife of Mase”) stew. According to Yoruba folklore, Ayamase was the young woman who invented the recipe. As the story goes, she was trapped in an unhappy marriage and came up with the ofada dish for her lover. She found a sort of freedom in making this dish, pairing it with locally grown rice and serving it on freshly picked banana leaves. Over time that rice became so associated with ofada stew that now it is referred to as ofada rice in every corner of Nigeria.

To make this dish, you need: 

5 large bell peppers

3 Scotch bonnet peppers

4 large red onions 

goat meat or an alternative (braised with 1 red onion, 1 scotch bonnet pepper, 1 tsp. salt and 1 tsp. bouillon)

80 grams smoked dried fish

20 grams smoked dried shrimp 

½ cup palm oil 

2 tsps. bouillon

salt to taste 

1 tbsp. iru (fermented locust beans)

Cut the peppers and two of the red onions into small chunks and blend roughly. 

Boil the blended peppers on medium high heat till it reduces to a paste. 

While the peppers are reducing, slice the remaining two red onions and in a separate pot, sauté them in palm oil on medium heat till the onions turn slightly brown. Add in the smoked dried fish and the shrimp and continue to cook for another 10 minutes.

Add in the reduced pepper paste and cook for about 10 minutes

Add in the braised goat meat (or your vegan alternative) with the braising liquid and continue cooking for 15 minutes. 

Next, add in the iru and bouillon, stir, and continue cooking until the stew separates from the oil (this could take about 7 minutes). And just like that, your ofada stew is ready to be served with boiled ofada rice, any organic rice, air fried plantains, roasted potatoes or pretty much anything else in between.

For a completely vegetarian option, feel free to omit the crayfish in the recipe. You can also toss in some chopped carrots, sweet corn, and mushrooms for a more vegetarian feel. If you are a meat lover, your options include grilled or roast chicken, fish, or some poached eggs. This dish is served on fresh banana leaves in Nigerian restaurants and homes.

In my part of the world, ofada stew is not complete without emu, or oguro, a delicious local brew tapped from palm trees within the community. For a more wholesome experience, and I suspect it will always be.

One last thing: don't pick up a knife and fork to devour your ofada stew. While spoons are more popular now, the traditional way to eat this dish is to scoop up the sauce with your hand and dip or roll it in the accompanying rice (and relishes) before sending its amazing flavors straight to your taste buds. 🇳🇬

More Food Reading:

  • I bought fonio from a company called Yolélé in the hopes of, you know, saving the world, and after reading this interview I’m feeling VERY smug about it.

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This newsletter is edited by Katherine Spiers, host of the podcast Smart Mouth.

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