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How a Grandma’s Secret Wisdom Turned One Girl Into a Great Chef

Chef MaMusu

Chef MaMusu: 'I walked in her footsteps'

By Linnea Crowther

Chef Ida MaMusu has been the brains behind Richmond’s Africanne on Main since 1995, offering dishes inspired by her Liberian childhood with a healthy, modern twist. She learned to cook at her grandmother’s knee — not by following recipes but by watching and doing. Now that her grandmother is gone, Chef MaMusu carries on her legacy by feeding Richmonders dishes like the pepper soup she grew up savoring.

What secret wisdom lies behind that amazing soup? We chatted with Chef MaMusu and found out — and she even shared the recipe, too, for those who want to explore its mysterious ways themselves...

Chef MaMusu on learning to cook from a Liberian grandmother:

“The way I learned, most Africans train their children this way: There’s nothing like you’re writing down 'A cup of rice' or 'A cup of water.' You just stand there, or you sit near her, and you keep watching her cook it. And she’s not saying to you, ‘OK, put the water in now’ — she’s just cooking, acting as if you’re not even there. And then, she’ll do it a couple of times — two, three, four times — and you watch her. Then she’ll say, ‘OK, go and cook pepper soup.’ And you’ll be like, ‘Aaaaaahhh!!!'

“You will start cooking it, and then she will tell you when you start going wrong. So once you put the water in, if you put too much, she will say, ‘Too much water.’ You’ll take a little out, and you’ll say, ‘That’s it?’ And she’ll be like, ‘No, too much water.’ Then you take a little bit more, and she’ll say, ‘Too little water.’ That’s how you get it. Sometimes you make a mess with the first batch, and then she will tell you where you went wrong, and that’s it. That’s how you learn.

“My grandmother didn’t even go in the kitchen. She sat on the porch, and I had to bring everything to her from the kitchen. You bring your pot, she looks at it, and she’ll tell you what stage it is, and you carry it back to the stove. You bring it back and she’ll say, ‘OK, what the pot is doing right now?’ Now everything was about the motion. I would go, ‘Grandma, the pot is going dudududududududududu.’ And then she’d say, ‘OK, it’s at stage two, so now you can add the meat.’ Then, maybe 30 minutes later, she’d say, ‘Go and check the pot.’ I’d say, ‘It’s going boop… boop… boop.’ And then she’ll say, ‘OK, it’s almost ready.’

“We also learn with the smell. When you start off cooking, you don’t have a whole lot of aroma. As you go deeper, it gets ready, then it starts to smell. She would ask you from the beginning, ‘What do you smell?’ I would be like, ‘I don’t smell nothing,’ and she’d be like, ‘OK!’ Ten minutes later: ‘What do you smell?’ And I would put my nose to the pot and sniff it, and I’d be like, ‘Oh, I smell pepper! Ha ha! A whole lot of pepper, it’s burning my nose!’ And she’d say, ‘OK, you’re getting it.’

“It was so emotional with her, and just fun. Everything was just a drama, cooking a pot of food with her.”

On growing up in Liberia:

“When my mother gave me to my grandma, I was eight years old. My grandmother had only two children, she had my mom and my uncle, who died at an early age, so it was just my mother. And my mother had a bunch of daughters, you know, there were six of us. My mother gave me to my grandma because she felt that I was naturally talented. My grandma, because she had only one child, she wanted to pass on everything she knew to one of us.

“I was the only one that was willing to take that challenge. It was really a challenge — I wasn’t one of those kids who went out to play. I was always with my grandmother... I carried her pocketbook for her. Everywhere she went, I had the pocketbook. She would tell me to open it and take the money out when we went to the marketplace. Her friends would see her and say, ‘Emma, where your pocketbook at?’ And she’d say, ‘She’s right here!’

"I was very stern with that pocketbook. Oh, you’d have to cut my arm off if you wanted in that pocketbook. Ha ha! She would say, ‘You need to take out a dollar,’ and I would put my head all the way in the pocketbook so nobody would see how much money was in there to pull out a dollar.”

On finding her way to the restaurant business:

“I knew that one day I would be owning my own restaurant, but I didn’t know where, what part of the world I would be living in. I didn’t foresee that. But my grandmother did. She used to tell me, 'I see you in a faraway land, just cooking to your heart’s content.' But I never really saw it — even when I moved to Richmond, I still didn’t see it, because I didn’t start out doing a restaurant.

“I had a little consignment store, and then I had a hair braiding salon. And how I did it was, when people would sit in my chair for eight or ten hours, braiding the hair, I would cook, and then I would feed them. I would always have food on my stove, and they’d be sitting there eight hours, and I would say, ‘Try this.’ And they’d be like, ‘Oh my God, this is so good! Can I carry some home for my family, since I’m here eight hours?’

“So I started doing that. Then they would call me and say, ‘I’m coming to get my hair braided, Ida, can you cook so-and-so for my family because I’m going to be spending all day with you?’ So it started off that way, slowly, slowly, catering for people, and then it just kind of went on from there.”

On why she’s just like her grandmother:

“Everything in my life brings back memories of my grandma, because my entire lifestyle I’m living now, it’s like I’m living my grandma’s lifestyle. Most of my family would tell me, ‘You’re just like Grandma.’ My grandma was very talented; she could do like billions of things at the same time. She was one of those women who kept three businesses going at the same time, you know, she’d juggle. She was extremely talented and she used all of her talents.

“She always used to say, ‘Put everything out there. If one would catch, all of them would catch, because they’re all related.’ So that’s what I’m doing in my life right now. I have the restaurant. I also have a cooking school for girls. I also produce my own natural drinks, and I’m trying to write a cookbook right now, that’s in process.

“The restaurant is over 20 years old, and I am sort of slowly removing myself from it — not that I’m gone, but I’m branching off into other things that she used to do when she was my age. Every step that I’m making now, I’m walking in her footsteps. I am really living in her footsteps, and I’m having a great time doing it.”

On the dishes at Africanne on Main that customers can’t get enough of:

“The customers love the mixed greens. That’s the most popular, the mixed greens, the ginger iced tea, the cornbread. Those are the three things I cannot do without at the restaurant.

“But again, because a lot of the customers have been eating my food for the last 20 years, most of them have their favorites. A customer just left from here, she loves the sweet potatoes and sautéed chicken livers. That’s her favorite. When I don’t have it, she have a fit. Some of them like the spinach, the African spinach with chicken and fish, that’s their favorite.

“I don’t want to brag or anything, but because I use my talent to the fullest, because my grandmother taught me to, and I’m not afraid, there’s not just one thing [that people like best]. I’ve got a couple of African dishes that when I cook, they just fall out of their chairs, yeah. But other than that, I’m rounded.

“So they all have their favorites when they come here, but the overall is the collard greens, the cornbread, and the tea. If I don’t have anything else on that buffet, I can’t run out of those three things. They’ll leave everything else, but those greens? Don’t mess with it.”

On the magic of pepper soup:

“The pepper soup evolves. It starts out as pepper soup on Saturday, and then the pepper soup turns into something else on Sunday, and then the pepper soup turns into something else on Monday. By the time you get to Wednesday, then you start looking at it like, 'OK, what name is this now? It’s no longer pepper soup.'

“On Saturday it’s a soup, on Sunday it turns into a stew because it’s heavier, and then on Monday it turns into like a gravy, and then on Tuesday it’s into vegetable stuff, and on Wednesday it’s like, ‘Oooohhh. We don’t know what this is.’

“Now, pepper soup is almost like a gumbo. It has anything you can think of in there. Depending on the household and what type of meats they can eat is what they put in there. You can put seafood, shrimp, crab, fish, lamb, beef, whatever. It’s very spicy and it’s very hot, and it has okras in it, but it’s basically like a bouillabaisse.

“With my grandmother’s pepper soup, the fishermen from the river will come early on Saturday morning and bring these fresh sea bass, like maybe 12 to 15 inches long, fresh stuff. They’ll bring it and they’ll clean it and cut it up, and that’s how we start the soup. Our version was mostly chicken and fish and beef-based. It would start off on Saturday with that.

“What she would do is make this huge pot of soup and then break that soup into three different parts. So on Saturday, we have that pepper soup. The other part of it would be on Sunday, she would add some cornstarch and then it would turn into stew, so it’s a little bit heavier. And we’d eat that with rice. Then on Monday, she’d add some vegetable oil and some other vegetables, and you eat that with maybe potatoes. Then on Tuesday, she would put spinach or something in it, whatever that dish is. So the pepper soup becomes a base, and then for the next three days, it evolves into other stuff.”

Make the pepper soup at home — and feel free to let it evolve — starting with Chef MaMusu’s recipe:

Liberian Pepper Soup

(Adapted by Chef Ida MaMusu of Africanne on Main)

• 1 pound cubed goat, lamb, beef, chicken (whole cut in small pieces)
• 1 pound uncooked large shrimp
• 3 pounds grouper fish head or other fish with a large head (bluefish, snapper, salmon, tilapia)
• 10 cups water
• 1 medium onion, chopped
• 2 hot peppers (uncut)
• 3 whole okras
• 4 beef flavored Maggi brand bouillon cubes
• 4 bay leaves
• salt to taste 

1. In a deep sauce pan, combine all ingredients (except the fish head and shrimps).
2. Add the water and cook until meats are tender, about 30 minutes. 
3. Add shrimp and fish, then cook on medium heat for 20 minutes.
4. Simmer until soup is to be served.
5. Serve with fufu and rice.

Liberian Pepper Soup can be made with many variations depending on with meats you prefer – one or more.