Okporoko, The Norwegian Fish And The Spiritual Connection With The Igbos.Stockfish is dried by cold air and wind on wooden racks mostly on the foreshore in Norway

From the miracle of the coin found in the fish's mouth enabling the temple tax to be paid to feeding the multitude, there has been a long-established spiritual connection between man and fish in Christianity.

The symbol of the fish plays an important part in Judaic traditions as well.  Many parables in the Torah affiliate fish with the Jewish people. Al-Khidr is often depicted riding a fish over the “River of Life.”

In Arabic, the letter ‘N,’ pronounced ‘nun’ is the word for fish.  According to the Quran, the fish is a symbol of eternal life and also of knowledge.

In Hinduism Vishnu, the Supreme God of the Vaishnavism, had ten different avatars, or incarnations, on Earth.  His first avatar, Matsya, is often depicted as a fish or half man-half fish.

However, there is also one other spiritual connection and that is that of the Igbo and the Stockfish.

Stockfish is dried by cold air and wind on wooden racks mostly on the foreshore in Norway. The drying of food is the world's oldest known preservation method, and dried fish has a storage life of several years. The method is cheap and effective in suitable climates; the work can be done by the fisherman and family, and the resulting product is easily transported to market.

Stockfish is cured in a process called fermentation where cold-adapted bacteria matures the fish, similar to the maturing process of cheese.   

The word stockfish is a loan word from West Frisian stokfisk (stick fish), possibly referring to the wooden racks on which stockfish are traditionally dried or because the dried fish resembles a stick.

After its three months hanging on the racks,  the fish is then matured for another two to three months indoors in a dry and airy environment. During the drying, about 80% of the water in the fish evaporates. The stockfish retains all the nutrients from the fresh fish, only concentrated: it is therefore rich in proteins, vitamins, iron, and calcium.

Stockfish is Norway's longest sustained export commodity and was first mentioned in the 13th-century Icelandic prose work Egil's Saga, where chieftain Thorolf Kveldulfsson, in the year 875 AD, ships stockfish from Helgeland in mid-Norway to Britain.

This product accounted for most of Norway's trade income from the Viking age throughout the Medieval period.

But Scandinavia aside, stockfish is also very popular in West Africa, where it is used in the many soups that complement the grain staples fufu and garri. Nowhere is it more loved on the continent than among the Igbo where it is fondly called okproko and remains entwined in both culture and cuisine. The name refers to the sound the hard fish makes in the pot and literally translates as "that which produces sound in the pot".

It is also the main ingredient in the Igbo snack called "Ugba na Okporoko" (above)  which is a spicy dish made from oil bean slivers tossed in a fiery base.

Indeed, in Abia State, stockfish is so popular that most importers of "okporoko" are based in the town of Aba, its commercial capital. The attempt to tax the fish was so vexing to the Igbo that it was one of the reasons which led to the Aba Women's riot of 1929, one of the more vocal protests to come out of then Eastern Nigeria against the Crown.

The importance of stockfish to the tribe was further underlined during the Biafra war when it was imported en mass by both CARITAS and the Red Cross as a cheap and effective means of providing the much-needed protein for the starving masses. The smell of its fragrant perfume from the kitchen almost always was a sign that one would survive another day, and a determination between life and death.

Among the Umuahia people, at festive periods, the best staple is the Ukazi (below) or Achara soups which must necessarily be very well fortified with okporoko. Same is the case in Imo State and with Ofe Owerri (Soup of Owerri)

One of the ways which visitors can figure out how important they are in Aro Land,  is if they are served Stock Fish chunks along with their Kola nuts. From the aforementioned Ugba and Abacha (cassava sliver salad) to assorted porridges and sauces throughout Igbo land, okoproko is eaten as an accompanying staple or food enhancer.

Meanwhile, the Kwe people, who are a fishing people of the English-speaking part of Cameroon, use stockfish in flavoring their palm nut or banga soups and stews, which can be eaten with a cocoyam pudding called kwacoco.               

In 2018 the Norwegian Seafood Council  disclosed that Nigeria imported more than 11,000 metric tonnes of stockfish. This is ranked third in the world behind Italy and Croatia.

Love it or hate it, there is no doubt that stockfish has found a cherished place not just in Scandinavia, but in Africa as well especially so among the Igbo.       

By Iwedi Ojinmah

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