James Beard Publication of the Year 2017

Skeptical About This Hangover‑Free Palm Wine, But At Least It Comes With Soup

Photo credit: Iquo Ukoh / 1Q Food Platter

Skeptical About This Hangover‑Free Palm Wine, But At Least It Comes With Soup

Palm Wine and Pepper Soup in Lagos

Work hard, play hard. This is the unwritten code of the average Lagosian’s daily hustle, from which the weekend offers a brief respite.

Many dreamers come to Lagos, where anything sells, in pursuit of work, money, fame—or all of the above. My friend, Aminu, is one these dreamers. He moved from Zaria, in the northern part of the country, to Lagos a few weeks ago. Though the gods of the city have yet to smile on him and line his pockets with cash, I tell him not worry—it’s early days.

It’s a wet Saturday evening, and we decided to hang out at my favourite bar, Abe Igi, in the Lekki Peninsula. Lagosians love their pepper soup, and I love their palm wine. I wanted Aminu to have a taste of the culture and chaos of Lagos at night, with its neon colors and mashups of Hip-Pop and Afrobeat music. People flock to the city’s clubs and bars to empty their worries—and their pockets—over bottles of beer or gourds of palm wine, but also, for plates of pepper soup.

I ordered my usual palm wine. It can vary in flavor from resembling a coconut cocktail to more like vodka, depending on how long it ferments, and is made from sap tapped from palm trees. Here, it’s a frothy, white drink with a certain degree of tang that leaves one feeling a bit lightheaded. I like it because it’s brewed directly from our local soil; it’s refreshing to the soul, and because the main ingredient is just tree sap, we don’t have to worry about getting a hangover.

At Abe Igi, they serve the wine in medium-sized gourd alongside two calabash bowls, just the way locals like it. We also placed an order for pepper soup: catfish pepper soup for Aminu and goat-meat pepper soup for me. It’s not just made from pepper; there are many African spices that lend the broth its fiery and hot profile. It’s served as an appetizer at social functions, but Lagosians love to eat pepper soup when they go out because it’s a ‘feel good’ delicacy: lightweight, yet rich, and perfect for relaxing.

When we began to eat, the soup burned my throat, and I could see Aminu’s eyes were watery with tears, but each sip and gulp of the wine left a slight buzz, both soothing and refreshing. The bar’s aroma of spices, proteins, and tubers thickened as more orders for pepper soup poured in.

Palm wine and pepper soup is a sophisticated balance of heat and comfort—much like Lagos. The city is not for the faint-hearted, but, just like the calabash of palm wine in my hands, it finds a way to reward its most driven and enterprising.

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