I can relate to your skepticism. I remember the first time I had peanut butter in something other than a pb & j or chocolate candy cups. It was late spring of a year off between college and grad school. One day I was invited for dinner which turned out to be two guys cooking some mighty suspicious looking chicken (back when I ate meat) over their campfire in a rather sketchy campground.
“You put peanut butter in it?” I asked, trying to sound surprised rather than grossed out. I had a big crush on one of the two guys.
I blame my parents for teaching me to scoff at peanut butter and peanuts in general. I thought peanut butter in a savory entrée was just some camping food idea gone awry. Nonetheless, gamely I took a bite. You know where this is going…it was shockingly good. I had never tasted the spicy sweet of Thai peanut sauce, a flavor the campfire cook had recreated with some peanut butter and soy sauce and some other rather pedestrian ingredients.
At that time, neither had I tried the sesame-peanut flavor of cold Chinese noodles (recipe coming soon) or peanuts in various African dishes, including a stew which is part of the inspiration for this soup.
In Africa, groundnuts were commonly used in cooking before the easily-cultivated peanut was introduced in the 1500s by Europeans, which quickly replaced the groundnut as a staple, even borrowing its name.
But I learned all that later, when I was trying to recreate a different soup I loved. This is how it happened: Our local health food store used to make (and possibly still makes) a velvety, sweet, spicy sweet potato peanut soup that could turn around any bleak winter day. In fact, if one of those steamy vats at the end of their buffet contained any of their pureed orange-colored soups—sweet potato, carrot-ginger, or squash something-or-other—it was a good day for me.
Then something happened. Not to the quality of the soup, but the quantity. Week after week they weren’t making enough for any to be left by 5:00 p.m. When I came in for my fix, only one of the soup vats remained and it contained pea soup or onion soup or minestrone. Just a blob of orange next to the empty hole suggested what might have been. I plead with the people in the kitchen—make more! I whined to the cashiers—no more soup! They shrugged. “That one was really popular,” they said. Or, “There’s still some white bean.”
I kept leaving the store empty handed. Finally the disappointment became too much. It was time for me to learn to make orange-colored soups, and particularly the peanut one.
A recipe for a smooth soup like theirs was not to be found, however. The creamy peanut soup evidently eaten in Colonial America consisted of peanuts, stock and cream–not at all the orange soup I was looking for. Recipes for African peanut soup had sweet potato, vegetables, stock, and peanuts (or peanut butter) which seemed promising, but they were served like a stew. I decided to try similar ingredients but vegetarian and pureed.
After some experimentation I came up with a recipe that in the end doesn’t taste like the health food store version. Mine is tangier, less sweet, and pleasantly, doesn’t sit as heavily in the stomach. I think taking out the tomatoes and lime juice and adding sweetener would make it taste more like theirs, but in our house, we like this version better.
Spicy Sweet Potato Peanut Soup (Vegan)
Like most of my soups, this one is super flexible, so feel free to experiment with the ingredients, seasonings, and amounts.
- 2-3 TBS olive oil
- 2 medium onions, chopped
- 6 carrots, cut into medium rounds
- 4 stalks celery, sliced
- 2-3 cloves garlic, minced
- pinch salt (to sweat veggies)
- ½ inch fresh ginger root, minced
- 2-3 huge sweet potatoes, peeled and sliced
- 1 quart veggie broth
- 3 or so cups water (1 cup at a time)
- 14.5 oz can tomatoes (diced, or you might try fire roasted)
- 1 chipotle pepper*, sliced (canned in adobo sauce; Note–one little guy can pack quite a punch!)
- juice of 1 lime
- 2-3 teaspoons Sriracha hot sauce*
- ¼ cup natural peanut butter
- salt and pepper to taste
- crushed roasted peanuts for garnish
- Over medium low heat, warm the olive oil and then sweat onions with pinch of salt. When they’re nearly translucent, toss in carrots and celery and sauté until tender. Add the garlic and ginger and heat just until fragrant.
- Slide in your sweet potato rounds, veggie broth, chipotle pepper, can of tomatoes and enough water (if needed) so that all the veggies are covered. Turn up the heat to high and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer covered for 15-20 minutes, until sweet potatoes are very tender. Add water as needed.
- Remove pan from heat. Add lime juice, Sriracha sauce, pepper, and peanut butter. Use immersion blender to blend until smooth or the consistency that pleases you. Add water if needed.
- Return to heat and stir to make sure the peanut butter is properly mixed. Taste and add salt and pepper and adjust seasonings. Finally, (say it together now) add water if needed.
- Serve with a sprinkling of crushed peanuts in each bowl.
*In this recipe you could substitute another hot sauce, curry powder, chili powder, or crushed red peppers for different spice and a different taste.