Palm Butter & Rice: The Joys and Challenges of Cooking a Liberian Meal

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I love to cook African food. Cooking is an art like poetry or painting or singing. Most of all, I love to cook and eat Liberian food. But in this busy world of teaching, driving my children up and down, cleaning and keeping house, writing, traveling up and down to read poetry, picking up the phone to speak to a telemarketer, answering the phone call from back home in Liberia, and just plain being a woman, it is just too much of a task to cook a decent, good spicy, fragrant filled Liberian palm butter, cassava leaf, collard greens or okra stewed meal. It is even less motivating now with three of our four children away from home. But, I love that tasty, hot spicy, smoked fish, mix with shrimps and blue crabs palm butter soaked on rice. My husband, Mlen-Too loves my cooking too, so every now and then, it is worth the trouble.

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Today, I awoke with the intention of setting aside all other important tasks just to cook what happens to be the staple dish of the Grebo people. The Kru and Krahn of Liberia join the Grebos in celebrating life with a good hearty palm butter and rice meal. Of course, Palm Butter happens to be a popular dish among other Liberians in the capital city of Monrovia and in other parts of West Africa, but the Grebo people of Liberia would like to believe that God created the palm tree the day he created the Grebo person. What do you think? We come from a place called Cape Palmas, a part of South Eastern Liberia near the coast where palm trees happen to grow wild and careless, and the Grebo man would not survive without eating palm butter in a given week or two.

When I set out to cook a Liberian meal as tasking as that is, I usually come into the kitchen psychologically, emotionally and physically ready to do battle. I love to cook with music blaring and all other human beings out of the way. I take possession of the kitchen like a true Grebo woman was created to do. All men disappear at that moment. If my sons are around and want to disturb by turning on the TV, I make sure I put some African music on. African music is loud and noisy, and no one understands whatever is being said by the artist since we listen to music from all over Africa. The loud drumming of the African music blaring is sure to send everyone in the house running for safety as I set out my pots, pans, my smoked fish bought from some big city, my shrimps and crabs, my bamboo shoots from Pittsburgh’s Chinese grocers, etc.

I usually never take on the task of cooking a good African meal without the tools I need to stay alive by the end of a good two and a half hour of cooking my dish to death. Someone may mislead you by asserting that my food is not healthy, but don’t buy that crap. My food usually is so healthy, I have nothing to worry about. Cooking a Liberian meal can be a tasking messy business, but the final product is good, healthy and delicious.

In Liberia, of course, I did not have to worry about these sorts of tasks. I had a maid to do much of the dirty work of the palm butter, and I was sort of the supervisor because I did not like eating palm butter prepared by a maid. Every true Grebo girl learns how to cook palm butter before she learns how to chase a boy. Your grandmother sat you down and made certain you knew what good palm butter looks and tastes like. So, between Iyeeh (Grandma), my Auntie Nyemadi, my mother Mary, and my stepmother, Nmano, I learned the perfect art of making a very delicious palm butter meal. My stepmother used to shout at me if it turned out my palm butter did not taste like a Grebo woman’s palm butter. “No matter how much book you know,” she’d be standing there frowning at my watery, half cooked palm butter when I was in my early teens, “you got to know how to cook palm butter. No man will marry you if you can’t cook palm butter,” she said over and over. It did not occur to her that I could actually marry a man that was not Grebo and did not like palm butter. But of course, they saw to it I married a Grebo man anyway.

In Grebo country, palm butter is the foundation of life. Before I tell you what palm butter actually is, let’s talk about the idea of palm butter and the mind of the Grebo person. I recall living three years of my adolescent life in my home village of Tugbakeh where palm butter is almost a sacred dish as in all of Greboland. For some reason when I was about twelve years old, there was a rumor in town that someone had actually gone to Monrovia and seen that people in Monrovia ate cassava (tapioca tree) leaf grounded and cooked in oil and water. The Grebo women quickly saw themselves cooking a new dish, but they saw it in the context of palm butter.

One day that year, my auntie ordered us children to pick some tender cassava leaves from the farm for cooking. She boiled the leaves and grounded them on the pepper rock, and the thick puddle of the stuff, she threw into the boiling pot of palm butter. I had lived in Monrovia most of my life prior to coming to live in Tugbakeh, so it was sort of a surprise to me seeing her treat Monrovia people’s cassava leaf that way, but I said nothing to her. From then on, cassava leaf, unfamiliar with being a part of a palm butter dish, was now being prepared in palm butter as everything else in Grebo country. Okra, eggplant, potato leaves, cocoyam leaves, and all sorts of other spinishes were good vegetables for palm butter dishes. Beans, bamboo shoots, pumpkins, etc. etc. were all thrown into a Grebo woman’s palm butter pot depending on her mood. It seemed nothing could remain independent of the sacred creamy palm cream dish called palm butter.

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A pot of Palm Butter (Palm Nut Soup) can boil for up to two hours

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You are probably wondering what is this dish called palm butter.

In Africa, the dish can be called palm nut soup, palm soup, cream of palm soup or whatever they decide to name the creamy dish. Palm butter is extracted from the creamy chaff covering of the palm nut, from the palm tree. This palm cream is also the source of palm oil. The cream that is about a third oil is extracted from the chaff after cooking, sifting, and draining. The creamy raw pulp is mixed with water and stewed with all sorts of meats. Liberian cooking is different than other cooking around Africa. Like all Liberian cooking, the meats are combined to give the stew a very delicious flavor. So, a palm butter dish can have sea food, poultry, and meat. Then there is the vegetable aspect that may include eggplant, pumpkins or chopped up squash, mushrooms, beans or whatever.

In adapting to cooking palm butter in the US, many of us have learned to improvise what we do not have for what is available. I have introduced grounding up mushrooms in a blender with hot habanero peppers and fresh basil leaves to give my palm butter a much tastier flavor. I have also added dropping in a few chopped up pieces of butternut squash or pieces of Asian (African) pumpkin for an even tastier flavor. Liberian cooking is about flavor. Our food is rooted in the combination of African cooking affected by Southern cooking from freed African slaves who went to that part of Africa in the 1800s, and met the indigenous people there. So you always look for that flavor of mix meats and spices.

Palm nuts are bought in the market places in Monrovia or palm nut bunches are chopped down in the villages. So how do I get palm butter here in the US?

Years ago, no one could get canned palm butter, but today, there are imports from West Africa to satisfy the need among Africans to eat their own foods. One can walk into an African grocery in a big city in most states and find cans of palm butter, smoked fish, and much of the ingredients one needs to make a hearty palm butter dish. As for me, I purchase African food wherever I go. I may fly into a city to read poetry, and the next thing I know, I am buying up some home food to bring back to my small town out here.

The can of creamy stuff should be mixed with enough water, sifted, before adding the meats. After the food has been boiling slowly for nearly two hours, one can be sure all is ready for eating when the palm butter is thick and settled. One good kind of chicken to add to the palm butter dish is stewing or organic chicken. I never cook soft tender chicken with my palm butter.

When the dish is done, it can be served with fluffy cooked white or parboiled rice or a dish of plantain fufu. Tune in next time for some hearty recipes of palm butter, collard greens, okra stew or jollof rice and baked chicken, the Liberian way. Remember, this is the season to eat.

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14 Responses to “Palm Butter & Rice: The Joys and Challenges of Cooking a Liberian Meal”

  1. Yemah Says:

    can you please send me a recipe on how to make ginger beer., I’m having an issue with the ginger and grinding it to a powder. I used a blender, but what do I do after that and what type of yeast is put it in. I saw a recipe with yeast and used a yeast but it didn’t turn out right. Thanks for posting this by the way. I love palm butter and rice, um um ummmmmmmmmmmmmmmm

  2. poetryforpeace Says:

    Thanks, Yemah, for your kind note. I will send out e-mails and requests for someone to give us a real recipe for ginger beer. I too would love to have it since I also love ginger beer. Someone from Sierra Leone or Loffa County, Liberia, should be able to help us. So, if anyone reading this note can help us, please e-mail your idea of a recipe for ginger beer to me at poetryforpeace@gmail.com

    Patricia

  3. poetryforpeace Says:

    Okay, Yemah, I have an answer for you. I found a site that has the African ginger beer that is non-alcoholic and is West African. That’s the ginger beer sold on street corners in West African markets, unlike the one with yeast and fermented. The real ginger beer soft drink does not use yeast, and is good to drink right away. This site has something worth trying out. Let me know what comes of it.

    http://www.congocookbook.com/beverages/ginger_beer.html
    Patricia

  4. Dan Gould Says:

    Thankyou so much for this! I spent several months in Liberia in 2005-06 helping to rebuild orphanages etc, and I cannot describe how much I loved palm butter dishes. Ever since I got back I’ve been kicking myself for not learning how to cook palm butter curry, so thankyou so much for publishing this! Woohoo! Now I’ve just got to find an African grocer nearby. šŸ™‚

  5. poetryforpeace Says:

    Hi Dan,

    Did you see the posting with the recipe? You may have posted this on the other blog on palm butter. But hey, whenever you are in West Central PA, you have have palm butter and rice on me and my family. You are invited to our home.

    Take care

  6. Rudy Clements Says:

    Would anyone know where in Holland or Belgium I can buy palm butter? Having lived in Liberia for many many years, this dish is the best in the world and I miss it!

    • poetryforpeace Says:

      Hi Rudy,
      I have checked out a few places on the web, and I came up with these, Rudy. These are three places in Belgium.

      African Corner Diestsesteenweg25 3010 Kessel-Lo Leuven, .. 016/353890
      Mama Junior Exotic Food SPRL 55 Chaussee de Ninove Brussels, 1080 Molenbeek. 02/4106429 or 02/4142951
      Sister Pat Rue Gheude 36 Brussels, .. 0495/329621

      You might want to find an African community and ask West Africans where they get their foods. If you can find a grocery store, whether it is Asian or African, there is a chance you might find canned palm butter. I have two posts here on Palm butter sauce cooking, so check out the latest one that is titled: “The Joys and Challenges of Cooking …” This post has the recipe. On a closing note, this is great to know that all these guys in other parts of the world are trying to cook up good meals when African men are so afraid of the kitchen or too lazy to cook. I hope they are hearing me here.
      Patricia

      • Rudy Says:

        Thanks Patricia, I will definitely check the adresses you gave me.Like your remark on the Africa men. I know the recipe from palm butter by heart!! I will be greatfull to my friend Joseph in Liberia for the erest of my life.He cooked the best palm butter and collard greens and his pepper soup was so HOT !!

    • Regina Says:

      Go to link below for where you can get Palm Butter in Holland.

      http://www.nkulenu.com/Distributors.html

      Nkulenu’s Palm Soup Base (Palm Butter) is pure, natural and does not contain any thickeners or additives.

  7. catherine Says:

    pls give me a advice

  8. LIBERIAN MUSIC Says:

    As a Group working in the African music industry ā€œLiberian Music | LIBeatā€ is of great interest to us
    well written thank you šŸ™‚

  9. Meal 96: Liberia : United Noshes Says:

    […] Palm butter |Ā RecipeĀ and someĀ advice […]

  10. Anonymous Says:

    Patricia, I just discovered this site..it has been so long since we have met, it is Good seeing you here..thank you for this fabulous recipe . I can never have enough Good Liberian Recipes . May God continue to Bless you and your family.

  11. Deborah Jorgboyan Says:

    Patricia, I just discovered this site..it has been so long since we have met, it is Good seeing you here..thank you for this fabulous recipe . I can never have enough Good Liberian Recipes . May God continue to Bless you and your family.


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