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.

37 thoughts on “Out of Africa, Into the Bowl

  1. That sounds pretty spectacular. I grew up with the Moosewood, too, (and with whole wheat sandwiches, which, like you, I thank my mother for now) but for some reason have never had the curried peanut soup. Your version looks like it might be dinner tonight. Thanks!

  2. If you do decide to try a Fluffernutter, there are a couple things to keep in mind. First, as a child they were delightful, but as an adult they are a sugar rush of epic proportion. Second, the best Fluffernutter, in my opinion, involves a contraption called a snackmaster. It is a sandwich maker that can be used for making grilled sandwiches, but the magic is that it seals the edges of the sandwich (in two triangular halves) so that the peanut butter and Fluff get all melty and gooey but don't leak out all over the place. (Chocolate and fluff would be good this way too.)Where Fluff really shines is in hot chocolate. That's the reason I keep a jar on hand.

  3. I just read about a similar soup in a book about pulses – just discovered that peanuts actually classify as pulses! I then bought a huge bag of peanuts at my local thai shop with the excuses that being pulses they must be good for you (I know, I'm not fooling even myself). But the recipe on the book does not give me confidence, yours does. By the way, as much as I love peanuts, I'm always amazed at how they are used in the US… Fluffernutter sandwich, oh my!

  4. I don't think I've ever tried marshmallow cream either, but I'm seriously so tempted. Your soup sounds much more interesting though, to my hopefully! more grown up tastes. I love that your recipes are always things I've never heard of.

  5. I had very similar experiences with seemingly esoteric fluffernutters as a kid. It was the same unfulfilled curiosity with which I encountered single-serve chip packs, chips ahoy, and those plasticky neon juice burst drinks. Kids, they only want what they can't have!I like to add a few teaspoons of cumin and mustard seeds to toast up when sauteeing the onions for peanut soup. Bit of texture really adds a great new dimension to it.

  6. I only last night took Enchanted Broccoli Forest off my shelf, wondering if I should give the book away. While I used Moosewood Cookbook a LOT, I got a used copy of EBF too late to be into its sort of recipes. I leafed through it last night and couldn't bear to give up on it yet! Your post is confirmation, and your recipe elaboration and inspiration. Can't wait to try this, maybe even this week.

  7. Like you, I was "deprived" of most processed foods as a kid, and remember it being quite the treat to eat at friends' houses whose parents kept the cupboards stocked with cookies and chips. As an adult, however, I'm immensely grateful- I see the number of people battling with obesity and diabetes and thank my lucky stars I never developed a real taste for those foods. I guess everyone reacts differently to that, though- I think my sister ended up seeing those foods as a "status symbol", and she buys lots of packaged and processed foods for her kids because she wants to give them what we didn't have.

  8. Great write-up – and that soup looks delicious! I love peanuts in savory dishes. They're a surprisingly good match for any sort of dark greens! A similar African recipe is this kale and pineapple peanut stew from the Moosewood Cookbook: http://bit.ly/hhKT05 I make it often, either with kale or with mustard greens.By the way, " the thick, chile-laced peanut sauces of Central and South America" sound mouth-watering. Do you have any recipes?I can certainly point you in the direction of some, e.g. Mexico's encacahuatado and mole de cacahuete, Peru's ají de gallina and ocopa arequipeña, Colombia's ají de maní, and Brazil's Vatapa and Xinxim. And that's only the tip of the iceberg! The pineapple in that Moosewood recipe really has me intrigued. The Enchanted Broccoli Forest soup actually called for banana, which was surprisingly good. -m

  9. Hi Melissa:Great post on peanuts and peanut soup – yet another New World ingredient that has been enthusiastically accepted and adapted by the rest of the world. In the case of West Africa, peanuts were substituted for their groundnuts. What did the world eat before the potato, tomato, chili, peanut and corn revolution?As to kids eating, mine ate anything when they were babies – all sorts of curries. Now they whine about homemade (delicious) dwenjaing chigae and revel over chicken tenders from a bag. Hopefully they will get over this and get their diverse palates back someday.Thanks,Laura

  10. I remember the day Cindy Thompson showed up at school with a lunch of Oreos, wagon wheels, a Snickers bar and a thermos of chocolate milk. It was the next best thing to fluffernutter, and I was racked with envy.

  11. The idea of fluffernutter sandwiches on white bread seems way over the top for me, but I do adore (and recommend) fluffernutter on graham crackers, especially dipped in hot tea. The combination of softened graham cracker, sweet fluff, and salty peanut butter is delicious. My grandmother gave them to my mom as a special treat when she was sick, and that's when my mom would give them to me. I gave them to my own daughter as a special treat– but she hated them!

  12. The first time I tried peanuts in soup was when I posted about Sudanes shorba a few months ago. It was very good but turned out a little thick with the rice cooked in it. This looks wonderful and I like the idea of the cooked grain seved on the side.

  13. Mmm… this sounds great. We live in Dakar, Senegal, and love mafé. This adaptation looks delicious. Thanks for sharing it!

  14. Loved hearing about Karen!My parent's grew up on the Malabar coast. When they immigrated to the states, they brought all their Kerala recipes. Growing up in southern Illinois I too longed for fluffernutter. And I b-e-g-g-e-d for Swansons dinners. My pleas generally fell on deaf ears. As an adult, I realize what a gift it was to eat biriyan, idli, dosa, and other meals prepared from scratch.

  15. When you say in the ingrediants cilantro stems do you mean the stems and not the leaves?Yes – save the leaves for garnishing the soup. -m

  16. I spent a month last year traveling around Senegal visiting a few friends who live there. One of the best things about the whole trip was eating mafé in the cheb shacks – basically, makeshift shacks composed of brightly colored fabric draped over tin roofs. You were served laaaarge portions of mafé by Cheb Mamas with their babies slung over their backs (I'm pretty sure that's not their actual title, just a moniker given by that strange expat parlance developed when you live abroad). Happily, I live on the edge of the Congolese/Senegalese neighborhood here in Brussels and can get mafé whenever I want. For some silly reason I never thought about making it myself! And voilà, here you go posting this. I think I found a new recipe to tuck away for later.

  17. What a delightful post. It reminded me of a child I envied at school too, we used to play out after school and she would always eat a jam sandwich in the street. Cheap white bread spread with margarine and a mixed fruit jam, which didn't really contain much fruit. I was so envious, I asked her to share and she told me to go and get one from from home and we could swap. I came back with one my mother had made, fresh homemade bread spread thickly with real butter and fruit conserve…. once swapped we were both in heaven!!! If my mother had ever found out she'd have been appauled! Aren't kids funny?

  18. Thank you ever so much for this. I love peanuts in all forms – coated in chocolate, in satay, on a sandwich, but think look like an exceptional way to use them. This I think, could be considered a soup of champions.I very much enjoy a peanut putter sandwich, or peanut butter on toast, but for me the joy of them is the saltiness, and I have them on savoury brown or seeded bread, so the very idea of putting marshmallow fluff on them is almost blasphemous to me!

  19. Tulip Fairy, your post brings back some memories..I used to swap my lunch-time sandwiches made with thick whole wheat/rye bread and cheese/tuna, celery, carrots, tomato AND lettuce AND mustard/gherkin relish with a guy who brought a plain white bread and cheese sandwich!!! The grass is always greener. lol.

  20. By strange coincidence, I just tried my first fluffernutter last week. Or something sort of like one, at least. I had never even heard of such a thing until I moved to New England, where they are supposedly quite the lunch box institution. Marshmallow fluff kind of scares me, but since I had homemade marshmallows to use up while still fresh, out of sheer curiosity I put a few on some whole-grain toast with some 100% peanut (yes, not even salt added) peanut butter. It was actually pretty delicious, if ersatz by the standards of the highly processed original, and I cannot help but recommend it. Not that I let my children see me eating it, mind. Besides, my oldest is starting school next year, and I see from the parents' handbook that both peanut products and sweets are forbidden in the lunch box. So much for THAT New England institution!

  21. This soup was SO good that we had it for dinner one night and couldn't resist having more for breakfast the next morning!So glad! A peanut-soup breakfast doesn't sound half bad… -m

  22. First: peanut butter (as well as bologna, kraft mac n cheese, meatloaf and hotdogs) were personna non gratta in this first generation American's house. Second: fluffernutters are awesome. I prefer on a whole grain bread, toasted and open faced…way too squishy and messy closed. Third: Soup looks amazing.Fourth: Have you tried the colonist peanut soup? The Virginia (most famous from Williamsburg, though the Shenandoah Valley and Richmonds Jefferson Hotel all do well) version is a completely different version but worth the try. Great post, Yolande

  23. Also had some very good peanut soups in Virginia, but never found ones that were so well spiced. As always, this looks amazingly yummy…but your story has me thinking about those thick S. American sauces on something like a fry-bread wrap, with all sorts of veggies piled on/in. Send THAT in one of the kids lunch bags … 🙂

  24. This looks really delicious! I also have all the ingredients in the cupborad so am going to make it tonight! I think a toasted nut added to many things, pasta, salads stews etc is one of my favourite things…along with peanut butter, coconut, chilli and coriander mmmm…

  25. I made this recipe this morning, and we ate it for lunch. So much for making it ahead of time to improve the flavor! We're not fond of really spicy dishes, so used a red bell pepper, only a dash of cayenne, and only 1T of curry powder. I added a sweet potato along with the carrots, and needed a bit more broth to make it 'soupy'. I put chickpeas in the bottom of the bowl, but they would have worked simmered along with the whole thing. For greens I used kale and beet greens that I had in the fridge.The soup was a big hit. It would have been fine with more spice, and next time I will up the heat a bit, with the full 2T curry and perhaps a bit more cayenne. I can see that this would make a very delicious firey dish for those who love spice.I am thrilled to add this my repetoire and the sweet potatoes were definitely a great addition. Thank you.You're more than welcome. I find that the peanut butter can really absorb a lot of heat; even when I think I've spiced it quite heavily, I often find myself reaching for the hot sauce at serving time! -m

  26. This was tonight's dinner. Oh boy. To use The Wednesday Chef's words, this recipe is "lamination worthy"! Thank you for another keeper 🙂I've never laminated a recipe in my life, but I have to agree — this one would definitely be worthy. 🙂 -m

  27. Thank you again, Melissa. A couple of years ago I tried bringIng in a pot of soup (meatless) to the office on Lenten Fridays. Good offering I still try to remember. Brought a slight variation on this one in today. Big hit. Had some Kenyan spicing I got from Mercedi I used instead of the curry/cayanne. Had a bottle of Melissa's Naga Jolokia to dash in for those of us that like the taste of summer on cold wet Seattle days. It was wonderful – it was gone.

  28. Hi guys, just thought I'd let you know that you convinced me — last weekend I went out and bought my first ever jar of Marshmallow Fluff®. Funnily enough, on the back was a recipe (in German) for a fluffernutter, "the most popular sandwich in the USA"! Unfortunately the only kind of bread I had on hand was super grainy and dense rye bread, so quite a bit of my fluffernutter was probably lost in translation, but even so I was pleasantly surprised. In fact, I liked the combination of peanut butter and Fluff so much I started experimenting. So far the winner is PB and Fluff on a square of dark chocolate. Holy moly, dangerous stuff.

  29. Hello, I love your blog and pretty much tried out this recipe and it's amazing! Thank you for such an inspiring blog and amazing food. Fluffernutter sounds awful, it still amazes me what we love as children!

  30. This brings me right back to Ghana! I attended a cooking class in Takoradi in September and we made a soup just like this! It was paired with fufu, made of mashed cassava, which was a untasty separate story. Thank you for bringing back such beautiful memories for me!

  31. A fluffernutter is only good if you toast the bread ( like almost any kind), spread the P'butter, then spread a layer (I like a thin layer) of marshmallow fluff and then broil it while watching carefully. When it is brown like a toasted marshmallow, pull it out. TOASTED marshmallow of any kind is a great pair with chocolate and nuts. Nutella (chocolate and hazelnut spread) and fluff toasted on toasted bread is yummy too.

  32. I love everything with peanuts! And this lovely soup reminds me of an African peanut stew with pork. I have to cook that again, and of course your soup.

  33. Great soup! Had been planning to make it for a while, today I finally went and got some coconut milk… Thank you for the recipe…Delicious!

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