When you think of cuisine from other cultures, what comes to mind? You may have tried Mexican, Chinese, Indian or Greek, but it's not often in the United States that people have the chance to try African dishes, such as vegetable soup made with ugu leaves, a traditional dish served in Nigeria.
Making Vegetable Soup
Vegetable soup transcends culture — just about every cuisine has some form of it. There's black bean soup from Mexico, minestrone from Italy and gazpacho from Spain. Most of these recipes involve vegetables and spices from that region simmered in broth; protein sources from meat or poultry are sometimes added as an option.
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So what makes Nigerian vegetable soup unique? The Igbere Development Association, which promotes the advancement of the Igbere people, explains that traditional Nigerian vegetable soup is made with assorted meat, seafood and vegetables, but its signature element is ugu leaves, the Igbere name for fluted pumpkin leaves, which are also called ikong ubong by the Efik and Ibibio tribes.
Although ugu leaves might sound unusual to Americans, as African chef Malcolm Riley explains, pumpkin leaves and squash leaves are a regular part of the diet in African and Asian countries. He describes their taste as similar to a combination of green beans, asparagus, broccoli and spinach, and according to the USDA, they are a good source of protein, calcium, folate, iron, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium and vitamins A and C.
This means ugu leaves are a great option for vegetarians, who need plant-based sources of protein, calcium and iron. According to the Cleveland Clinic, vitamin C can boost the body's absorption of iron. Good thing ugu leaves are a source of both nutrients!
Tips for Edikaikong Soup
If you're interested in trying your hand at making Edikaikong soup — a popular Nigerian vegetable soup with ugu leaves, according to African Foods — you have a little bit of flexibility. Some ingredients may not even be available in the United States, so adjustments might be necessary. Among those unavailable ingredients are fresh ugu leaves; however, you might be able to find dried variations in African food shops, or if those are unavailable, substitute collard greens.
Simmer a half-liter of water on the stovetop to cook your choice of meat and fish with onions and spices. African Foods recommends using catfish, tilapia or stockfish and some combination of goat, beef or chicken. The Igbere Development Association also includes cow feet and dried cow skin among the traditional meats included in the vegetable soup.
After the meat and fish have cooked for about 20 minutes, you will add some palm oil, periwinkles, crayfish and snails. Once the stock boils down, add spinach leaves, cover the pot and allow it to steam before finally adding the ugu leaves.
Other Ideas for Soup Recipes
Even if you aren't adventurous enough to cook a traditional Nigerian vegetable soup, you can still try experimenting with ugu leaves in your kitchen at home, even going so far as to add them to soup recipes you feel more comfortable with.
As Malcolm Riley explains, ugu leaves can be prepared the same as spinach: either steamed, sautéed in olive oil with garlic or tossed into a stir-fry. These cooking methods will bring out the flavors of the ugu leaves that you would not get if you were to eat them raw.
Mainstream American soup recipes will sometimes incorporate spinach, as seen in this hearty chicken, vegetable and white bean soup. If you like the flavor of ugu leaves, try using them in place of the spinach. You can also try adding them to other soup recipes that don't call for greens, such as this simple veggie soup, to give it an extra bit of dimension.
- Igbere Development Association: “Igbere Vegetable Soup Cooked With ‘Ugu’ (Fluted Pumpkin Leaf)”
- The African Chef: “Pumpkin Leaves”
- African Foods: “Edikaikong Soup Crème de la Crème African Vegetable Soup”
- USDA FoodData Central: "Pumpkin Leaves, Raw"
- Cleveland Clinic: "Iron-Rich Foods and Anemia: Management and Treatment"