If you try to order primordial gumbo at Finger Licking Bukateria (9817 Bissonnet), they obviously won't know what you're asking for. Our waiter on Saturday night was completely befuddled when I tried to tell him about gumbo, in fact. I was referring to the fact that the restaurant's delicious pepper soup with catfish tastes like the most basic, stripped-down version of the soup, absent any rice.
"How did everything taste?" our waiter, a young man from Lagos, asked with a big grin as he delivered the check.
"Wonderful!" my dining companion and I replied at the same time (although, in reality, I hadn't at all liked the snail and goat tripe dish I'd accidentally ordered). "This soup," I pointed to the mostly empty bowl of pepper soup, "was fantastic. It tastes a lot like gumbo!"
Our waiter just cocked his head, confused. "What is gumbo?" he asked.
"It's like this -- like a soup -- from Louisiana, but it has rice and meat in it too," I tried to explain.
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"Oh!" he laughed, dawning realization turning into a broad smile. "Louisiana! Yes, they cook many things similar to the way we do." And he's right. African cuisine, particularly Nigerian cuisine, is easily accessible to anyone familiar with Creole or even just plain Southern cooking. It's the precursor, after all, to those cuisines in many ways.
One of the simplest ways to introduce yourself to African food is to head to Finger Licking Bukateria and order the pepper soup. You can get it with one of four main proteins: goat (the most traditional option), ox tails, tilapia or catfish. It's the pepper soup with the catfish, though, that tastes so familiar to Gulf coast residents.
Like the Creole version of gumbo, pepper soup is based on a meat and tomato broth flavored with thyme, onion and pepper. My dining companion thought he tasted filé powder in it, too. I'm wondering if Finger Licking Bukateria flavors their soup with filé, which is made from ground sassafras leaves; it's certainly easier to get here in Texas than the more traditional utazi leaves.
One word of warning: The pepper soup here isn't called "pepper soup" because it pairs nicely with salt. It's nose-runningly hot, and best consumed with something mild on the side. I used the fufu seen above (it's the doughy-looking ball) to calm my palate between bites. Considering the "soup" I'd accidentally ordered to go with the fufu contained nothing but collard greens, goat hide, goat fat and snails, the pepper soup was a far better accompaniment.