Making real West African cuisine from scratch probably sounds like a challenging task — the handcrafted food highlights a myriad of organic ingredients and spices — but this fish pepper soup is impossible to pass up. The fragrant dish features a distinct blend of ingredients from the tilapia down to the scotch bonnet peppers. At Brooklyn’s BUKA this type of authentic Nigerian cuisine is on display all the time.
Lookman Afolayan has been the chef and owner of BUKA for 12 years. Since its inception he’s been serving authentic Nigerian cuisine that’s completely made from scratch.
“Nothing is fake,” he said. “Everything you see is real, I am giving you authentic food you will get anywhere in West Africa.”
That same principle applies to his pepper soup recipe. The dish can be prepared with a variety of proteins, but Afolayan’s recipe calls for two whole tilapia, a lean fish that’s native to Africa. Tilapia has a sweet yet mild flavor that might make it boring to have on it’s own, but in soups and stews it can easily take on the flavor profile of other broths and spices. For this recipe you should buy tilapia that’s already been scaled and gutted to save prep time.
But perhaps the ingredient you might have the hardest time tracking down is the actual Nigerian pepper soup spice itself. Afolayan stresses the importance of using the real thing instead of substituting it for other ingredients you can find in the United States. The spices are native to Nigeria but you can find them in an African market or online.
If you want to try your hand at making the pepper soup spice from scratch, you’ll need three ingredients: alligator peppers, grains of selim and calabash nutmeg. Start by breaking open the alligator pepper to get the seeds from inside. Rub the seeds to make sure the pepper’s casing is thoroughly removed. Once the seeds are free, roast them in a pan with the grains of selim and calabash nutmeg over medium heat for one minute. Transfer the ingredients into a grinder and blend them until you have a fine powder.
For three tablespoons of pepper soup spice you’ll need six calabash nutmeg, eight selim peppers and one tablespoon alligator pepper. This recipe only calls for one tablespoon of the mixture but you can store the leftovers in a container and save it for other soups and stews later on.
The combination of ingredients form a nutty, floral and earthy flavor that balances nicely with the cool tilapia and spicy scotch bonnet peppers. This dish is ideal for a cozy night at home but if you’re in Brooklyn and want it straight from the belly of the beast, BUKA’s door are always wide open and Afolayan will be there to greet you with a smile; whether it’s your first or your hundredth time trying West African food.
This recipe is courtesy of BUKA
2 whole tilapia, scaled and gutted
1/2 yellow onion, cut into pieces
3 scotch bonnet peppers, finely chopped (see notes)
1 cup water
1 yellow onion, sliced
1 tablespoon Nigerian pepper soup spice* (see notes)
salt (to taste)
3 sprigs fresh thyme
Fish or vegetable stock (see directions)
3 sprigs fresh mint
Step 1: Make two shallow cuts on each side of 2 whole tilapia and soak in salt water while preparing the other ingredients.
Step 2: Grind the ½ onion, 3 finely chopped scotch bonnet peppers and 1 cup of water in a blender until roughly chopped not to a fine paste.
Step 3: In a large pot combine the blended mixture, 1 sliced yellow onion,1 tablespoon pepper soup spice and salt to taste.
Step 4: Cover the pot and boil for 10 minutes.
Step 5: Add the fish and 3 sprigs of thyme, reduce heat and simmer for another 6-7 minutes.
Step 6: Add enough stock to cover the fish and simmer for 10 more minutes.
Step 7: Add the 3 sprigs of mint and remove the pot from heat. Let it sit covered for 5 minutes before serving.