Why It Works
- Toasting the spices before grinding develops their flavors.
- A homemade blend of spices delivers more flavor than a store-bought mix.
- Using skin-on, bone-in chicken produces a deeply flavorful soup with a rich texture.
Pepper soup―a comforting Nigerian soup seasoned with a spice blend and fresh lemongrass―is popular year-round, enjoyed across the country and served by street food vendors in bars and restaurants from the rainy season (March to November) to harmattan (November to March), the dry season that begins with dust-laden winds blowing over the country from the Sahara. The name is a misnomer because the soup isn't necessarily defined by a pepper-forward flavor profile―the flavors are much more complex, with nutty, bitter, woodsy, and floral notes, as well as warmth.
This one-pot dish marries a deeply-flavored broth with a protein. For meat, it’s common to use chicken (stewing hens, instead of broilers, are preferred for their fuller flavor), goat, or cow’s foot, along with an assortment of offal, such as tripe, intestines, liver, and kidney. As for seafood, you’ll see versions made with tilapia, catfish, croaker, snapper, or dried fish. There are places that even offer ‘point-and-kill’ option, where you can select live catfish from a tank and have it be prepared to order―whole, cut into chunks, head included or removed, with herbs, and with varying spice levels, according to your tastes. And then there's party pepper soup, commonly made with a mix of meat and offal, which is often served as the first course at Nigerian parties.
The broth is seasoned with a blend of usually two or more indigenous spices (whole, crushed, or finely ground), like erhe (calabash nutmeg), urheri/uda (grains of Selim), alligator pepper (grains of paradise), umilo (cocoplum), and gbafilo (rough-skinned plum). Once you've decided on your protein, it's simply a matter of combining it with the spice blend, water, and herbs like lemongrass leaves, which are used as medicine and food in Nigeria, incorporated into tonics, tea, broths). Growing up, my mum often added lime leaves (not a common addition but one that pairs well). Others like to add some heft to their broth by incorporating tomatoes, onions, and fresh chiles. To finish, it’s common to add some shredded scent leaf (Ocimum gratissimum), an herb that's related to mint and basil.
My favorite version of pepper soup is from the Niger Delta region in southern coastal Nigeria, which is distinguished by the fact that it uses more spices in its spice blend. When I was a kid, my mum and grandma made various versions of it, including a thick, creamy soup called ukodo, in which yams and/or unripe plantains are cooked directly in the broth seasoned with akaun (a native alkaline rock salt that contributes a slightly mineral and earthy essence). As the vegetables cook, they soften, yielding a pepper soup with a thicker, sauce-like consistency.
For the version below, which is made with chicken and inspired by my mum and grandmother, I start by mixing, toasting, and grinding spices―nutty erhe, smoky and musky urheri, aromatic and spicy alligator pepper with notes of ginger, pepper and cardamom, and nutty-tasting umilo and gbafilo―to yield a deeply-flavored, full-bodied blend. Once that’s done, I combine the chicken, ground crayfish (a powder made from smoked and/or dried shrimp and prawns known locally as crayfish), lemongrass leaves (I use stalks of lemongrass when I can’t find the tall, thin leaves), and the spice mix, along with water, in a pot. As soon as the chicken is tender, I finish it with lime leaves and season with Nigerian dry pepper (you can use cayenne if you have it) and salt.
You can play around with the proteins. If you're using tender chicken (broilers), fish, or prawns and other seafood that take less time to cook, I recommend cooking the soup low and slow and also adding bones or shells to the pot to develop and concentrate the flavor. For seafood versions, I like to use prawn or shrimp stock instead of water. Once the flavor has developed, I strain out the bones or shells, add the seafood, and simmer until cooked.
At home, I love serving pepper soup with lightly salted boiled yam, just-ripe plantains, and lashings of thick, unrefined red palm oil―I highly recommend you do the same.
- For the Spice Mix (See Note):
- 8 urheri pods (grains of Selim), seeded
- 6 erhe seeds (calabash nutmeg), shelled
- 2 gbafilo seeds, shelled and roughly chopped
- 2 umilo seeds, shelled and roughly chopped
- 1/2 teaspoon alligator pepper (grains of paradise)
- 1/2 teaspoon uziza seeds
- For the Pepper Soup:
- 1 small chicken (about 2 pounds; 905g), cut into 2-inch pieces (see note)
- 2 quarts (1.9L) cold water
- 2 teaspoons ground crayfish (see note)
- 1 teaspoon (4g) Diamond Crystal kosher salt, plus more to taste; for table salt, use half as much by volume or the same weight
- 1/2 teaspoon Nigerian red dry pepper or cayenne pepper, plus more to taste
- 6 fresh lemongrass leaves, divided (see note)
- 1 large (or 2 small) fresh makrut lime leaves
- 2 to 3 sprigs fresh scent leaf, finely chopped, for garnish (see note)
- Boiled yam, plantain, white sweet potatoes, or cooked white rice, for serving
- Unrefined West African red palm oil, for serving
For the Spice Mix: In a small stainless-steel or cast iron skillet, combine urheri, erhe, gbafilo, umilo, alligator pepper, and uziza. Over medium-low heat, toast spices, stirring and swirling frequently, until fragrant, about 5 minutes. Let cool to room temperature, about 10 minutes. Transfer spices to a spice grinder and grind until a crumbly, coarse powder forms, 2 to 3 minutes. Empty into a small bowl; set aside.
For the Pepper Soup: In a large stockpot, combine chicken, water, ground crayfish, salt, cayenne pepper, half of the lemongrass, and prepared spice mix. Bring to a boil over high heat, then reduce heat to maintain a simmer. Simmer until chicken is cooked through and tender, but not falling off the bone, about 45 minutes (the time may vary depending on how the meat was cut).
Add lime leaves and remaining lemongrass. Season with salt and cayenne pepper to taste. Let stand to allow flavors to develop, about 10 minutes.
To serve, divide chicken between warmed soup bowls. Ladle broth on top, garnish with scent leaf, and serve with or alongside boiled yams, plantains, white sweet potatoes, or rice, and a small bowl of palm oil for dipping.
Make-Ahead and Storage
The spice mix can be stored in an airtight container at cool room temperature for up to 6 months. Store away from light and heat.
Pepper soup can be refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 1 week, or frozen for up to 2 months.
I prefer bone-in, skin-on chicken for its richer flavor. Cutting the chicken into bite-size pieces through the bone requires a heavy-duty cleaver. If you are unable to cut up the chicken yourself and you can’t find a butcher to do it for you, substitute with 1 1/2 pounds (680g) boneless, skin-on chicken thighs, cut into bite-size pieces, and 1/2 pound (225g) chicken wings, separated into drumettes and flats.
You can substitute ground crayfish with an equal volume of dried prawns or shrimp, which are available in Chinese or Asian markets.
This recipe is ideally made with the leaves of the lemongrass plant, which are more flavorful and aromatic than lemongrass stalks. If you can’t find them, substitute with 2 stalks of lemongrass. To prepare, discard the outer layer, smash the stalk under the flat side of a knife, and cut crosswise into 3 equal lengths.
Scent leaf is a Nigerian herb, which is available fresh or dried. If you can't find it, feel free to substitute with cinnamon basil or other types of clove basil.