Nigerian spices reflect the country’s rich and extensive culinary history as well as its vast natural resources when it comes to herbs and seeds. As with most of Africa, Nigeria’s food culture bears the marks of colonialism and trade with other parts of Africa. These are also reflected in the varied palette of flavors that show up in recipes from the West African Nation. Here is a look at some of the most essential Nigerian spices.
What Nigerians call the uziza plant is the same as the false cubeb plant and has the botanical name Piper guineense. It is a member of the same Piper family to which black pepper (Piper nigrum) belongs.
The leaves provide a similar flavor as the seeds. The leaves are spicy with a mild bitterness but are often chopped or shredded and added to soups like the catfish-based nsala soup and various braised dishes. The leaves are usually tossed in towards the end of the cooking time to keep them from losing their flavor.
Uziza seeds taste a lot like black pepper and are sometimes used as black peppercorn substitutes. Like black peppercorns, you can use uziza seeds whole or grind them. Like the uziza leaves, uziza seeds are slightly bitter, so it’s important to use them in moderation. They are popular for use in the assorted meat dish known as oha soup, which is also called ora soup.
Like many former British colonies, Nigeria has retained some of Britain’s culinary preferences. Curry powder is a British spice blend that consists of Indian spices. The Nigerian version is extremely mild with no heat but does bring the sweetness, warmth, and bitterness that comes from spices like cumin and coriander. Nigerian cooks use it in chicken and beef stews as well as in Nigerian fried rice.
Ehu is also known as the calabash nutmeg or ehuru. The ehu seed comes from a large spherical fruit related to the custard apple that is native to West Africa. Outside of Nigeria, you can find it being grown and used in other parts of the continent, including Liberia and Angola. Ehu seed is used as a nutmeg substitute and has a similar earthy, nutty flavor but is not as fragrant or as sweet. In Nigeria, ehu seed is used in pepper soup and the fish soup called banga soup.
Made from castor seeds and fermented seeds (such as those from the African mesquite), ogiri okpei originated in West Africa and is used in dishes from different parts of Nigeria. It is used in the crayfish and palm kernel dish known as ofe akwu stew as well as in ofe nsala, a fish soup. It brings a pungent umami note to foods. Both the smell and the seasoning properties are similar to those from miso and fermented black beans.
Similar to ogiri okpei, iru is another kind of fermented Nigerian seasoning that is supposed to increase the umami note in a dish’s flavor profile. Used in savory preparations like ogbono soup (which is made with ogbono seeds and a variety of meats and shellfish), iru is made with fermented locust seeds. As with most fermented beans and seeds, iru has a strong smell that some might find unpleasant. Iru’s scent is more intensely pungent than most similar seasonings and can be likened to the smell of particularly strong cheeses.