In the Yoruba language, we call the African locust beans iru, but it has many names in different parts of Africa – dawa dawa, eware, ogiri, sumbala, The biological name is Parkia biglobosa. When boiled down and then fermented it produces a savoury flavour that is used as a natural seasoning for soups and stews, and has incredible health benefits.
In Nigeria, once the wealthy understood its benefits they got their cooks and Chefs to add it to native dishes proclaiming that it tasted like the mouth-watering food their grandmothers used to make. If you want to know the truth, I learnt how to cook with iru from my grandmother and great grandmother – may their souls rest in perfect peace.
Iru is a natural umami. I came across umami in my chef fan journey as I love to watch chefs cooking on streaming platforms. I am their groupie! But seriously, it was when I got interested in Japanese cooking. Umami roughly translates in Japanese as “pleasant savory taste” and is the fifth taste of sweet, sour, bitter, and salty. The Japanese see it as a wholesome taste that completes a dish. I am no culinary expert but just fascinated by food, its taste and smell.
I started my Japanese cooking with Ramen and wanted the broth to have Umami. The only way to gain a quick umami taste is through monosodium glutamate(msg). Japanese Chemist Dr Kikunae Ikeda and businessman Mr Saburosuke Suzuki II created Ajinomoto, a pure msg and the start of artificial umami in 1907. The height of any cooking is that wholesome taste with depth and flavour that cannot be copied except through cheap msg. Ramen is basically noodles in sauce with all sorts of bits thrown in. Sorry if I am upsetting ramen purists😀.
Usually when we make our food we add some stock cube or other kind of flavour enhancing from the supermarket. Perhaps, either chicken, vegetable or beef stock. That stock has been made to create umami, and once added to your cooking, completes its taste.
But villagers all around Africa discovered that if you fermented the locust beans and added it to a traditional sauce, you transform the taste from basic to flavoursome. Think about what drives you to the best restaurants. It is no more than a complex combination of the five basic tastes.
For example, many years ago I had the best vegan vegetable mix from a health food shop in Greenwich, London. I had to to track down the small catering company that made it because I could not believe that they could lift the typical taste of the food just by the quality of the vegetable and the dressing, but they did!
Back to iru or the locust beans. I need to describe the smell before you rush to an African food store to try and procure it. It is a a combination of foot odour and unwashed crevices. I leave that to your imagination! But when I add it to my traditional Nigerian soup, especially with stockfish, it is finger-licking delicious. Do not blame me though, if your house stinks afterwards, it is all part of the joy!
Does it work for another kind of dish? I have not tried it. I intend to add it to my ramen sauce as an experiment.
Here is a list of the health benefits of locust beans. I am not a health professional so this is just a guide. Do go and do your own research.
1. Full of polyphenols and therefore an antioxidant
2. The whole plant itself has health benefits. The bark is used to treat wounds, including leprosy
3. It is used traditionally to treat hypertension
4. The bark is also made into powder for carob
5. It is rich in lipid, protein, carbohydrates and other nutrients
6. The bark is used to relieve toothache
7. Eating the locust beans helps improve vision
8. Locust beans are from the seed of the carob tree