You Always Take Pepper Soup Home: An Introduction to Liberian Cuisine

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Pepper soup, a traditional Liberian food, in a metal boiling pot

They call Tashie George “The Connector.”

Her food delivery business, Ifrimarket, allows people living in the United States to schedule and pay for food deliveries in her native country of Liberia. Tashie was also a driving force behind this year’s Taste of Liberia, which saw an estimated 400 people pass through in the event’s second installment. She connects continents and she connects cultures.

And, as I sit at her dinner table on Sunday night, she’s connecting me with a bowl of her homemade fufu and pepper soup. She brings over maybe half the contents of a large metal pot that had been boiling on her stovetop and sets it on a hot pad in the center of her glass table.

She had repeatedly asked me to sit down and relax while she cooked, but I kept coming back into the kitchen to look into that large metal pot. I saw fat shrimp tails, pig feet, cuts of beef, big pieces of fish in there. I’d keep my face just inches from the rising steam. When she did finally talk me into my chair, I squirmed in it like an over-caffeinated kid. Now, with the soup right in front of me, I’m practically doing butt-jumps in my seat.

“The way we’re taught in my tribe, you want to keep the seasonings as simple as possible,” she says. “Maggi Cube, season it with that; and add hot peppers to make it spicy. The flavor from the protein balances that out.”

She sets a bowl down in front of me, a big white bowl made heavy by a mound of fufu (a dough made from plantain or cassava) inside. I brush a spoonful of okra across the fufu, and then pour pepper soup on top of that. Two ladles of pepper soup would have been a practical helping, but I take three.

Okay, fine: four.

Tashie talks business a lot during our meal. Her day job is hectic and she’s working on a bunch of upcoming events. Me, I’m just a blubbering fool for this pepper soup. I only say variations of “Oh my god, this pepper soup!” My body is warm with that spiritual warmth you get from the right summer sunset or a winter night by a fireplace. My lips are quivering slightly.

Tashie remembers pepper soup as the centerpiece of Thanksgiving meals. Everyone knew the routine: you went straight for the pepper soup and got your fill before it was gone. If someone caught an elbow, so be it.

Tashie learned the family recipe 10 or 11 years ago, around the time she gave birth to her daughter. She slid me a few of the recipe’s secrets, but I want to live so I won’t write them here.

“The thing about it is it takes a lot of time to prepare,” she says. “I don’t try to rush it. Cooking comes from the heart. If I’m not in the mood and I’m not rolling, it’s not going to taste good.”

I ask Tashie whether bad pepper soup makes her angry and she says “Yes, immediately.”

I ask her who makes the best pepper soup around here, and she says “Mama Ti’s.”

Mama Ti’s owner Jerome Butler

When I ask Mama Ti’s owner Jerome Butler about family meals back home, he tells me about dinner time with the whole family at the table. The TV was off. The older folks told stories. Often, dinner would be had outside. Sometimes that meant the back porch; other times, that meant a mat laid out on the grass. They’d eat and look up at the sky.

“My experience was very positive,” says Jerome, who has lived stateside for about 20 years now. “It’s not as stressful. It’s freeing.”

Jerome has a clear voice and a sturdy handshake. He graduated from Mankato State University with a degree in finance, and held jobs previously with the Department of Education and banking companies. He tired of corporate culture, though. He compares himself in that environment to an assassin, always looking for the next level or increase in pay.

“My motivation now is about making people happy, family, stuff like that,” he says. “My priorities have changed.

Jerome’s “family” is a lot larger these days. Since purchasing Mama Ti’s, he says the opportunity to introduce Liberian food to newcomers is one he and his team welcome everyday.

“It’s very exciting to see the expression on people’s faces,” he says. “Some of them are a little bit scared. They don’t know what to expect, but once they taste it … the satisfaction you get when people try the food, that’s what keeps us going.”

It was at Mama Ti’s where I first tasted fufu and pepper soup. I was confused by the fufu at first, didn’t know what to do with that big mashed potato-looking blob in my bowl. By itself, it tasted bland; dipped in my pepper soup, it soaked up flavors and was a perfect balancing weight. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve had fufu and pepper soup since. If I’m at work under a gloomy sky, there’s a good chance I’m lunching at Mama Ti’s.

Pepper soup and fufu at Mama Ti’s

Liberian cooking is about creativity, says Jerome, using ingredients that occur naturally in the environment. He compared it to Caribbean cooking methods. For Liberian cooks, that means cassava leaf, which comes from yuca root; sweet potato greens, which are chopped up and cooked; red palm oil, used to make palm butter; and that fufu, which Mama Ti’s makes out of plantain flour.

Fufu looks pretty simple when you just see it there, but screw up the details and you could end up with a soggy mush.

“You have to add enough water to the fufu to cook it,” says Jerome, “but it’s got to keep its form so you can mold it. If you don’t get the plantain mix and the water measurements right, it gets soggy.”

I’ve eaten enough fufu now to have met soggy fufu (it wasn’t at Mama Ti’s). Soggy fufu is like paste, and I don’t mean a food paste. I mean the Elmer’s paste you’d keep sticks of in grade school. Just like bad pepper soup infuriates Tashie, I can tell you soggy fufu is a mood-killer, straight up.

Mama Ti’s pepper soup has nice cuts of meat and big bones. I was taught on my second visit to spoon-bash my peppers to unleash its flavor. Do that, and it’ll be like when the images finally pop out of your 3-D image poster (and that’s a reference I’ll never stop using).

Only once have I eaten my entire order of fufu and pepper soup at the restaurant. Every other time, I’ve brought about half of it home. It never lasts long there. If fufu and pepper soup was lunch, inevitably, fufu and pepper soup will be dinner.

Jerome says these recipes are generational, from the pepper soup to the okra-based GB soup he says he’d go for on the day I speak with him. But it’s about much more than soup. As one example, he offers me a taste of another family secret: a bottle of ginger beer he says goes back nearly 100 years. The ginger beer is brewed on-site, and Butler estimates they sell 630 glasses of it every month. Pure ginger, he says, no extract.

“My mother has refined it to the point where we could commercialize it,” he says.

Jerome’s mother, by the way, is not Mama Ti. He explained the previous owners was called Mama Ti by her grandkids. Butler fell in love with the name and kept it, but that does lead to the occasional awkward moment when a happy customer wants to thank Mama Ti personally. It might just have to become a travelling title, he thinks.

“Whoever the primary chef is back there,” he says, “that’s your Mama Ti.”

Tashie boasts often about Liberia’s culinary supremacy among African nations and suspects a link exists, if even a small one, between the success of Liberian cuisine and the incorporation of African-American culture into it. She points out potato greens and okra-based soups as examples. Gumbo and collard greens, too.

“I think it makes it easy for Americans from other cultures to approach our food because they recognize our ingredients,” she says. “I think our food relates a lot to African-American culture, for the simple fact that the freed slaves that left here and went back to Africa went to Liberia.”

The first emigrants from America sailed to west Africa in 1824 and established the Republic of Liberia. Liberia (whose name means “Land of Freedom”) declared independence in 1847. The country’s timeline since independence can be found on the BBC website.

Two civil wars were fought in Liberia between 1980 to 2003, and Liberia was one of the countries hit hardest by the Ebola outbreak of 2014. Liberia is working its way past that, though. The country was declared Ebola-free in 2016. The country’s unemployment rate holding steady at under 4 percent, and the country getting back into tourist destination conversations. Liberia recently elected former national soccer star George Weah president. Despite being 51 years of age, he took the field for a match against Nigeria last month.

Tashie emigrated to the United States as a child in the late 1980s, growing up in Westchester County, N.Y., before moving to Minnesota in her 20s.

“You felt liberated in New York,” she says. “I became who I am because I was in New York. You have survival of the fittest, and I survived. New York has a sense of building up character, and it made me a tough person.”

Her love of food grew up in New York, too, and I should probably disclose that my work on this story has led Tashie and I on a few stomps up and down Lake Street in Wayzata. One night, I taunted her via text by sending her a picture of fried green tomatoes I was eating at ninetwentyfive. Within a half-hour, she was in the barstool next to me with a cocktail. We’ve shared a Dirty French Burger at Bellecour, and turned a booth table at 6Smith into an impressive plate graveyard during happy hour one night. You could say she and I are pretty connected at this point.

“You’re on the go so much [in New York], you become a foodie,” she says. “We know going out to eat. We go out to eat for lunch, we go out for dinner, for brunch, anywhere we can find it.”

She handled business a lot during those meals, too. It never really shuts off. It can’t. In addition to everything previously mentioned, Tashie sits on the Liberian Business Association. She has a personal goal of helping launch 100 small businesses in Liberia by the year 2020.

When I ask her about inspiration, she brings up her father, and her younger brother who remained in Liberia. She recalls a conversation she had with a friend one night, wondering how she can make sure he has access to food quickly.

“We send a lot of aid back home,” she says. “Western Union, MoneyGram. For me, I just thought about … why is there not a place I can go to? How can I make this happen?”

My bowl, which was previously full from a mound of fufu and four ladles of pepper soup, is now a dry vessel of bones and scraps. I offer to help clean up, but all she lets me do is seal up a glass container with leftover pepper soup … for me to bring home. Within minutes of my departure, Tashie is on a conference call. She predicts I’ll pass right out when I get home, and she’s right about that.

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