Ebelechukwu Ezeagha was a child when she realized that her mother, Josephine “Akanweze” Mgborie Anigbogu, was famous in their town, Ichida in Anambra State, and even beyond, and that her fame rested on her cuisine mastery and catering. Ebelechukwu remembers waking up with her siblings at 3 a.m. to help with the cooking before preparing for school. One sister would pound fufu while Ebelechukwu washed onugbu. Called “bitter leaf” in English, onugbu is rich in the tropics in Africa, and the soup made with it, ofe onugbu, is the central dish of Anambra people.
Ebelechukwu is Akanweze’s second daughter. In Lagos, where she has lived since the 1990s, her restaurant, Nwanyi Ichida Restaurant in Leko Plaza, Ojo Alaba, is a busy place. So busy—with catering demands for weddings, parties, ceremonies—that her lastborn son, who is 26, sometimes leaves his business to help his mother, as she helped her own mother, Akanweze.
“We were trained with foodselling,” Ebelechukwu tells me in Igbo. “Any recipe Akanweze used, she taught us.”
Akanweze is in her eighties—no one is sure of her age—but her name, in the community, is shorthand for excellent cooking. She started catering in 1960, but it was in the 1980s, when she was unanimously declared winner of a local chef contest in Anaocha, that her cooking became regarded as a natural gift. “It is the work of God,” she tells me on the phone, her Igbo slow and ancient. That work, that skill, is something she has passed on to everyone around her: her siblings, her eight children, her former apprentices, and now her grandchildren. For these three generations, catering is a communal service, an endowment, a blessing to be shared.
Ofe onugbu, Akanweze says, “is what Ichida people are known for, ofe onugbu and ofe ede.” Between the natural acridness of onugbu leaves and the final serve is a journey of timing, nurturing, and garnishing, and she walks me through it. After the washing of the onugbu, cocoyam paste, palm oil, and a sensational seasoning, ogiri, come in. The soup is topped off with fish, preferably mangala and isi okporoko, or beef, chicken, or turkey. “When I cook, happiness fills my heart,” she says.
Her husband’s work was complementary. “Our father was selling nkwu enu, ngwo, and beer,” Ebelechukwu tells me. “Their shops were side by side. People would eat at our mother’s restaurant and order drinks from our father’s bar.”
Akanweze took on apprentices in order to assist other women to earn a livelihood. “People would come and tell her, ‘Please teach me, I need to train my children, can I join you in cooking?’ And Akanweze took them on,” Ebelechukwu says. “People from Ichida, from Awka-Etiti. By the time they become good enough, they then start their own business.” Every caterer in Ichida, she says, learned from her mother.
Chika Okoh, Akanweze’s fourth daughter, remembers those early days. “That time, we were going to the bush to get onugbu but eventually we had partners who started supplying us. After washing the onugbu and pounding the akpu, we went to school, and when we came back, we helped in serving customers at the restaurant.” There was a local saying for whenever her mother’s food was done: “Nri Akanweze eyee.” Chika owns a rental service in Ichida and, when needed, helps out with the cooking.
“When there are big events, like when Igwe Ichida took the Ide title, or his coronation or the Eze Ani Omenife’s event, everybody available helps out,” Chika says. “Last week, an ozo title holder asked her to cook for him.”
The busiest period for Akanweze is Christmas, when she receives up to seven contracts on one day to cook not just ofe onugbu but also ofe egusi, ofe ogbono, ofe nsala, and ofe oha, as well as jollof and white rice, nri oka and semo, snail, ona, and abacha. As her children and grandchildren return home, she would assign them to specific events, and she herself would shuttle between all locations on the motorcycle she won in that ‘80s contest.
As the decades passed, Akanweze’s exertion became of concern to her children. “We have been telling her to rest but she would not,” Chika says. “The doctor said we shouldn’t force her because it might be tough on her.”
But Akanweze’s restaurant is now run by her first daughter, Philomena Azuka, a mother of seven. “She was carrying me on her back when she was going to Eke Awka-Etiti market,” Philomena tells me in Igbo. “It is her destiny to cook.” Philomena says that ofe onugbu is a cultural marker. “In Anambra, onugbu is what we are known for,” she says. “It is bitter but we wash our hands well and we wash it well and cook it.”
Ofe onugbu, Ebelechukwu says, has healing abilities because all the ingredients are natural. For centuries, the leaves have served biological and medicinal purposes, including being squeezed and its water drunk for fever, and is extensively studied in the pharmaceutical sciences. Onugbu has also acquired philosophical significance: its transfiguration from bitterness to tastiness represents a journey of life: that things get difficult before they get better, that even bitter phenomena have fruits of sweetness. “That transformation is God’s blessings,” Ebelechukwu says.
Ebelechukwu appreciates how ofe onugbu has taken on symbolic meaning for the Igbo. “At every event, there must be ofe onugbu,” she says. “Ofe onugbu plays an important role that says, ‘This is what we are known for, this is what we do well.’ It also means something when it’s served. The Umu Ada, for example, usually eat ofe onugbu before other foods. If there is no ofe onugbu, then the event has not started.”
Otosirieze Obi-Young is a writer, editor, journalist, and curator. He is Editor of Folio Nigeria, where he profiles innovators and facilitators in culture: business, art, photography, music, activism, health, food. He has vast experience working in literature. He has sat on the judging panels of The Gerald Kraak Prize and of The Morland Writing Scholarship. He is an editor at 14, Nigeria's first queer art collective, and Curator at The Art Naija Series, a sequence of e-anthologies exploring different aspects of Nigerianness. For three years, Nov. 2016 to Apr. 2020, he led the transformation of the literary blog Brittle Paper into a continental powerhouse, ideating and administering The Brittle Paper Awards, the first by an African publication. His work in queer advocacy has been profiled in Literary Hub. In 2019, he won The Future Awards Africa Prize for Literature. In 2020, he was named among "The 100 Most Influential Young Nigerians." He completed a collection of short stories in 2016 and his novel in 2020. Find him on otosirieze.com or on Twitter & Insta: @otosirieze.