Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Fiery Liberian Bean Soup

This is another one of those West African dishes that is so much more than the sum of its relatively few parts. The order in which the ingredients are added to the pot helps create layers of flavor and a very pleasing slow build of spicy heat.  
I adapted this recipe from several I found online, and you should feel free to tweak it according to your tastes. No green pepper? No problem. Gluten intolerant? Don't add the seitan. Have black eyed peas sitting around instead of cow peas? That'll work. Afraid of too much heat? Cut back on the habaneros. It's a pretty forgiving dish. 

That said, there are a few things you shouldn't change. First off, don't use canned beans. You won't get the same effect. Second, don't use refined peanut oil that's had all the peanut-y smell removed. You want that rich smell and, more importantly, that nutty flavor that the unrefined oil will impart to the dish.  And, if at all possible, purchase some real African red palm oil, whether in a local shop or online

I know what you're thinking: Palm oil is really, really unhealthy.  But not all palm oil is created equal. Red palm oil contains nutrients such as beta carotene and vitamins A and E that are not present in clear, refined palm oils.  Does that mean you should use it liberally? I don't think so -  I would never use the amount of it that many African recipes call for. Some tell you to pour up to a cup in soups and stews! (Aside from the possible health implications, I think that amount is just too overpowering for a palate that isn't used to it.) 

Like anything, moderation is key.  Red palm oil has such a strong, distinctive flavor that can't be replicated by any other oil, but one  tablespoon does the trick handily.  After all, just look at how much color a small amount of palm oil gives these onions:

Fiery Liberian Bean Soup
  • 1 -1/2 cups dried cow peas, pigeon peas, black eyed peas - or any earthy bean - soaked overnight in water and rinsed
  • 1 tbsp red palm oil
  • 3-4 tbsp peanut oil
  • 1 large onion, chopped
  • 1 green pepper, chopped
  • 5-6 canned plum tomatoes or 3-4 whole ripe ones
  • 4 tbsp tomato paste
  • 2-3 habanero or Scotch bonnet chiles, seeds removed (I used two and it was quite hot, but in retrospect I could have used three. Just add these according to your heat tolerance.
  • 1 or 2 organic veggie bouillon cubes (This is my version of the ever-present, MSG-laden Maggi cubes that are used in so much African cooking.)
  • 1 or 2 cups of chicken-style seitan (optional)
  • salt and black pepper, to taste
Boil the beans until they're tender and easily mashed. Mash 1/2 of the beans - this is an important step and gives the dish its unique, thick consistency. Set the mashed and the whole beans aside. 
Meanwhile, in a food processor, combine the chiles, 1/4 of the onion, and the tomatoes. Pulse until smooth.
In a stockpot, fry the rest of the onion over medium heat in the palm and peanut oils until translucent. 
Add the green pepper and saute for another few minutes. 
Add the tomato/pepper/onion mixture and stir until it begins to bubble.
To this, add the tomato paste, a few pinches of fresh ground black pepper, the bouillon cubes, and salt, to taste. The dish is going to be pretty hot at this point - don't panic! You'll be adding some liquid soon.
Add the beans - both mashed and whole - and the seitan, if you're using it. Add just enough water to cover the beans and lower the heat and simmer, stirring often, for about 20 minutes. 

Traditionally, this soup (which is really more like a stew) would be served over rice, but I had a feeling that the spicy heat would match well with the sweetness of polenta. I wasn't wrong!  Polenta may seem like a strange accompaniment for an African meal, but it's not such a stretch. In Kenya, for example, ugali - basically a cornmeal porridge - is served with many dishes. Opposite sides of the continent, I know, but not entirely out of left field! But feel free to serve this rich, satisfying soup with whatever starch you like.


  1. Sounds comforting and tasty. I'll go for it, sans seitan!

  2. Looks really appetizing, I like the color combo, great veg dish! I really like the polenta addition!

  3. Sounds wonderful, my hubby would love the spice with habaneros! I will use three for him :)

  4. this sounds great and so rich in protein and fiber with all those beans!

  5. Love all things spicy! This looks and sounds amazing esp with the polenta!

  6. What is seitan? The recipe sounds great. I am definitely going to make it. As far as polenta goes, it can be used with almost everything. It is the perfect side dish. I grew up on the stuff. We had it in the morning, fried in butter. My mother makes this fantastic stew that goes on it. My father would make a polenta sauce with sausage in it. It is just the perfect food. I guess I am partial since my family is Northern Italian. Oh, and polenta was used in the war when money was tight. My parents had it almost every single night and breakfast. It was cheap and filling.

  7. athenafdm127: Thanks! Yes, polenta is a huge favorite of mine. As for seitan, it's a wheat gluten meat substitute, which tastes MUCH better than that description would lead you to believe! Some people call it "wheat meat," and it's really very shredded-chicken like. Give it a try, it's yummy. You might even say that I'm a seitan worshipper.