On a sticky summer’s day, the last thing you are likely to be craving is hot soup. But, like Indians with their tea, Africans will sip a steaming bowl, which causes the body to perspire and, eventually, cool down. At the newly opened West African restaurant Buka, on Fulton Street in Clinton Hill, the house special is Nigerian pepper soup. It’s like fire in the bowl, a sweaty job to eat, unapologetically intense.
The pepper soup at Buka comes in goat, chicken, and fish varieties, the first being the most traditional, although all three are now commonly found in Nigeria. We opted for the goat, a bowl of broth, bony meat chunks, and not much else. The broth is constructed of tomatoes, which owner Lookman Afolayanin explained is one of the most popular ingredients in Nigeria, as well as fresh herbs like thyme and mint that collect in a sludgy deposit at the base of the bowl. And, of course, pepper. Lots of it, both raw and ground.
The first spoonful is full of flavor: a touch of ginger brightening the deep, savory pepper. It’s not until you’re halfway through the bowl that you realize you can’t stop lest the pepper take over your mouth (and soul?). It’s a feverish endeavor, carried out at an increasingly urgent pace as the heat expands and mushrooms in your mouth and nose. The only respite comes in the form of isu, a thankfully bland, stodgy mash of boiled yams that comes as a side. The lingering flavors of the soup stay with you long after it’s done, as do the perceived healing powers it’s said to contain. If chicken soup is Jewish penicillin, Nigerian pepper soup is African chemo.
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