Fish Pepper Soup
Pepper soup is a spicy dish made from a distinct blend of ground seeds, spices and fresh herbs. A generous spoonful might make your nostrils tingle, and even make you break a sweat, as you might during the humidity of noontime Lagos. Pepper soup can be made with any type of meat or seafood, and even obscure cuts and scraps can be elevated by the bold broth. This version uses a whole fish, taking the bones to make the stock, then poaching the fillets in the flavorful liquid. Ground pepper soup spices can be found easily at markets all over Nigeria; here in the United States, you can find them at African grocers or online. For the adventurous, I’ve included a recipe using whole spices that you can toast and grind into a blend of your own. Serve the dish alongside steamed white rice, steamed plantains or Agege bread, if desired.
- Serves: 6 persons
- 2whole fish (1 1/2 to 2 pounds each), such as black bass, red snapper, croaker or mackerel, filleted off the bone, with spine and head reserved for stock
- 2large red onions (about 1 1/2 pounds), peeled and quartered
- 1(2-inch) piece fresh ginger, peeled
- 2lemongrass stalks, cut into 4-inch pieces and pounded with the back of a knife
- 1garlic bulb, halved crosswise
- 1fresh bay leaf
- 6small dried hot chiles, such as bird’s-eye or cayenne
- 2dried smoked chiles, such as chipotle
- 6selim seed pods or black cardamom pods, crushed lightly with the back of a knife
- 1red habanero chile, stemmed and halved
- 1small bunch fresh thyme
- 1small bunch fresh parsley
- 1small bunch fresh cilantro
- Kosher salt
- 2tablespoons grains of paradise (alligator pepper)
- 1tablespoon uziza seeds
- 4calabash nutmeg seeds, toasted, cracked open with the back of a knife, shells discarded, and small interior seeds reserved
- 1gbafilo seed, shelled, interior seed cracked into smaller pieces
- 2teaspoons coriander seeds
- 2teaspoons cumin seeds
- Kosher salt
- ¼cup whole fresh mint leaves
- ¼cup scent leaf (or African or Thai basil)
- ¼cup fresh cilantro leaves
Step 1Place the fish carcasses in a stock pot and cover with about 4 quarts of water. Add the onions, ginger, lemongrass, garlic, bay leaf, dried and smoked chiles, and selim seed pods. Bring up to a boil, then reduce the heat to low. Simmer until the fish bones have broken down and the vegetables are softened, at least 1 hour. Add the habanero, thyme, parsley and cilantro during the last 10 minutes of cooking. (You can make the fish stock 1 day ahead and store it in the refrigerator.)
Step 2While the stock is simmering, prepare the pepper soup spices: Heat a small skillet over medium, and add the grains and seeds. Toast, moving frequently, until the seeds begin to crackle and become fragrant, 4 to 5 minutes. Remove from heat and let cool. Transfer the mixture to a spice grinder and pulse to a smooth powder. (Store away from heat or direct sunlight in an airtight jar until ready to use.)
Step 3Cut the fish fillets into 2-inch cubes and season with salt. Strain out all the solids from the stock and return the stock to the pot. Add 2 tablespoons pepper soup spice and reserve any extra for the garnish. Season with salt and bring up to a boil over high. Reduce the heat to low and bring the broth to a simmer.
Step 4Gently add the fish cubes and simmer on low until just cooked through, about 4 minutes.
Step 5Divide the soup among bowls. Top with fresh mint, scent leaf, cilantro and a sprinkle of pepper soup spice.