For me, it all started with pepper soup, a dish I had the pleasure of tasting at Sumah's Carry Out, a D.C. hole in the wall frequented by cab drivers and anyone in search of a soul-warming West African meal. I had little hope of recreating this seminal culinary experience, until the remarkable Ozoz of Kitchen Butterfly sent me the ingredient equivalent of pure gold: authentic Nigerian pepper soup spice. Actually, she sent me two kinds of pepper soup spice, curry powder, crayfish Maggi cubes, and some thyme - a king's ransom of soupy goodness!
I am not going to attempt a history lesson of pepper soup here - you should definitely read what Ozoz has to say about the matter. In her post about pepper soup, she describes her memories of eating it as a girl in Nigeria, its cultural significance - it can be equated to the iconic importance of chicken soup in the West - and the many herbs and spices involved in the dish, including acceptable substitutions for hard-to-find ingredients such as Mbongo spice, Calabash nutmeg, and Pipper Aethiopila.
She explains that the soup is emblematic of West African cooking, and accurately describes the flavor as "bitter, sweet and somewhat herby, with some astringency." I just know that I could slurp the stuff up until I burst.
Different countries in West Africa - and even regions within countries - have their own versions of the soup. The version I tasted originated (I believe) in Sierra Leone, and was tomato-based, so that's what I set out to recreate with Ozoz's amazing spice:
And, because I ate so much meat on my travels to Prague, Krakow, and Vienna, I decided to make it (almost) vegetarian. Like chicken soup or tomato sauce, there are endless variations and ways to put your personal stamp on this dish; and, like those preparations, this is more of a method than a recipe. With that thought in mind, here's what to do if you'd like to try my version:
In a stock pot, saute 1 large chopped onion and 2 -3 Scotch bonnet or habanero peppers in 4 tbsp peanut oil, 1 tbsp red palm oil, and 3 heaping tbsp pepper soup spice, either a blend from an African store, or your own blend - see Ozoz's post for instructions on how to make your own. Add 2 peeled, cubed yams (African if you can get them) and 1 can plum tomatoes - squish the tomatoes by hand. To this add 1-2 cubes of Maggi crawfish bouillon, and enough water to cover the ingredients by an inch or so. You do want a soupy, rather than stew-y, consistency. Let simmer until all of the flavors come together. To this, I added a package of chicken style seitan. If you 'd like to use meat in this soup - I will definitely make this again with chicken or goat - saute that at the beginning, and let the soup simmer until the meat is tender. Salt to taste.
And that's it - another example of a few simple ingredients coming together with just the right spices to create something magic. I hope you'll try it, either my way, Ozoz's way, or your very own version. And don't let the hot weather stop you. While I enjoyed my soup on a blustery day, this feels very right to eat in the heat.