Story by Lindsay Sterling
Photos by Yulia Converse
I’m into peanuts these days for a handful of reasons. I recently learned how to cook an awesome peanut soup from Ghana. Soon after learning that, I happen go to a professional peanut conference in Napa Valley. I sat next to – I’m not kidding – a VP of Peanut Butter. He works for Smucker’s. Nice guy. Scientists basically told us at the conference that peanuts are little vitamin pills. A couple days after I get home, my Bolivian friend offers to teach me how to make her favorite soup, sopa de mani. Guess what mani means. Peanut. I’m like, what thuh...why are peanuts suddenly coming at me from everywhere?
Well, the phenomenon has been a good ten thousand years in the making. From the moment Mother Nature gave birth to peanuts (it is thought in Bolivia) over 7600 years ago, they’ve been getting around. A necklace of gold and silver peanut shells found in a 2000-year-old tomb in Peru shows how much people revered them. (This necklace is stunning. Ever since I saw its picture online, I want it. Honey?...The Lord of Sipán’s necklace? For my birthday?) It is thought that Spanish or Portuguese explorers then introduced peanuts to Africa and Asia. Peanuts, it is thought, came to the United States by way of the African slave trade.
Well, you won’t believe our luck, but my Bolivian friend happens to be 99.9% Quechua! That’s a native population in Bolivia that goes back to way before Europeans ever arrived. She could be the progeny of one of the original peanut eating peoples on the planet! Her grandparents still make sopa de mani at 3am and eat it for breakfast at 5am, before going to work in the potato fields. So...we’re talking about a cooking method – blending peanuts and using them in soup broth - that could go back, like, seven thousand years! Most of the main ingredients in this soup are native to Bolivia: potatoes, peppers, green beans, and peanuts. The Spaniards and Portuguese likely inspired adding beef, garlic, carrots, and oregano, after they came in the 1500s. Before they arrived, the soup was likely vegetarian or made with alpaca meat.
Now here’s what really threw me when I watched my Bolivian friend cook. All my life I thought peanuts were brown, but that’s only because I’ve never pulled a peanut out of the ground, peeled off the fibrous shell and papery red skin, and looked at the raw, unprocessed nut (technically, a legume). It’s white. She blended the raw nuts in a blender with water, and the puree looked as white as a vanilla milkshake. She intercepted me from tasting it, though. “Raw peanuts need to be cooked an hour at least or it makes the tummy ache. That’s what my mom says.”
We mixed the puree into a soup broth we’d made of beef ribs, water, salt, diced onion, green pepper, carrot, red pepper, and slivers of green beans, and the soup turned as white as clam chowder. In the end, she placed a mound of fried potato strips in the middle of each bowl, and sprinkled chiffonade of fresh parsley and cilantro on top. Each person at the table put in their own dollop of a homemade hot sauce, llajua. “YAH hwah,” I practiced saying it. It sounds like how I feel about learning this soup. You’ve got to try it.