In the cuisine hierarchy of Abia State people, particularly in the state capital Umuahia, ofe okazi steams on top. Botanically known as the gnetum africanum and in English as wild spinach, okazi grows naturally as a forest vine in the tropics, from West and Central Africa to Asia and South America. In Cameroon, it is known as eru, oko, and m’fumbua/fumbua. In Angola, Gabon, Central African Republic, and Congo Republic, it is called koko. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, it is m’fumbua/fumbua. In Nigeria, the Efik and the Ibibio call it afang and add water leaves to it to prepare their famous afang soup.
The okazi could be fresh or dry at the start of cooking, and only a handful is needed, depending on the quantity of soup intended. Required additions include akupruakpu mgbam (egwusi balls), uziza or ugu leaves, and isam (shelled periwinkles). Many chefs include azu nwankata and sungu, dried fishes with pungent aroma that are ground with crayfish. Ugu and achara leaves could also be added. Ofe okazi is topped off with assorted meat, okporoko (stockfish), pomo, and mangala and smoked fishes. It is served with garri, fufu, or yam, rice, or pasta.
Ofe okazi is similar to another notable Igbo soup, ofe Owerri; but while ofe Owerri is thickened with ede (cocoyam), ofe okazi is thickened with either achi, ukpo, or ofo—achi is the best thickener but ofo has the better taste and texture. Okazi is also used in other soups: edika-ikong, egwusi, and oha, notably. It can further be used to make okazi agwolo agwo, a local vegetable salad prepared similarly to abacha.
Okazi has many medicinal uses, owed to its antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and anticarcinogenic properties. The leaves, hard and glossy, could be eaten raw to reduce childbirth and menstrual pain, or used to treat sore throat, boil, warts, nausea, and even measles in children, or be used as an antidote to poison. The seed, which looks like the drupe fruit, could be used to treat enlarged spleen, chewed raw to control excessive urination, or used as fungicide to dress wounds. The vine contains iodine, the bark could be using in producing fishing nets and rope, and the pedicles could be crushed and mixed with soap to wash human hair and stimulate growth. In addition to all these, its tuber and seeds could also be prepared as food. Okazi has been said to increase blood flow and libido, lower blood pressure and blood sugar, and boost blood production.
Okazi, also known among the Igbo as ukazi, is different from the similarly named uziza and utazi/otazi leaves. The spicy uziza (false cubeb leaves) is used in pepper soup and ofe okazi itself while the bitter utazi/otazi (gongronema latifolium) is used in making abacha and ugba and utazi soup.
Otosirieze Obi-Young is Editor of Folio Nigeria, where he profiles innovators and facilitators in culture: art, business, entertainment, activism, health, food. He is a writer, journalist, curator, media consultant, former academic, and Founder & Editor-in-Chief of Open Country Mag, a new online platform covering African literature. In 2019, he received the inaugural The Future Awards Africa Prize for Literature. In 2020, he was named among "The 100 Most Influential Young Nigerians" by Avance Media. Find him on otosirieze.com or on Twitter & Insta: @otosirieze.