Akara is one of those foods that I never really liked as a child. Now thinking back on it, I think that is because I never had it fresh straight out of the fryer. Now that I have been paying more attention to food, I thought I would try my hand at making akara again after many failed attempts.
Something I am now starting to notice about most Nigerian cooking is that there is no specified recipe for anything. Most of the food culture is passed down through the generations by direct teaching and there was little emphasis on documenting though writing. It is funny but that is how I work as well. I am more interested in the method and not the recipe because once you capture the essence of the food, you can make infinite variations regardless of the measurements. In this post, I am going to attempt to backtrack and see why my past akara attempts failed and track my steps as I attempt to write down the method for what I think is the perfect akara.
For me, akara should be light and fluffy with a slight crisp on the outside. It should look like a well made doughnut that seems dense but weightless. When you bite into it, there should be a lightly crunchy crust and it should yield to give a chewy yet moist interior.
Akara Beans (Bean cake) – Serves 4
- black eyed pea beans – ground – 3 lbs
- salt and ground pepper – red – as needed
- onion – chopped
- vegetable oil – as needed
- Soak beans in water for 60 minutes
- Finely grind the beans
- Put all these ingredients together – salt, pepper, onion and a little of quantity of water if necessary. Mix thoroughly in a large bowl to a thick consistency.
- Heat oil in a deep skillet. Shape the mixture into small balls, of approximately 2 inches in diameter with a spoon or fingers and carefully drop them in the deep oil skillet. Fry in the deep skillet of oil until cooked.
The first few times I made akara, I was copying what I saw other people make. Through each attempt and many lashings I finally got something that resembled Akara. The first time it was loose, greasy and didn’t form a decent shape even though it tasted good. The second time, it was too thick and although it has the crispy edges and flavor, it was raw on the inside. I ended up finishing it in the oven. Here are some pictures from the second attempt.
Before the third attempt, I checked out a recipe on epicurous for falafel. The reason was I wanted to figure out how they got the crunch and the lightness that a good falafel has. The difference between the recipes for akara and falafel is the type of beans (chickpeas vs black eyed peas), the grind (coarse vs smooth) and the seasoning (herbs vs pepper). In the case of a falafel a bit of flour may have to be added to bind the mixture together and would also add to the crunch. After the test, I found that the falafel inspiration helped ensure the akara was less gelatinous and dense. It has the mouthfeel of a slightly developed dough. For the first time, the product was passable as street bought and the recipe was impossible to mess up. I played around with size and temperature and found that a temperature around 325F is ideal for frying. Here is a link to a video of attempt #3.
Before the fourth attempt, I did a bit more research. I checked out dooney’s kitchen and the kitchen butterfly. The main thing I picked up is that I am not mixing the batter enough. To deal with this, my plan was to mix the batter in a stand mixer with the whisk attachment. In theory, the batter should take on volume and be almost mousse like before scooping and frying. Overall it came out alright and it tasted like the akara you find on the streets. I also used this experiment to play around with different frying temperatures.
After this attempt I kind of gave up because I felt that I had exhausted all the possible options and I still didn’t get what I wanted. Luckily that weekend, I ended up in Ile Ife and along the way I stopped at what is called Akara Junction. It is a rather unassuming stop along the way but I saw more Akara vendors than I could count. I got really excited and I ended up stopping for a quick snack. Luckily the lady I wanted to buy from was just starting to fry the akara and I got a chance to see the full process. I noticed one main thing that made attempt 5 successful in my opinion. The batter she used apart from being impeccably mixed also had some fermentation bubbles in it. Suddenly it hit me! I need to trap some bubbles in it so that they would expand during frying. Almost like a beignet. This made remember baking bread with a starter culture. Wild yeast turns the sugar in the batter into carbon dioxide and alcohol. During baking the alcohol burns and creates lift but the bubbles gets trapped in the network.
After this realization I tried adding a poolish (starter dough used for bread making) to the akara batter. Surprisingly it worked perfectly. I got the holes I was looking for and the product was not dense even after it cooled down. For the first time, I got a product that was close to what I had in my head. The only thing I now have to figure out is how to deep fry and not have the product be greasy. But for now, I am happy with the result.
This attempt happened around a month after the last one. Earlier I mentioned going to Akara Junction near Ile Ife. As we bought Akara, I listened to what the women were claiming to be the secret to the perfect akara. About a week later, Imoteda well aware of my Akara struggle insisted that we check out her favorite spot in Anthony village near the police post. I reluctantly went along but I am happy I did. I can confidently say that seeing that woman make akara showed me everything I needed to know about the akara process.
When I sat down with all this new knowledge, I felt the need to make a video about Akara and show the process I followed. Little did I know that I was about to receive my final lesson that was the master of them all. I interviewed Ozoz for the video voice over and she said “do not blend the beans too much”. It was not until I had edited and posted the video that I heard that gem. I instantly made a batch of Akara and voila. It was the perfection I was seeking. It was soft, fluffy, crispy and surprisingly not oily. I did my best to capture it in a video but to be honest, the beauty of this simple street food that laces the streets of Lagos can only be understood through taste.
If the quest to make Akara took me on this kind of journey, I can not even imagine what else Nigerian food can teach me.