Pepper soup and positive thinking


The Philadelphia Inquirer carried this in February 2020: “‘Pepper-Pot: A Scene in the Philadelphia Market’ by John Lewis Krimmel. With consideration for the differences in attire among those captured in the scene, this 1811 painting is an example of how Philadelphians across classes enjoyed the soup.Philadelphia Museum of Art: 125th Anniversary Acquisition. Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Edward B. Leisenring, Jr., 2001-196-1”

It’s that time of year – people are thinking of pepper soup and positivity.

There are, of course, as many kinds of pepper soup as there are culinary traditions. There’s Nigerian pepper soup (Oggun, in Yoruba), peppery South Indian rasam (Pathiya Milagu Jeera Rasam), roasted red pepper soup, smoky roasted pepper soup, Philadelphia pepper pot soup, or a flavourful combination of peppers and any vegetable you want. Puerto Rican sofrito, for instance, relies on a solid base of peppers, mixed with garlic, onions and cilantro.

The Nigerian and Philadelphia soups are the heaviest on that list. This, because they have a meat base, with the Philadelphia pepper pot distinctive in its use of beef tripe.

On balance, however, so long as cream has not been used in any of them, pepper soups are fairly light and well in line with most peoples’ aspirations for how they will be in the new year. A pepper soup can almost be said to have a lightness of being.

Unsurprisingly, some of television and the business world’s better known chefs are upbeat about pepper soup and peppers in soup.

Yemisi Awosan, founder of the West African jarred stew brand , says she likes to freeze a pureed mixture of red pepper, onion and tomato. By cutting down on prep time, Ms Awosan says she always has a delicious, homemade base for African soups such as obe ata.

And here’s Nigella Lawson on something she calls Sunshine Soup (N.B.: It’s got sweetcorn.): “There was a British singing outfit in the Seventies called Instant Sunshine and this is it in soup form. The silkiness comes from the peppers which are quickly blitzed in a hot oven, then blended with the sweetcorn which is cooked in stock. There’s nothing more to it, and it is health-giving and mood-boosting – providing sunshine on a rainy day.”

Home cooks describe the Milagu Jeera Rasam with its emphasis on black pepper and cumin seeds as a healing and thereby hopeful soup.

So, what is it about soup that is considered so restorative? I like the Chinese mythological story about Meng Po, the goddess of forgetfulness, who helps the individual move from one life to the next and serves a bowl of her special soup to help the process. The soup, which is sweet and bitter and sour and salty, is made with tears, herbs and river water and is said to delete painful memories.

Perchance a warming pepper soup makes positive memories?