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Cheap Eats:
Nigerian Pepper Soup

I love new experiences, trying new things in new places. However, I believe it is also important to maintain a sense of what is wonderful about where I live. Over the years, I have introduced visiting friends and exchange students from half a dozen countries to the delights of Chicago: zooming to the 96th floor of the Hancock Building (shorter than the Sears Tower, but a much prettier view), taking the boat tour up the Chicago River, visiting the amazing museums, indulging in the decadence of stuffed pizza. I have always enjoyed Chicago, but never love it more than when I'm showing a newcomer around.

It is easy to find pleasure in the big things life here offers, but there are a lot of wonderful things that fill our lives that we hardly even notice. One of the joys of entertaining those from other lands is a heightened awareness of how special some of our everyday items are. Milk shakes were as astonishing as the drive-up window to a Russian student I showed around this summer. The size of the downtown Post Office amazed Australian friends who visited this fall. A few years ago, an English visitor who I took to the grocery store to help me shop for dinner became enchanted with the idea of "television suppers," as he called them, and we ended up eating TV dinners instead of the home-cooked meal I had envisioned.

Of course, the further removed the visitor is from American culture, the more numerous are the major discoveries to be made.

Ezekiel and his family live in Nigeria, West Africa, but a few years ago, they were all in the US while Ezekiel pursued his doctorate degree. Ezekiel had been to the US before, and took everything pretty much in stride, but his wife and children had never been here, and it was delightful fun watching them discover some of the marvels of life in America. Four-year-old Yemi once spent half an hour opening and closing the door of my car, staring in awe at the motion of the automatic seat belt, and repeating over and over, "cool car" (two of only about a dozen English words he knew at the time).

One November, as we prepared to share Thanksgiving dinner, I suddenly realized that I held in my hand something that was completely outside their experience—an aerosol can of whipping cream. I beckoned to Sike (pronounced Sheekay) and told her to open her mouth. I'll never forget the look on her face, eyes wide open in shocked delight, as her mouth seemingly miraculously filled with the sweet cream. Almost bursting with excitement, she ran off and grabbed her brothers, dragging them to the kitchen, pointing to the can, and shouting at me, "do it, do it."

Everything from central heating to the automatic clothes drier was an astonishing discovery—and an escalator was a wonder beyond wonders. I loved seeing my surroundings through new eyes. As caught up as they were in discovering our culture, they were always amused that I was interested in theirs. How, living in a land of miracles as I did, could I be interested in Nigeria? But I was, and I delighted in hearing tales, learning about their lives back home. I also loved their gorgeous, brightly-colored, flowing robes—while the children, at least, longed for blue jeans.

There are many different ethnic groups in modern Nigeria. Ezekiel's group is Yoruba. The dish below is a Yoruba dish, and is offered in honor of Ezekiel and his family, and in memory of the time we shared.


Nigerian Pepper Soup

3 lb. lean stewing beef

1 large onion, finely chopped

2-3 green chilies, seeded, membrane removed, finely chopped

3 fresh tomatoes, chopped

1 6-oz. can tomato paste

2 Tbs. olive oil

2 tsp. salt

½ tsp. ground black pepper

1 tsp. dried thyme leaves

6 cups water

cooked rice

Cut the meat into bite-sized pieces. Place meat, onion, chilies, tomatoes, tomato paste, oil, and seasonings in the six cups water. Bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce heat, stir well, cover pot and let simmer for 1 hour, or until meat is very tender. To serve, put cooked rice in bowls and ladle soup over rice.

Serves 8.


Important cooking secret:

For the green chilies, I use jalapeño peppers, which are very mild when cooked this long. You can increase the number of chilies, or you can use hotter chilies, depending on your tastes and tolerance to heat. Also, if you don't have fresh chilies, you can use crushed red pepper flakes (anywhere from ¼ tsp. to 1 tsp., depending, again, on your tolerance to heat — red pepper flakes will be hotter than jalapeño peppers).

Variations:

To make this recipe cheaper, you can substitute 2 or 3 new (red skinned) potatoes for one pound of beef. As for the rice, white would be closer to authentic, but brown is also good, and adds a nice earthy note to this comfortable and comforting stew.

In Nigeria, this is as often made with goat or fish, depending on one's means and one's proximity to the ocean. For goat, the recipe is about the same. If you want to try it with fish, choose firm, skinless fillets, cut each fillet into thirds, and reduce cooking time to 40 minutes.

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