I find the foods and cooking of the many nations within West Africa fascinating – especially when it comes to soups and stews. In Nigeria, to take one country as an example, it is common to combine ingredients such as beef or chicken with smoked fish and other seafood in the same soup pot. And palm oil is often used not as a cooking fat but to flavor and add color to soups. There is a real sense of freedom in this type of cooking as well as the creativity to work with what’s available.
One of the most common soups of this very large region is Pepper Soup. There are as many different recipes for pepper soup as there are for chicken noodle soup, and pepper soup is in many ways West Africa’s chicken noodle soup – a comfort food that tastes like home.
After researching and reviewing dozens of pepper soup recipes, I came up with my own “Nigerian” version, using chicken as the “meat” and dried crayfish as the seafood. Traditional pepper soup recipes generally call for cooking an entire chicken in the pot, and I will do that another time around. For convenience, I chose boneless chicken thighs and left a bit of the fat on them to help flavor the soup. Sweet potatoes are common in West African cuisine so I added a couple of those for additional texture and body. And palm oil is a must. Now, for the seasoning…
The biggest obstacle to cooking a West African-style Pepper Soup is finding the ingredients to make the pepper seasoning. Many of these spices are not easily found in the U.S. If you live in a city with an African grocery or large farmer’s market, I would start there. Otherwise, you can do what I did and order a ready-to-cook Pepper Soup Seasoning mix online. The seasoning mix looks like curry powder, but the primary taste is pepper – different than black pepper but peppery all the same. Alligator Pepper – one of those spices common to West African cooking – is listed as the primary ingredient.
This is a very intriguing and delicious soup. The peppery spiciness is contrasted yet complemented by the smoky saltiness of the dried crayfish. Pepper soup is often reputed to have restorative powers, and is a favorite pick-me-up after a late night on the town, and it’s this see-saw balance of pepper and salt that I believe makes it so.
- 6 cups water
- 1 pound boneless chicken thighs
- 2 onions
- 15-ounce can plum tomatoes
- 1 clove garlic
- 2 tablespoons Pepper Soup seasoning
- 2 sweet potatoes, diced
- 1 bay leaf
- 2 tablespoons dried crayfish, ground with mortar and pestle
- 2 tablespoons palm oil
- 1 tablespoon salt
- Lime juice
- Cut 1 onion into thin slices and line the bottom of a Dutch oven or soup pot with half of the onion
- Lay the chicken thighs on top of the onion pieces and cover with the remaining half an onion
- Sprinkle the Pepper Soup seasoning over the chicken and onions
- Drop in the sweet potatoes, pour in water, add bay leaf and heat to a boil
- Reduce heat to medium and let cook 20 to 30 minutes, until chicken is cooked through
- Remove chicken, cut into small pieces and return to the Dutch oven
- Take the remaining onion and dice it, quarter the garlic clove
- Drop onion and garlic into a food processor or blender along with the tomatoes and process until smooth
- Add the pureed vegetable mixture to the soup
- Stir in the dried crayfish and palm oil and let soup simmer for 20 minutes
- Taste for seasoning and add salt as needed
- Finish with a drizzle or two of lime juice
If you are interested in learning more about the foods and cooking techniques of West Africa, I highly recommend the following cookbooks:
Yolele! Recipes from the Heart of Senegal (Pierre Thiam) – This hardcover cookbook introduced me to strange and exotic ingredients such as guedj (a dried, fermented fish), kong (a Senegalese smoked catfish) and fonio (a grain with a long history of use in West African cooking). There is a great variety of recipes here, with color photos of many finished dishes. The book also contains many images of day-to-day life in Senegal, and while they are interesting I would have preferred the space be devoted to more recipes. Even so, this is a great addition to any ethnic cookbook collection. And although not soup-related, Thiam’s recipe for grilled chicken with lime-onion sauce is worth the cost of the book alone. An amazing summertime dish!
Principles of Cooking in West Africa: Learn the Art of African Heritage Foo Foo and Soup Cooking (Raymond Essang) – As the title suggests, this cookbook places a greater emphasis on soups and stews, although it contains recipes for everything from breads to beverages. Many of the recipes call for difficult-to-find ingredients, so go in with an adventuresome spirit and the expectation that you’ll need to do some digging to bring some of these dishes together. To me, these recipes seem to represent the “soul food” of West Africa and have an authenticity that makes them just as fun to read as to prepare. If the book has a downside, it’s the lack of images. There are no photos. And some recipes suggest quantities like as “needed,” which isn’t very helpful when you’re trying to re-create something that may be entirely new to you. But I still love this cookbook.
Looking for the perfect pot to cook up your next batch of soup? I recommend the Lodge Enameled Cast Iron Dutch Oven. It comes in 11 different colors and is an excellent value for the price.