Narrated by: Sey Smythe
I am a bad Liberian. My family makes fun of my attempts at Liberian English. I only know the opening line from the Liberian national anthem (“All hail, Liberia hail…something something something”). I’ve never set foot in Monrovia, and I’m a novice when it comes to cooking Liberian food. But the one thing that I am good at is eating.
A nation settled by free African Americans in the 19th century, Liberia is at the crossroads between Southern Black American and West African cultures. No dish exemplifies this more than Liberian pepper soup (colloquially known as peppeh soup). It’s a bright, savory dish with a little (or a lot) of kick. And before the Nigerians get their pitchforks out, yes, I am well aware that pepper soup is eaten throughout the region, but Liberian pepper soup is unique in that it has certain elements reminiscent of gumbo, an American dish with its own West African roots. There’s even a song dedicated to it, with lyrics that boldly proclaim, “If you go to Liberia and you want to stay in Africa, drink peppeh soup, drink peppeh soup.” Liberian cuisine, and pepper soup, teaches us that culture can still be exchanged even when there’s an ocean between us, and it’s because of this fact that I decided to take on the arduous task of finally becoming a “good Liberian” and learning the recipes of my foremothers.
There was just one hiccup: a pesky pandemic that also put distance between me and my mother, the keeper of the recipes. I’m originally from the D.C. area but moved to Chicago three years ago; my family still lives back east and like many people this year, I’ve had to turn to technology as a replacement for in-person human contact. On a Sunday afternoon, I carried my laptop into the kitchen and gave my mom a call on Zoom to do with me what her mother had once done with her, with a little 21st-century flair.
Before we got down to business, however, I had to get some key ingredients for the soup. There are many variations of pepper soup, but my favorite version features goat. I live in Chicago’s Ukrainian Village so while I have no issue finding the ingredients for delicious summer borscht, the elements for a Liberian pepper soup are a touch more elusive. That’s why I turned to OjaExpress for three ingredients that can be a little difficult to find in your local Mariano’s: fresh okra, pre-cut goat meat, and a whole mess of habanero peppers. With a seamless customer experience, I was able to easily create an account on the website and get to shopping! OjaExpress offers a wide array of cultural groceries delivered straight to you, saving you ample travel time running from store to store to find ingredients that taste like home. My items were sourced from La Fruteria, a full-service African and Caribbean market on the South-East side of Chicago. We support small businesses in this household.
Alright, back to actually cooking the soup. Second hiccup? The cultural differences between Africa and “the West” are most apparent when cooking: Africans are notorious for being vague in their cooking instructions, and this includes my mother. Don’t even get me started on asking an African for driving directions! Liberians operate in the implied, in the grey, while most Westerners tend to be more direct and explicit in their communication. One isn’t inherently better than the other, but it can be frustrating if you’re only used to one. My mother has decades of expert-level cooking experience under her belt, but for her very American and very green daughter, instructions like “blend some onion” just don’t cut it. So for the sake of my sanity, and yours,, I was able to get the most precise measurements possible.
While I cooked, we talked. We caught up on the mundane, day-to-day life stuff, we gossiped as Liberian women like to do as we cook up something delicious. We also reminisced. My grandmother, affectionately called “Nana”, passed away eight years ago. That loss is still felt every day in my family; she was the matriarch, spiritual guide, the glue that held us together.
She was also the connection between the old world and the new. My earliest memories are of the stories she’d tell me about life on “the mission”, the Christian boarding school she went to back in Liberia in a time before the internet, smartphones, and Beyoncé (how did they manage?). Nana was a superb cook, spending so much time in the kitchen doing the thing that she loved the most, for the people she loved the most. Beyond that, I think that cooking reconnected her to the place that she called home, even after living in the United States for over 20 years. And she’s the reason why I spent my Sunday, on a Zoom call with my mom, trying to learn the thing that would connect me to my own roots, despite the distance.
The finished product wasn’t bad for a first-timer. I made some fufu (courtesy of a care package my mom sent me not too long ago) to be served with the soup. I also whipped out some homemade beniseed, a sesame-seed-based paste (from the same care package) for added flavor. The cool thing about pepper soup is that you can add any number of fixings, like lime, okra, and even peanut butter depending on preference. I signed off from the call and settled onto my couch with a warm bowl of soup in my lap and an episode of Insecure on the tube.
We are separated by a lot of things: migration, covid, loss, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t find ways to find each other. Food nourishes us. Food sustains us. But most importantly, food connects us.
Follow the recipe below for your own taste of home:
Liberian pepper(peppah) soup
Yields 5-6 Servings
1 lb. pre-cut goat meat
2 quartered yellow onions
1-2 habanero peppers
Chicken bouillon cubes
Fresh okra (optional)
- Wash goat meat and season with salt and black pepper. To soften the meat, pressure cook for about 15 min in 2 cups of water. If you don’t have a pressure cooker, boil the goat in a pot of water for roughly 1.5 – 2 hrs.
- When the goat meat is ready, remove the meat from the pot with a slotted spoon. Preserve the excess broth.
- Blend the chopped onion in a blender with ~½ c. of goat broth until pureed.
- Add pureed onion to a pot of 4 cups of water. Let simmer.
- Once simmering, whisk in 2 ½ Tbsp of tomato paste. Then add additional goat broth.
- Season soup to taste, ~1 bouillon cube, ½ tsp of black pepper, and 1 tsp of crushed red pepper should suffice. Add in 2 habanero peppers to soup, being careful not to pop the pepper just yet.
- Let the soup simmer for 30 min, then add in the goat meat.
- Add additional salt to taste.
- Simmer for an additional 5-8 minutes. Then serve with fufu, okra, and lime depending on preference.
Image Source: Dekontee Morris from Pinterest