A Liberian Tour With Fork (and Fingers)
By HELENE COOPER
I KNEW my plan to spend my recent trip home eating my way around
Monrovia was off to a good start when my sister showed up at the airport to greet me accompanied by a pot of bitterleaf over doughy fufu.
My mom and I, jet-lagged and woozy, peered into the trunk of Eunice’s
car. I snatched the cover off the pot. The scent — a pungent mix of palm
oil, smoked fish, juicy crawfish, roasted beef and the leafy
spinach-like bitterleaf greens — hit my system as swiftly as a strong
shot of espresso. Into the stew went a greedy finger; I was licking the
sauce before Eunice could smack my hand away.
Liberian food is my weakness. Hearty, spicy and influenced by the
immigrants and settlers who have over the years made this tiny coastal
country home, it incorporates the best of West African cooking with
traditions from the American South, where enslaved Africans brought
their recipes, refined them and then took them back to Africa when
Liberia was colonized by freed American blacks in the early 19th
The result is Creole cooking with a coastal African twist — “sweet” — as we say in Liberia, the way an Italian would use “squisito.” Big, hearty stews that incorporate all manner of meats, fish, chicken, pork and shellfish, served over either rice or fufu, a fermented cassava dumpling that drinks in the flavors of the stew.
In Liberia, it is the vegetable, not the meat, that is the star. Instead
of, say, steak with two sides, it’s a given that a typical Liberian
dish will have all manner of meats in it, with dried fish adding a kick.
(That can be a sore point with some foreigners, especially Americans,
who don’t like fish that tastes fishy. “Why would anyone use fish as a
seasoning?” my American sister-in-law, Pieta, asked. )
But the vegetable is what differentiates each dish, and Liberian cooks
are masters at extracting every drop of flavor from our tropical greens.
Hence the reason no Liberian would ever say, “I’m having chicken with
bitterleaf” for lunch. Of course you’re having chicken (and beef and
pork). It’s the bitterleaf that’s special.
And special it is. We checked into our hotel — RLJ Kendeja — and within five minutes, my mother, Eunice and I were sitting around the coffee table in my mom’s suite, bowls propped on our laps. I closed my eyes as the first spoonful of fufu, dripping in bitterleaf, entered my mouth. Eunice had used at least four or five Scotch bonnet peppers, and I quickly started to sweat. But holy crow, was it good. For 20 minutes I ate, completely tuning out my sister and mother as I drowned myself in the familiar taste of home, my eyes watering, nose running, and mouth on fire. It was going to be a great week.
The next day, my mom, my Aunt Momsie and I went to lunch at Evelyn’s Restaurant Bar and Grill, on Broad Street in downtown Monrovia, our teeming capital city. Traffic there is awful, with potholes in the street, lights that don’t work and young boys running up to the cars selling everything from dish towels to hard-boiled eggs. Evelyn’s sits squat in the middle of it, packed with businessmen, relief worker types and social doyennes decked out in colorful lapas and sarongs.
Evelyn’s has a menu of sandwiches, salads and shawarma, but I went
straight to the list of Liberian specials of the day. Not only did it
include palm butter, it had palava sauce too.
Palm butter is our national dish. In this case, the vegetable star is
palm nut, which we pound into a mash, and then cook the heck out of,
extracting the beautiful buttery sauce, which holds together — you
guessed it — crawfish, dried fish, chicken, beef, pig feet, even
suck-suck, which is what we call a snail-like creature that we put in
our stews. (Its name comes from the method of consuming it: you’ve got to suck the meat out of the shell, along with all those delicious palm butter juices.) Palava sauce is another stew, made from jute leaves, and it has an okra-like consistency.
My mom rescued me from having to decide between the two. “You can taste — just taste — some of my palava sauce,” she said. Aunt Momsie, who lives in Monrovia full time, shook her head and ordered a burger.
We stayed at Evelyn’s for almost three hours, chatting up the procession of diners who paraded through for what is the most important meal of the day in Liberia. My palm butter was heady, and I sucked the poor little critters out of every one of the suck-sucks on my plate. My mother’s palava sauce was fine — it was aided by the fried sweet plaintains that she ordered on the side — but I had made the right call. Collecting our cleaned plates, the waitress grinned at me as I rubbed my swollen stomach.
“It wa’ sweet, enh?” she said, in Liberian English.
I nodded. American English couldn’t do that palm butter justice. “It wa’
too sweet,” I said.
Since the civil war ended in 2003, all manner of restaurants, bars and
nightclubs have been returning to Monrovia, which during the ’70s
considered itself a West African cultural, dining and high life
capital. Don’t get me wrong, parts of the city still look like the set
for an African
But there’s a more exuberant air to the population now, as if Liberians
finally believe that the two decades of civil war that had bedeviled
them was over.
That exuberance is spilling into the food, and the restaurant scene is
one of the fastest growing in the country. At P.A.’s Grille in the
Lakpazee neighborhood, Liberians and expatriates come in for the
exquisite goat pepper soup, served daily with fufu and accompanied by
okra, beneseed (a sesame seed paste) and a fiery pepper sauce made by sautéeing Scotch bonnet peppers with onions and, yes, dried fish.
At Musu’s, a bar on Tubman Boulevard near the Congo Town neighborhood, a late-night mix of university students and aging lotharios nibble on the roasted beef with pepper that serves as the country’s answer to 4 a.m. American diner food and wash it down with Club Beer, from Monrovia Breweries.
And near the Airfield section in Sinkor, Rose Tolbert has converted a
residence into a beautifully lighted watering hole called Ro-Zi’s N’yla
Cafe, with indoor and alfresco seating. There, diners can sample
Liberian fusion cuisine: a salad of smoked chicken and plantain, bong
fries (seasoned cassava pieces fried like French fries) and a
spice-laden dish called voodoo pasta.
But set the food at Ro-Zi’s aside for a minute. Ms. Tolbert has also
invented a cocktail that she calls the Cane and Abel. It’s made out of
Liberian cane juice — think moonshine without the refinement. Cane
juice, distilled from sugar cane, is the kind of rotgut usually left to
the guys at the package store with the plain brown paper bags. I’ve
heard that some drivers actually have gotten their cars to run on it.
I was aghast. “But Rose,” I said, gesturing to the mostly expat crowd in her restaurant one night. I lost my American accent in my shock. “You giving d’ people’ children cane juice?”
Rose gave a smug smile. “I refined it,” she said, describing a daylong
process during which she boiled down the cane juice, adding
God-knew-what, until it became, in her words, a “liqueur,” which she
then used as the base of her Cane and Abel cocktail.
Hmm. I took a dubious sip, grimacing as a searing hot flash lit its way
down my throat and into my stomach. “Yeah, you refined it alright,” I
But a moment later, I was reaching for my glass again. The taste, a
combination of ginger, orange and rubbing alcohol, was sweet, actually.
In the Liberian sense of the word.
HELENE COOPER, a White House correspondent for The Times, is
the author of “The House at Sugar Beach: In Search of a Lost African
Childhood” (Simon & Schuster).
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