Nigerian ‘swallow’ is NOT unhealthy 

Let me start by saying nothing saddens me more than hearing people say the Nigerian diet is unhealthy. When people say this one of the major things you hear them talk about is how our diet is so high in Carbs. People who want to lose weight are advised to shun our Nigerian ‘swallow’ or make so-called  ‘healthy’ alternatives using foreign ingredients which are not readily available and also more expensive.

I do not blame the people who give such advice to be honest because it’s easier to find research on the health benefits of cabbage or oats than it is to find health benefits of ‘fufu’. But fear not that is why we are here, to ensure that our motherland food is not sacrificed on the altar of globalisation. 😊 So today we will be looking at what is probably the most vilified aspects of the Nigerian diet – swallows.

For those of you who might not know what ‘swallows’are  its a general term used to describe foods made with starchy carbohydrates and prepared with water until they have a dough like consistency. These are then eaten with a variety of stews. Popular ones include Eba (made from cassava) Amala  (made from yams) Tuwo (made from maize or rice). The picture from Nigerian Lazy Chef  sums it up beautifully, I mean how can anyone look at this and say its noy healthy. Nigerian diet is infact one of the healthiest in the world! 🙂

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Photo Credit – Nigerian Lazy Chef

It’s not surprising that swallows are being blamed for weight gain because after all they are made from carbs and carbs are bad for you, yeah? Well, the answer depends on what you mean by carbohydrates.  As silly as that statement might seem,  I have released that in practice not everyone knows what constitutes carbohydrates in the diet. Therefore in a previous post I talked about the different types of carbohydrates and the impact of each on health and weight.

Carbohydrates are the body’s preferred energy source, we thrive on them and for most people, we become irritable without them.  The problem isn’t carbohydrate but the type and quantity of carbohydrate and the same goes for swallows.

Swallows are made from complex carbohydrates what that means is that the body doesn’t break them down as quickly as it would sugar (a simple carbohydrate) for instance. That said majority of swallows are made from what we call starchy carbohydrates which are naturally higher in calories when compared to their non-starchy counterparts.

Starchy carbohydrates come  mainly from root vegetables like cassava, potatoes,yams but also grains like rice and corn. Non-starchy carbohydrates  typically grow above the ground and include things like salads, tomatoes, cucumber, onions, celery etc.Yes vegetables are carbohydrates.

Because starchy carbohydrates are dense sources of energy a little goes a long way. The high carb content of these foods in their original state might be high but a closer look at the preparation methods of these foods reveals once again the wisdom of traditional methods.

What do I mean? Well Let’s look at each of these methods in turn

1) Fermentation – A number of our traditional swallows undergo a process of fermentation. This is a process used in a number of cultures and is scientifically proven to reduce the carbohydrate content of foods. In addition it provides us with probiotics. For more on the importance of fermentation and probiotics please see my previous post.

2) Oiling – In addition to fermentation some swallows like yellow garri eba and ‘starch’ involve the addition of palm oil. This makes sense because the lower degree of fermentation means that carb content is still a bit high. The added fat/oil helps to further slow down the release of glucose into the bloodstream.

3) Hydration – Swallows are cooked in water. A significant amount of what you eat in a typical swallow meal is water. This increases satiety (feeling of fullness) thus limiting consumption. In addition to being cooked in water, they are eaten with soups rich in fibres. Some of these fibres absorb water and help to further increase feeling of fullness, especially the ‘draw’ soups.

4) Balance – Swallows are not eaten on their own. They are eaten with soups cooked with healthy oils and protein both of which further help to reduce their impact on blood sugar and consequent weight gain.

At this point I would like to talk about one of the so-called healthy alternative that has caugt my attention recently. It seems to be popular with those on ketogenic/low carb-high fat diets in Nigeria. Yes you guessed right it’s the likes of cabbage eba , eggplant Amala etc. Obviously my first thought was ‘which one be this one again o’ and though I applaud the creativity, I was quite curious and wondered how they manage to give cabbage a ‘sticky’ consistency. A quick search on the Internet revealed the secret ingredient :Psylum husk.powder.

Psylum husk is a soluble fibre used in the treatment of constipation because of its ability to soak up water and therefore make stool softer and defecation easier. Though soluble fibres like psylum husk might have a number of benefits, the problem with using it as a supplement or in cooking is dosage. Dosage is key when supplementing with fibre as there is an increased chance of overdosing than when fibre is eaten as part of the whole vegetable. Psylum husk has a number of potential side effects ranging from mild to severe. Some common ones include gas,bloating, abdominal cramps and interaction with minerals and medication which limit absorption and efficacy. For more on the potential side effects of Psylum husk and dosage see here

So before you decide to switch to so-called ‘healthy’ alternatives  consider the above and following guidelines:

Summary Guidelines for Eating Swallows as part of a weight loss diet. 

  • Go for fermented options These include Eba (Ijebu garri has the lowest carbohydrate), fufu,lafu, Eko/agidi.Eko is a type of swallow made from fermented corn (it’s basically solidified pap) and though  not as popular as the others is worth considering for those looking to lose weight.  I remember we used to have it with vegetable soup back in secondary school. (All hail Federal government girls college, Sagamu…lol)
  • When eating  grain based swallows like Tuwo shinkafa  use local or brown rice which hasn’t been polished rather than the refined ones. Grains are not usually fermented but the fibre helps to reduce impact on blood sugar levels. A grain based swallows that has received a lot of attention in recent times is made from the humble ‘fonio’ also known as ‘acha’ grain. It is popular in the northern part of nigeria amongst the Plateau and Bauchi tribes (yeh. ..my people..lol). Acha is gluten-free grain which is high in protein and other nutrients.
  • Add more water – Dont make your swallow hard like olumo rock.  Also consider ‘swallows’ which naturally have a higher water content like Amala, lafu and Eko. The high water content of swallows like Amala make them a staple amongst the Yoruba people when weaning/introducing solids to infants.
  • Reduce your portion – A fist size portion is recommended. More soup and less swallow. This is where some of you might be glad you got big hands. lol
  • Eat swallows with ‘draw’ soups like okra, ogbono and ewedu. Every wondered why eat and love ‘draw’ soups? Well, it’s cos they are high in soluble fibres. When soluble dissolve in  water they form a gel like substance which coats the lining of the intestine thus ensuring that glucose (from carbohydrate) enter into the blood stream gradually. This is an important factor for weight management because when glucose enters the bloodstream gradually it is less likely to be stored as fat. A number of researches have been carried out showing the ability of Okro to help reduce blood sugar levels. This has made it an important food to consider  in the management of diabetes. Apparently roasted okra seeds have been historically used in the treatment of diabetes in turkey. Please do not substitute your medication for okro.
  • Consider swallows like unripe plantain fufu. Unripe plantain contains a type of starch known Resistant starch. Resistant starch are not broken down by digestive enzymes and as such have no direct impact on blood sugar levels. They are digested in the large intestine and like fibre help feed the friendly bacteria. These can be made by slicing and drying the unripe plantain. This is then be blended into a powder and prepared the way you would any other swallows. This is the way my grandma use to make it but  you can also make them using fresh unripe plantain. There are loads of recipes online.
  • Finally avoid   I call ‘new age’ swallows like poundo (most contain little if any yam flour) wheat. They contain a significant amount of carbs and other additives without the added benefit of fermentation.

The science behind Edikang Ikong

Funmi's Skin Nourishing Soup

Funmi’s Skin Nourishing Soup

In my previous post A Calabar girl’s beauty secret, I talked about a dish commonly eaten by the Calabar people of Nigeria which combines the benefits of Green leafy Vegetables, Palm Oil and Seafood all in one plate and yes, this is no other than the much coveted Edikang Ikong soup.

While taking this dish apart in order to understand it’s nutritional benefits. I was pleasantly surprised to find that the traditional methods of cooking this revered dish has a strong scientific backing and caution must be taken when modifying the dish.

For instance Vitamin A and E present in green leafy vegetables are fat soluble therefore some fat is needed for them to be absorbed in the digestive tract. Also polyunsaturated fatty acids which can be be found in leafy vegetables will work against vitamin A unless an anti-oxidant is present, which is where Palm oil comes in. Palm oil is a powerful anti-oxidant rich in beta-carotene, not to mention being cholesterol free and containing heart friendly co-enzyme Q-10.

This soup is traditionally cooked with little or no water which again nutritionally speaking makes sense, seeing as vitamins which are water soluble can be lost. Also I’ve often wondered if meat had always being a non-negotiable element of this dish since it is largely riverine area (this is just my theory though).

Also the method of cooking the vegetables traditionally by adding the leaves and taking the pot off the stove immediately can be understood (though I do this slightly differently) as vitamins in leafy vegetables tend to be killed off by excessive heat, especially boiling.

I do love discovering the scientific validity of traditional methods because our great grandmothers might not have been aware of anti-oxidants but they had a 5th sense which guided them. And as someone once said “before removing a fence we need to always pause long enough to ponder why it was erected in the first place”

I haven’t named this Edikang Ikong soup out of respect for the people of cross-river who get very protective and even angered when the authentic recipe gets altered in any shape or form. I do not have access to the traditional ingredients so what I will be sharing here is a dish which combines the basic elements which I believe make this a healthy meal and a true skin nourisher.

You will need 

  • Spinach (Washed and sliced)
  •  Kale/any other green leafy vegetables of your choice (Washed and sliced)
  • 1/2 cup of dried ground crayfish
  • 1 smoked mackerel – Fairly big chunks
  • 450 g beef/Lamb/chicken (Moderate/bite size chunks)
  • 3 tbs of unprocessed palm oil
  • King prawns
  • 1 medium onion
  • 2 Garlic cloves
  • 1 ata rodo/scotch bonnet pepper (optional)
  • 1 stock/bouillon cubes
  • 1 tsp each of a selection of your favourite spices to season the beef (Ginger, curry,thyme,sage,chilli flakes etc.)

Method

1) Place beef/lamb is a pot, season with stock cube and other spices of your choice. Add diced 1/2 onions and garlic.

2) Add some water (200ml) or just enough to cover the meat. Cook the meat slowly in consistent low or medium heat until tender or cooked to your taste.

If you get some fat over your broth once meat is cooked, you might want to skim it off. One of the benefits of boiling is that it can help reduce excess fat.

3) In the mean time blend the scotch bonnet pepper (if using) , dried crayfish, half of a medium onion in a blender. You will need to add a bit of water to make blending easy, use the stock from the meat.

4) Pour the blended mixture over the meat. Stir well and let cook under moderate-low heat for about 5 mins. The mixture at this point should have a broth like consistency to it.

5) Add the palm oil to the simmering mixture and stir in.

6) Add the smoked mackerel and king prawns at this stage and let simmer under low heat for another 3 mins.

7) Measure out a 1-2 cup of leafy vegetable per person into a plate and pour broth over it. Stir and there you have it!

Serve with eba/garri, pounded yam, Semovita, rice etc. You can also enjoy it on its own, its a tasty way of eating those healthy greens!

Skin nourishing soup with rice

Funmi’s Skin Nourishing Soup Served with Rice

Notes

The ‘traditional’ recipe calls for meat to be cooked with little or no stock left. I do this differently. Reason being when meat is cooked vital minerals and nutrients are drawn into the surrounding broth. The broth is a vital source of nutrients don’t let it evaporate. 🙂

Also the leafy vegetables would normally be added to the broth on the stove. I do it slightly differently for a two reasons:

1) I believe it’s important for greens to be eaten as fresh as possible. Some of it’s nutrients can be destroyed by heat, especially boiling.

2) I also like to know exactly how much leafy vegetable I’m eating. The danger of a tasty beef,fish and prawn laden broth is that you might tend to load up on more of these than actual greens. Getting portions right is important 🙂

Hope you enjoy this and do let me know how you get on 🙂

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