Out of Africa, Into the Bowl

Senegalese Peanut Soup

In fourth grade there was a girl named Karen who I envied something fierce. Karen was cool and pretty, she beat the boys at every sport in PE, and everyone—regardless of gender—wanted to be her friend. The main reason I envied her, though, was for her lunches. In stark contrast to my tuna or egg salad on whole wheat and fruit-juice-sweetened granola bars, Karen’s lunchbags were a cornucopia of forbidden delights: Ritz crackers topped with canned Velveeta, Snack Pack pudding cups, tall stacks of Oreo cookies and the coup de grâce, fluffernutter sandwiches on squishy white bread*.

Fluffernutter. Just the name sent chills down my spine. I didn’t even know what it was, but I knew it must be heavenly. When I finally got up the courage to ask Karen for specifics she shrugged wearily, obviously bored to have to educate such culinary dilettantes, and sighed, “oh you know, just peanut butter and marshmallow creme.” Just peanut butter and marshmallow creme! The mere idea was so far outside my dietary reality that the only image I could conjure was of Karen’s mother standing over a big bowl of whipping cream, tossing in dollops of peanut butter and handfuls of marshmallows as she beat the cream to soft, billowy peaks. One day, I swore to myself, I’d save up enough allowance to buy cream, marshmallows and white bread, and I’d make a fluffernutter sandwich myself. The peanut butter would be no problem, of course; that was probably the one common thread between Karen’s kitchen and mine.

To this day I’m not quite sure why I was so transfixed by the idea of that fluffernutter sandwich, since I didn’t even like peanuts very much. I loved almonds and cashews and pecans and walnuts and everything containing them, but when I found peanuts in a nut assortment I would usually pick them out. I mean I didn’t hate peanuts, but I didn’t love them the way everyone else did: in a starring role on bread with jelly, honey and/or bananas, enrobed in chocolate or praline or even just roasted and salted. I often felt like the odd one out for my lack of enthusiasm for them, so perhaps I imagined that the fluffernutter was my ticket into the peanut-lovers’ club, the missing link between me and this national culinary heavyweight that no one except me could get enough of. Surely there must be some dish out there that would show me just what everyone else saw in those beany little pseudo-nuts.

There was, but it wasn’t a fluffernutter sandwich. It was a soup I made a few years later from a recipe in one of my mother’s cookbooks, Mollie Katzen’s charmingly-illustrated Enchanted Broccoli Forest. I was probably twelve or thirteen at the time and just learning to cook; the so-called “curried peanut soup” caught my eye because we had most of the ingredients already on hand—no small hurdle for an income-less, rural-dwelling, pre-teen. We were no doubt lacking a good few of the spices, and I seem to recall substituting regular milk for the specified buttermilk, but none of that detracted from the soup, which was a revelation; toasty and creamy and spicy, its warmth filled my belly and wrapped around me like the folds of a familiar blanket. Relegated to a supporting role alongside big, savory flavors, I had to admit that peanuts were actually quite wonderful.

From there, of course, there was a whole world of peanutty delicacies to fall in love with, from the sweet and salty saté dips of Southeast Asia to rich Indian curries and chunky chutneys, to the thick, chile-laced peanut sauces of Central and South America. I also kept a soft spot for spiced peanut soup, though it was several more years before I learned that this improbable dish is not just the brainchild of wooly-sweater-clad vegetarians in upstate New York, but a staple of West African cuisine. There, peanuts were introduced by Portuguese explorers in the sixteenth century and enthusiastically adopted into both sweet and savory dishes; interestingly, the West Africans’ attachment to the nuts was so great that when large numbers were forcibly transported to the New World as slaves, they brought peanuts with them, thereby setting the stage for the US to become a great peanut-loving nation as well. But back to the soup: encompassing enough local names and variations to fill an entire cookbook, what seems to be the common thread is a stewy juxtaposition of peanuts, vegetables, tomato and spice—a combination delicious enough to have not only won national dish status across half a continent, but inspired countless imitations from people who have most likely never set foot anywhere near there.

The following version, which I’ve adapted from Deborah Madison who in turn adapted it from James Peterson, may not be completely authentic, but it’s the best riff on the peanut soup theme I’ve yet tasted. Rich and nutty with a slow burn and a mellow sweetness from the coconut milk, it’s exciting yet strangely familiar at the same time. I’ve thrown in a few more veggies than called for in the original, which not only balances out the richness a little, but thickens it up enough to stand up to a scoop of cooked rice or millet. I’ve also discovered that an overnight rest before eating does wonders, allowing the flavors to mingle and plunge to new depths. If you can’t manage to think that far ahead, though—and let’s face it, I usually can’t—at least try to save some leftovers for lunch; not only will it inject a little unexpected warmth into your day, a bowl of this at school or the office will inspire a thousand times more envy than a boring old fluffernutter sandwich**.

*Mom, I don’t think I’ve ever thanked you for not giving me this kind of stuff for lunch. I may not have appreciated it then, but I sure do now.

**Which, by the way, I still have never tasted. Those of you who have, tell me: is this something I should rectify?

Senegalese Peanut Soup

My favorite additions to this spectacular soup-cum-stew are green chilies, carrots and spinach, but you could add pretty much anything under the sun. Sweet potatoes, pumpkin, cabbage, eggplant, corn and green beans would be naturals, as would chicken, shrimp or fish if you want some extra protein, all of which you can cook right in the soup. And don’t forget: the flavor really improves with age, so make this as far ahead of time as you can.
source: adapted from Vegetable Soups from Deborah Madison’s Kitchen
serves: 4-6

2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 large onion, diced
1-2 garlic cloves, minced
3-4 fresh jalapeños, seeded and minced, or 1 green bell pepper, chopped
finely-chopped stems from 1 small bunch cilantro (coriander)
, about 1/4 cup chopped
2 large carrots, peeled and thickly sliced
cayenne pepper, to taste
2 tablespoons curry powder
3 cups (750 ml) vegetable or chicken stock
2 (14oz/400g) cans crushed or diced tomatoes in juice
2/3 cup (150g) smooth natural peanut butter
1 cup (250ml) coconut milk
8 oz (250g) fresh spinach, tough stems discarded, washed and sliced into ribbons, or washed baby spinach
salt and pepper, to taste
handful chopped cilantro leaves for garnish

cooked rice, millet or couscous for serving

In a large, heavy pot warm the oil over medium heat, then add the onion, garlic, jalapeños or green pepper and cilantro stems. Cook until the onion has softened and turned golden, 10 to 12 minutes. Stir in the carrots, cayenne and curry powder, and fry until the spices are fragrant, about a minute more.

Add the stock and tomatoes, including all their juices. Stir well and bring to a boil. Lower the heat and let cook gently until the carrots are soft, about 20 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the peanut butter, coconut milk and spinach and continue cooking until the spinach is soft and the soup has thickened, about another ten minutes. Season the soup to taste with salt and pepper.

Serve hot alongside the cooked grain of your choice, garnished with chopped cilantro.