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