Growing up eating Liberian pepper soup taught me the importance of the perfect bowl of soup. When an aunty invited us over for a mammoth pot of meaty soup, there were decisions to be made. "How will I eat my soup today?"
The choices begin even before the soup is ladled into the large bowls that are only taken down for this purpose. One must determine what starch will go with their soup: rice or fufu. If it's fufu, do you want cassava or plantain fufu. How about dumboy, which is fermented fufu? Not many of the kids choose that one.
Next are the add-ins. Unlike with pho or Asian noodle soups, the condiments and flavorings are usually added to the bowl before the soup. This gives the eater a chance to mash everything together without slopping soup out of the bowl. Exotic ingredients like okra, bitterball, benin seed (mashed sesame seeds), vinegar pepper sauce, and steamed habenero peppers are all laid out for the taking. Along side these are more conventional things like peanut butter and lime that have a very distinctive effect on the flavor of the soup but should never be added together.
This process of adding, mashing, mixing and adding more is how I grew up eating soup and instilled in me the idea that sometimes food has to be doctored to be enjoyed. The fact that no two people's bowls are identical is thrilling.
So in the spirit of winter (you remember winter, when it's supposed to be COLD), I will be focusing on soups and stews that warm the body and the spirit. First up: Pho!