THE FERMENTED African carob, known as Iru in Yoruba, has a distinctive cheesy taste that hits you before you see it. “Iru isn’t just a taste on the tongue,” says Ozoz Sokoh, a food blogger. After an elaborate fermentation process, the smell is decisive for its taste. Iru is further enriched when it is thrown into smoky, bleached palm oil.
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Long before Nestlé came to Nigeria with its Maggi stock cubes, iru seasoned soups, stews and rice dishes. After independence, the cube with its monosodium glutamate seasoning became more popular than iru, especially in cities. But Iru is making a worldwide comeback thanks to an included dish called ayamase.
A decade ago, you would have had a hard time finding Ayamase on a party card. Instead, you may have found Ofada, a dish named after a town in southwest Nigeria near the commercial capital of Lagos. It consists of unpolished rice and a spicy seared beef stew with red pepper. But now Ayamase, Ofada’s green-pepper-colored rival, is everywhere you find Nigerians, at home or abroad.
Bilikisu Raji, who lives in Ibadan, another large city in the southwest, was taught how to ferment iru by her mother-in-law. The iru company is run by women because, she jokes in Yoruba, men are not up to it. She buys the yellow-colored seeds from the market and cooks them in a cauldron for 12 hours. She removes the chaff to reveal the black and brown beans, peeled them with the balls of her feet, washes them through a sieve, and cooks them again. Finally, she dry roasts them and covers them with a raffia bowl so that they can ferment overnight. Finally, she rubs the iru in salt and then rolls it up in dry leaves to sell. A small pack weighing 20 grams costs only 50 naira (one American penny). It thrives on the patronage of overseas customers who purchase up to $ 25 at a time to use in Ayamase overseas.
Nowadays, Iru can be found on shelves all over the world. Ms. Sokoh, who lived in the Netherlands and Canada, saw it in stores everywhere. “You can find frozen iru, fresh iru, powdered iru, dried iru on the shelves in a way you couldn’t ten years ago,” she says. She suffers from high blood pressure and dispenses with bouillon cubes in favor of Iru. “There’s definitely a salty feeling without being heavy on sodium,” she says.
For non-West Africans, Iru will likely remain a niche ingredient “like fish sauce,” sighs Tunde Wey, a popular Nigerian chef from New Orleans. He worked with an American company to sell Iru in elegant glasses, hoping to encourage small farmers back home while also getting other chefs abroad to appreciate its versatility. Whether or not western foodies discover this probiotic-rich awesome beer, Iru powers Nigerian party-goers around the world.
This article appeared in the print edition in the Middle East & Africa under the heading “Currants are back”