Monday, March 17, 2008

Liberian Cuisine, Part One

Let's talk about food. What we eat and how we eat it help define our culture, and I would be remiss if I did not explore with you Liberia's contribution to the culinary arts. Most of you know that the four Reeds spent much of our lives in the Great Lakes region of North America. Renita is Canadian, living most of her growing years in Ontario, while the rest of us are Michiganders through and through. We all grew up on foods very different from what we have encountered in West Africa. Compared with my midwestern culinary orientation, the food in Liberia is blunt, unrestrained, and powerful. Three years ago our uninitiated taste buds found many of the dishes overwhelming, and at times repulsive in flavor and texture. I remember thinking critically that there was no subtlety to Liberian cuisine, no "hinting" at this taste or "suggesting" that flavor - this was rude food. Little did I know that my perspective was based on a simple misunderstanding.

One of my pet theories about food is that when we reject a new dish or initially find it unpalatable, it is at least in part because we do not “understand” it. We don’t get what the dish is “trying to be,” so we don’t know how to orient ourselves to it. A similar phenomenon occurs when one is given a tuna sandwich when expecting an ice cream cone or when one is offered New York Cheddar on sourdough when one has his palate set for French Brie on a cream cracker. The offered food is rejected as unpalatable because the mouth was expecting something else. So it was for us with the cuisine of Liberia. Palm butter, bonies, foofoo, cassava leaf, red oil, fermented fish, bitterball, kitili, torpogee, fish heads, okra—many of the foods came with unfamiliar tastes and heretofore unacceptable textures. Some we found frankly disgusting. How could Liberians love this stuff? But that rhetorical question became the key to understanding. Liberians DO love it. Maybe we were missing something. So we kept eating, kept tasting. Gradually we began to figure these foods out, and as we did, we learned how to eat them,how to enjoy them and even look forward to them. We now have our favorites, and of course some tastes we still avoid, but mostly I think we can say that we finally understand Liberian food.

So beginning this week, I thought I’d present to you some of the foods we have figured out and learned to love—and maybe a couple that we still find confusing to the brain and disagreeable to the palate. Look for these every few weeks or months.

Before we get to the dishes, there are a few things you ought to know about Liberian cuisine. 1.) Rice is the staple of Liberia, with no close second. Rice is eaten with almost every meal. Most dishes are called “soup” and served over steamed rice. 2.) Most foods are boiled, roasted or fried over coals or a wood fire. You may use a stove top. 3.) Liberians use a lot of oil. Until we figured this out and redirected our Liberian cook, we were using a cup or more of oil a meal, mixed into the soup. Unfortunately, both the raw red oil and refined oil is palm oil, which is not generally considered to be very healthy. 4) Liberia being located where it is, fish is readily available, and is the most common animal flesh found in Liberian dishes. Dried fish is very popular here, in part because it requires no refrigeration. It has a very powerful flavor, which we tend to avoid. 5.) Hot Peppers are used in many dishes. Based on all of this, if you think of Liberian foods as spicy, fishy and oily over rice, you are getting the picture for much of it. Let us begin. Actually, because I’ve used so much space on this intro, we’ll only look at two dishes today.

Palm Butter
This could be called the national dish of Liberia. It is only recently that I figured this dish out, and now it is my favorite. Renita is learning to like it, but the kids still don’t understand it. Made from the flesh of palm nuts, it has a strong musky flavor.

To prepare: Wash palm nuts and boil until the skin becomes loose. Remove and place the nuts in a large mortar and pound until skin becomes separated from the kernels. Remove the kernels and continue beating skin, fibers and flesh into a pulp. Transfer pulp into a pan and add water, enough to cover. Wash pulp thoroughly, then squeeze liquid out of fibers and chaff. Pass liquid through a sieve to remove all fibers or traces of kernels. (Palm butter may be purchased already prepared.) Pour the liquid into a pot and continue to boil. Add a combination of preroasted fried or boiled meat, including chicken, crabs, dried fish, or dried meat - we prefer a combination of fresh beef (called cow meat) and fresh fish - along with 2 chopped onions, hot pepper to taste, seasoning salt to taste, etc. Let mixture cook until it becomes thick. Serve over rice, foofoo, or cassava.

Potato Greens

This spinach-like green also produces a sweet potato if allowed to grow but like the cassava both the leaves and the tuber is prized. The greens are also prized by Hannah who considers it one of her favorite dishes. We eat it every Thursday without fail. To prepare: Remove stems and wash 4 bunches of greens thoroughly. Cut—we prefer tear—into fine shreds. Combine with two cups chopped onions, and hot pepper and fry about 7-10 minutes, stirring constantly. Place into a pot with water. Add chicken or beef cube, salt, black pepper, seasoning salt to taste. Add pre-cooked meat—we prefer turkey—but anything (dried fish, fried fish, boiled pig’s feet, cooked cow meat) you like is acceptable. Boil away most but not all of the water. Serve over rice.


Faith said...

Being a mom to 2 Liberians I am very much looking forward to your directions of cooking these dishes. I will say, however, that red palm oil is one of the healthiest oils to cook with in that it does not contain free radicals when cooked at high temperatures and has many good side effects! Thought I would let you know that to ease your mind ;)
Blessings, Faith

The Reeds in Liberia said...

Hi Faith--

Thanks for that. As you might know there is some debate on the health benefits of this oil. I'll stick with my contention. But even dounbters seem to agree that unrefined red palm oil appears to be more healthy that its processed clear form.


bechiri said...

a question: can you harvest the fully-mature sweet potato leaves at the same time you're harvesting the sweet potatoes? or do you have to use younger leaves?
this sounds like an interesting way to use all the plant from our garden...

Ashley said...

My mouth is watering! 3 more days and I will be eating palm butter and potato greens! I've made plantain chips about 5 times in the last week...but they just aren't the same.

The said...


Regarding potato greens, yes, you can wait until the potato is ready, then eat both the greens and the potato, although the young "pre-tuber" leaf is more tender. So often Liberians have one crop for greens and the other for both.