“Is it spicy?” is the question I am often asked whenever I meet someone who has never tasted African food. No, African food is not always spicy, but yes, it’s true, we love our peppers fresh, dried, in powder, sauces, or savory jams. Somehow, ubiquitous hot pepper is the ingredient that most people associate with Africa, even though its origins are not even African. Try to explain this to someone who grew up eating Pepe soup and you are sure to get perplexed, incredulous, and sometimes offended looks. This reaction highlights how much this condiment has impacted African cultures.
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In truth, hot peppers first arrived in Africa during the 15th century from South America via the Columbian exchange.
But today, hot pepper (genus capsicum) is as African as can be.
A good illustration is the classic Cameroonian hit from the late-’70s “Pepe Soup”; Manu Dibango’s anthem to this quintessential West African hot chili chowder is a genuine, melodic homage to hot pepper.
Watch Manu Dibango’s “Pepe Soup” here:
Indeed, there are probably as many Pepe soup recipes as there are regions in Africa. But whichever the version — tripe, goat meat, beef, chicken, fish (my favorite) or even vegetarian — Pepe soup has one and only one common denominator: hot, spicy chili pepper.
It is quite a common scene to see partygoers sweating over a spicy bowl of Pepe soup after a night of heavy drinking. Pepe soup is known to be an efficient hangover remedy.
And for some die-hard pepper lovers, the spicier the better.
In addition to curing hangovers and headaches, hot peppers are a powerful decongestant and a great source of antioxidants.
Researchers are presently looking in to capsaicin, an active component of hot peppers, as a possible prostate cancer remedy.
Capsaicin is also believed to help lower blood pressure and cholesterol as well as diabetes’ risks.
Lastly, studies have demonstrated that regions of the world that often use peppers in their diet have fewer heart attacks.
HEAT IN MODERATION
As a chef, I love how a little heat from capsicum wonderfully enhances the eating experience. Indeed, when in contact with the tongue, hot pepper opens our taste buds, allowing all the flavors to burst in.
However, I am always mindful to use pepper with care. Too much of it can ruin the experience as it will numb the aforementioned taste buds, without which there is no tasting.
It is also true that the abuse of pepper can be linked to heartburn and stomach ulcers.
Balance is everything in cooking, though, particularly when it comes to hot pepper.
I particularly like combining hot peppers with acidic and cooling ingredients, since cool ingredients awaken all the flavors and soothes the heat.
It reminds me of some of my favorite kids’ snacks of green mango, tamarind, or green papaya with chili and salt. What a treat!
HEAT ON THE SIDE
There are so many types of hot peppers. The most used in Africa happen to be some of the spiciest ones. Particularly habanero (a.k.a. Jamaican pepper or scotch bonnet) and the bird chili or Piri-Piri used to prepare the delicious Mozambican grilled Piri-Piri Prawns.
When I was growing up in Senegal, hot peppers often found its way in to our meals, but it was never in an overpowering way. Usually, it was just one single habanero pepper that slowly simmered in a sauce or stew to subtly impart its scent. Come mealtime, the same pepper — whole, bright red (or yellow, or orange) and looking like a prized jewel — was carefully placed in the center of the bowl for the braves to go at it.
In fact, most households (if not all) have a homemade chili recipe to serve on the side of meals.
In preparation, peppers are blended raw with oil and vinegar (sometimes mustard); cooked to a thick paste with onions, chopped tomatoes, bay leaves, and garlic; or sometimes even pickled.
Regardless of the household’s recipe, the hot condiment is always served on the side in a small dish or straight from its jar with a small spoon for guests to use (or not use) at their own discretion.
COOKING WITH PEPPER
When cooking with pepper, always wash your hands carefully after handling peppers and don’t put them anywhere near your eyes.
You can still get the essence of pepper and make it less spicy by de-seeding them before cooking.
Below are two hot pepper sauce recipes from my upcoming book “Senegal: Modern Recipes from the Source to the Bowl” (Lake Isle Press), which will be released in September 2015:
Scotch Bonnet and Tamarind Sauce
1 cup Kani sauce (See recipe below)
2 tbsp. tamarind syrup (see recipe below)
2 tbsp. fish sauce
Combine all ingredients and refrigerate in an airtight container. Keeps for up to 3 weeks.
Tamarind Simple Syrup
½ cup tamarind pulp (or paste)
1 cup sugar
1¼ cup water
Put all the ingredients in a small saucepan and bring to a boil for 1 minute. Stir well and let it cool in the saucepan.
Strain well through a fine mesh strainer (or double layers of cheesecloths).
Keep in the refrigerator for up to 3 weeks.
Stir well before using.
1 onion, coarsely chopped
1 garlic clove, chopped
1 tbs. peanut oil
6 ripe Roma tomatoes, coarsely chopped, or 3 tbsp. tomato paste
1 habanero pepper
1 bay leaf
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 tsp. Rice vinegar
Makes about 1 cup
In a saucepan over medium-low heat, saute the chopped onion and garlic until soft and fragrant. Add tomatoes, habanero and bay leaf. Simmer for 30 minutes, stirring with a wooden spoon. Add salt, pepper and vinegar. Serve rough or process until smooth.