This week’s menu features West African Peanut Soup, one of Chef Rachel’s favorite recipes. She discovered it while volunteering for the Peace Corps in West Africa. Here’s Rachel’s story behind the dish.
I spent two years living in the village of Santa in Cameroon, West Africa. I was there to work with farmers and teach about agroforestry, and spent a lot of time working on farms…planting, hoeing and harvesting. I also spent a lot of my free time next to a fire in mud wall kitchens, learning from the women about Cameroonian cuisine. We roasted corn, shelled beans, smoked fish, boiled plantains, plucked chickens, and occasionally stewed meat. It is in these smoky kitchens that I learned to prepare the popular West African Peanut Soup.
My friend Rose introduced me to many of the villagers and taught me a lot about the culture, including the cooking. She had children of her own but had also taken in a few children who had lost their parents. We became friends and together we founded a “girl scout” troop that met weekly at her house, and organized a girls’ summer camp.
Our cooking lessons started during my first rainy season in Cameroon. I would go to her house, get trapped by the rain, and we’d stay in the kitchen until the rain let up. Rose taught me everything: how to pick out the best palm oil, the best way to pound manioc (aka cassava), the right spices for peanut soup, and how to kill, clean, and cook a chicken. She also taught me how to bargain at the market. The market always smelled of frying oil, raw meat, and palm wine—a sweet, milky liquid that ferments into a potent, vinegary alcohol.
In Santa, we grew many of the ingredients needed for peanut soup: cabbage, leaks, carrots, potatoes, and herbs. We grew some peanuts locally, but most were brought from hotter parts of the country. The rice came from Asia and the tomato paste from the Middle East. I learned to make the soup several ways, all equally delicious: with plantains, rice, or sweet potatoes (for Green Chef, I used both rice and sweet potatoes). It was sweet, spicy, thick, and creamy—the perfect antidote for a rainy day.
By the end of my time in Cameroon, I was teaching Rose. I found a turkey in a nearby village and we killed it together then she helped me make an American Thanksgiving dinner for my Cameroonian family. That is what the village was like to me by the end—a family. They took me in as their daughter. Every child was everyone’s child; you fed any child who popped his or her head into your kitchen and then popped any child on the head when they misbehaved. The village was fueled by community. No one on the road was a stranger; you made conversation with anyone you passed.
Preparing West African Peanut Soup for Green Chef was different than it was in Santa. I didn’t walk down a dusty road to the village mill to get my peanuts ground or dig up the sweet potatoes and walk home with them in a bucket on my head. I didn’t cook it in my friend’s smoky kitchen, with the sound of children running around or rain dripping through cracks in the roof. But I did get the flavor as close as possible to what I remember, staying true to the way I cooked it in Cameroon (except for the dried fish, omitted for this vegetarian recipe). And the scent of the peanuts toasting and spices in the air takes me right back to Rose’s house, back to my big family.