Palm Butter and Rice:The Joys & Challenges of Cooking a Liberian/Grebo Meal- Pre-Thanksgiving Recipes For Your Enjoyment


My two oldest children, Besie-Nyesuah and MT love to cook like me. But when they are cooking, I too, am cooking, whether I am at the end of the world, in a foreign country, reading poetry in California or driving five hours to a remote city to read poetry. They are ready to cook, their cooking utensils ready, and then they dial me so I can drop everything and go over the recipe of a particular Liberian cuisine. Often the ingredients, that we may have rehearsed over the years are all assembled. If the call is from my son, MT, you can be sure he has one or two of his college girlfriends in earshot, all of them ready to learn how to make okra stew, palm butter, pepper soup, torborgee, etc. etc. etc. But sometimes, I cannot drop everything so they have to drop their cooking and just get over it. I recalled having to grab my phone while I was doing a very important speech in San Diego a couple years ago. It was my daughter, Besie on the phone. She needed to talk about cooking palm butter- whether to put in the shrimps before steaming them or to drop them in the boiling sauce. I was confused, and told her to turn the stove off until my speech was done. Everyone in the audience laughed. They didn’t know her, I mean my daughter, Besie. She would call again and again until I turned my phone off.

She reminded me to post some recipes. That way she and all the children of African immigrants and their boyfriends and girlfriends can log on and find a recipe on some Liberian meal. So, here is one; hopefully, others will follow.

HERE’S TO BESIE & MT and of course, all those young people out there.

Grebo/Kru or Liberian Palm Butter with Steamed Rice (Also known as Palm Soup, Palm Cream Sauce, etc.)

palm-butterThis is the can of imported cream of palm from which to make the palm butter. Here is what I call Pumpkin as it is known in Liberia, but Americans call it butternut squash. Next the to squash is a small bundle of fresh basil for spicing up the taste. I am ready to cook with other ingredients not in the photo. At a certain point in the cooking, you will see my big pot boiling below. Let’s take a look at it before the reccipe. pot-of-palm-butter

PALM BUTTER (Six Servings)

2 cans of Palm Nut Cream (imported from Ivory Coast, Ghana, etc.)

l medium butter squash or pumpkin

1 8 oz pack of mushrooms

six to eight habanera peppers (very hot, so please this is optional)

1 medium eggplant

1lb of snow crab legs or blue crabs

1 large piece of smoked salmon (fresh is fine) optional

1 large smoked turkey drumstick or a pack of smoked turkey wings

1 lb of fresh or defrosted shrimps

1 stewing or free range chicken

2 -3 bouillon cubes

fresh basil leaves, bay leaves, and other spices

3 pounds of white or parboiled rice

10 cup measure of water

Season salt,


Assemble all ingredients on the counter. Assemble pots (deep pots are better for the sauce), and cooking spoons, etc. Measure 10 -12 cups of water (5 for each can of palm nut soup) and bring water to boil in a medium pot. Place the cans of palm nut sauce in very hot tap water to begin the melting process of the nut cream, which is very greasy.

Open the cans of palm nut sauce, and scoop it out into a large bowl. Pour the boiling water over the cream sauce to melt the thick cream. At this point, you are attempting to take the palm cream concentrate from its preserved state to its original liquidity. Mix the thick cream in with the boiled water, melting all the oils and whatever chaff from the palm nut. Remember, the cream of palm is a product from the chaff of the palm nuts; therefore, don’t be alarmed to see a few chaffs. At this point when the cream is thoroughly mixed and is now not so thick liquid cream, you need to use a large sift to sift the cream into a pot or another big bowl. Many people do not resift the cream or mix it, but in order to get the best sauce and the best taste, one must sift the creamy liquid carefully before beginning to cook it. Palm butter is one of the messiest to cook, but its product is the best on this earth, I tell you, when it is done.

All of the meats at this time should be ready to work with as the palm sauce is sitting. You can either do the meats before the sauce or whatever works for you.

The chicken needs to be dressed if it is not yet done. Cut the chicken into edible bits and place all of the parts with the crab legs and other tougher ingredients. You cannot put in the fish or shrimps at this time. But you can chop the eggplant in large parts, ground the peppers with the basil and the mushrooms (optional) with the spices then add them to the chicken in the big sauce pot. The pot needs to be deep like the one on my stove to prevent the sauce from jumping out during the long strenuous ritual of cooking the Grebo sauce.

As a Grebo woman who comes from a land of waters, the ocean, rivers, etc., I grew up cooking palm butter with seafood, smoked dried fish African style dried, clams, lobsters, etc. If you do not like seafood, then substitute the seafood with other meats that you are comfortable with. I did not include beef because fresh beef is not an everyday meat for Liberian palm butter. Some people add goat meat instead of seafood or along with it. Steam the pot of chicken with the spices for about fifteen minutes. Remember that stewing chicken needs to boil some to take away that toughness, so it is okay to precook it.

Now that you have cleaned all of the ingredients, and steamed the chicken and crab, it is now time to pour the sauce into that big pot with the chicken. Your palm butter can begin to boil as you cut up the butter squash. I usually just chop it into five or six pieces, take out the seeds and soft stuff, but leave on the skin. The skin is nutritious, so leave it alone just as you leave the eggplant skins alone. Add the pieces of squash at this time and let it cook.

The pot of palm sauce is liquid at this time, but in time, it will thicken. A pot of palm butter can take two hours to complete cooking with all the pre-cooking details I just told you about. The sauce must be cooked on medium heat only, not rushing. When the palm butter has been cooking for an hour, it is time to add the fish and other softer meats. At this time, the sauce will have some oils at the top.

This is the time to reduce the heat. When the sauce begins to thicken, you should add the fresh shrimps. I like my shrimps almost half cooked to preserve the taste and prevent overcooking.

When the sauce is halfway to getting done, you must steam the rice. Take the three pounds of rice and cook it in a rice cooker or in a medium pot. You must be careful not to burn the rice when cooking it in a regular pot.

The palm butter is done when it is almost as thin as turkey gravy, not too thin, but not too thick either. The mix of seafood, smoked fish, eggplants, mushrooms, and squash with the stewing chicken will give your palm butter a special flavor you will never forget. Remember that palm butter has many versions, and comes from many West African countries, many ethnic groups, and that palm butter speaks many languages. But as a Grebo woman, I grew up on the Grebo style of palm butter because palm butter is the staple dish of the Grebo people. Every Grebo woman who wanted to stay married and to raise healthy children had to learn how not to and how to cook palm butter.

These are the taboos for the Grebo woman cooking palm butter:


by Patricia Jabbeh Wesley

A woman should Never mix palm butter when she is under the moon

Never add onions to your palm butter

Where there is no palm butter leaf, use basil or bay leaf for spicing

Tomato is not for palm butter cooking; palm butter is red enough

Never add palm oil to palm butter; palm butter is the mother of palm oil

Palm butter is never Grebo if it has no pepper

It is okay to eat palm butter and rice with your hand if you wish

After all is said and done, cooked and ready,

remember that the crust from the rice pot can also eat palm butter,

and that Grebo husbands have divorced their wives

just because they were denied the palm butter rice crust.

Finally, every Grebo woman knows that palm butter

is the way to a healthy lifestyle even if the doctor disagrees.

Pictured below are little Grebo/Kru babies growing up in America while eating Palm Butter. My sister’s and other relatives children are now living proof of this strange culture that has found its way in the New World. Enjoy, and let me know if your palm butter turns out well- okay?


Managing your health and assuring yourself a long life- When is it a good time to fire your doctor and get one that really works for the money you pay and treats you like an equal???

As we grow older, we will no doubt develop newer health problems we never expected to have. Those of us living in the Diaspora from African descent will have diseases that others from European descent or from Asian descent do not have. And yet, we will be free of diseases those from other backgrounds or races have. For example, African women and men or blacks will develop more problems with High Blood Pressure, obesity, Diabetes, and stroke at a higher degree than people from other backgrounds. We will also have less cholesterol problems, less problems with bone loss, etc. than those from Western European backgrounds because we have larger bone mass and if we stick to our diet of of less sugar and less processed food, we can do even better. But if we eat all of the oils and the sugar choices added to the salty diets we already have, than we will add our inherent problems caused by our culture to that of the Euro-centric proplems to push us further toward the grave yard.

All of this silly explanation is to say that we NEED to manage our health since no two individuals are the same and no two races or cultures experience health issues in the same ways. What works for us does not work for others, and our diet practices at home in Africa are not exactly the same as we try to improvise out here in the US.

Additionally, the child who grows up in an African home, eating African meals alongside hamburgers and French fries, drinking highly carbonated, sugar coke products, eating lots of candies and other types of sweets, one who does not exercise through walking as children in other countries do, will have different childhood diseases, and later, adult health issues than children in Africa. Worst is that the children we bring up here in the US do not do the same tasking household chores children and their parents must do in Africa. Our children will therefore for this lack of exercise develop even bigger bones, but they will also be heavier, more obese, and will develop many health problems children in Africa will never have.

What’s worse are the adults who come to the US and develop all of the eating habits very fast because of stressful work schedules, a lack of opportunities to exercise or the refusal to change lifestyle practices. Now having stated all of these negatives, let us examine how one can be the manager of their own health, keep a clear eye on what the doctors are giving one to swallow, how doctors treat us, and how to stay alive longer than our parents.


I’m no medical specialist or doctor, but from my common sense experience and my own life, I’d like to offer a few words to women out there. If this is a good word for men, thanks to God. I am no specialist on what illnesses men have, so you can bear with me.

FIRING YOUR SWEET, SOFT SPOKEN, NICE LOOKING FEMALE DOCTOR…. or FIRING THAT OVERBEARING, VERY CONFIDENT MALE DOCTOR WHO DOESN’T EVEN GET IT WHEN YOU TELL HIM WHAT YOU’RE FEELING- Can you do that? Can you be brave to say to your doctor, who probably, has been your family doctor for longest “You’re fire!”?

YES- you can! Yes we can, as Obama’s campaign would say- YES, WE CAN!

Let’s examine some of the problems with us women who care more about our doctor’s feelings than about own health.

Let”s say you are a very professional, hard-working woman who takes care of your health, you have a very good insurance, and because you care about your health, you have been at your doctor’s office every time you felt something wrong with you. You go to see your doctor, whoever she or he is, male or female, but on every visit, you tell her that you think she out to check your sugar, to check for whether or not you have high cholesterol because you feel a certain way that is not like yourself.

But time after time, your doctor does not check for these problems. She tries to console you or he tells you that it’s all in your head, that you’re overstressed, and therefore, he or she does not do anything to check your sugar, to check for problems with your pressure or to inform you of results from a Mammogram you had or you feel something strange, and need to be examined for certain serious conditions, but she refuses by quietly dismissing you or promising to order the exam later. Or maybe you need a certain medication to treat an ongoing problem, but she says, oh, you don’t need it. It can wait.

Now, you may think these are really extreme examples. But you’re not being true to yourself because one time or the other, this has happened to all of us. We are often so busy, so caught up trying to keep our families in focus, we neglect ourselves. We never stop to think- hey, didn’t I tell that doctor how I am feeling, and why didn’t she take me seriously?

When weeks after you discover something wrong with you, your doctor finally feels the bright light from Heaven and orders the test for what you already knew, BAM, she calls to tell you that you have this or that disease. She tells you have something you knew all along you had, and the problem has got so bad, your life is threatened by this disease that the doctor was too busy trying to avoid treating even though you have good insurance. What do you then do, especially, when you discover that the doctor is not even qualified to treat what the laboratory work has discovered, and she, your nice doctor who only wants to appease and not treat you, does not want to refer you even though she should and she can.

What do you do?

Or let’s take this argument on another leg. You have a certain illness that is being treated by some medication that is actually killing you. You go in and tell your doctor to take this medication away. You tell your sweet female doctor or your big male doctor that the medication makes you sleep all day, that it makes you suffer from that stupid illness they call Vertigo, or that the medication depresses you or that the medication is just not doing what it was meant to do. Your doctor looks at you and says with her/his eyes “here we go again- this woman!” You cannot get it.

You are used to those old time doctors who saw an illness and wanted to destroy it, who wanted to go to battle with illnesses for the sake of God. Today, your doctor is a younger, more popular-culture kind of person who actually may be underhandedly working for someone else. If she/he sends you to the lab to do that very complicated procedure, the insurance company may not like her anymore. So, she puts off finding a diagnoses by not ordering the test. Remember, now you live in a country where most good medication has to be prescribed for you to get your hand on it and one does not ever order their own lab test.

Maybe your doctor does not help you out because the insurance will be mad that she has given you a very expensive medication that actually does the job it was meant to do, so she holds back. Or maybe she will look bad among her peers, so she gives you some weak tablets that make you come and go when what will really help you will cost you just two dollars after insurance. All of this is difficult to prove, but that is just what seems to happen, doesn’t it?

What do you do with such a doctor?

Now let me tell you why these questions are significant to us African women or women from African descent or simply immigrant women who come from a culture that respects and treats our doctor as if they were some God. We do not quit a doctor or question them or try to find out why they cannot agree with us. We simply go, and if they are so bad, we will keep going until they finally kill us.

My mother died because her nurse practitioner who noticed that she was very ill one day decided to help her by injecting her with some medication that caused her to have a cardiac arrest. He did not mean any harm to her. He simply did something stupid, and Mama was no more. In this country where we don’t have to have someone come to our home to play doctor on us because we have great doctors despite the problems, why should we settle for less?

My case was made for the woman with the best health insurance or the very good one. But just because one does not have health insurance or the money to pay does not give a doctor the right to neglect treating them or giving them the right medication or from listening to their complaint. There are many ways of solving the financial problems with the lack of health insurance, therefore one should not allow a doctor to give them poor services because of this lack.

When a doctor performs in the manner I have described above, such a doctor should be fired. I mean if you went to work and did not perform your job properly and caused clients to leave your business or if as as an professor of English, you could not effectively teach English so that students are drawn to your classes and to the institution, do you think your employer would keep you just because you are sweet or beautiful?

A doctor that causes a patient’s health problems to remain undiagnosed for long even after the patient asked them to check for the problem, should be fired immediately. Firing your doctor does not mean that you will take their job away. Firing your doctor does not mean that you dislike them as a friend or a person. It simply means that the relationship as doctor and patient is no longer working well. You simply stop seeing them and find yourself a good doctor, one who knows what you’re paying them to do. Do not settle for any less.

In case you settle for less, in case you allow your doctor to play with your health, in case you make excuses for your doctor, you should know that you are only playing with your life.

The idea for this blog came to me not only from my own personal experiences. I was watching CNN when the topic came up about the high statistics of women who die or put their lives in danger because they refuse to fire or get rid of their bad doctors. Men refuse to go to the doctors, but women who go, never fire a bad doctor and can die from the lack of good services.

As immigrant women, we find ourselves in an entirely different country now. The doctor is a good friend, but that friendship is base on the trust that the doctor will be the good care taker of the health needs we pay them to meet and we will in turn take care of our health the way the doctor advises.

I was in to see my doctor, who is a very fine specialist in his area, and when he saw the new results of an ongoing health condition he has been treating me for, he was elated. He is a very no-nonsense kind of doctor, one who seems to be from the old school of thought where doctors took seriously the needs of their patients. I have friends who do not like him because they say that he has “bad bedside manners.” They mean that he doesn’t waste other patients’ time chatting about useless things when they go to see him. He gets to the matter of one’s illness, finds a problem, and chases it down. He does not give useless medications. In fact, the first time I was referred to him three years ago, he took some useless tablets my family practitioner at the time had given me, and asked me if he could throw them away. Of course, I said yes. He told me upfront that the medication would harm me in five years, would do this and that, that I did not need such when my body could produce better than the medication was doing. I tell you, he was right. I have never needed that medication again in three years.

This time, now, he was excited that within two weeks, I was making progress. Now, that’s what I call “good bedside manners!” When a doctor can see a difference in his/her patient and get excited about that, that is a good doctor. When a doctor sees a problem and pretends it’s not there simply because he/she does not want the extra work of following up, that is what I call “bad doctor,” who should be fired.

It is your first responsibility as a woman, as a mother, as a professional woman, as a human being to take good care of yourself and your health. I always compare taking care of my own health to what the airline stewardess tells us about emergency safety precautions when the plane is taking off. “If you are traveling with a child, you must assist yourself before you can assist the child.” To me, that means that if I am not alive because I did not take care of myself, I will not be around to take care of my children.

As I conclude this discussion, let me give you the right to free yourself of a bad doctor if you need to. Fire your doctor who is not good for you. If you are taking medication that is killing you, get rid of it with your doctor’s consent, but if your doctor does not understand your need to quit the medication, you need to ask yourself why.

I recall the last time I had to quit a medication when I was with another doctor. My doctor did not think so, but the medication was causing me to lose my sight gradually. I called a girlfriend who told me to dump the medication because she had had a similar problem with the identical medication. My doctor would not allow me quit the tablets she believed were good for me, but on my friend’s advice, I threw the medication into my trash can. Within a couple days of quitting the medication, my vision began to return, and within a week, as my friend said, my vision was normalized. When my doctor learned that I no longer had vision problems because I had dumped her tablets, she simply smiled. Now what was that?

The medications we take as well as the health services we get are important to maintaining a healthy lifestyle. Please take care of yourself. You are the only person you’ve got that is you.

Living Longer than Our Mothers: Tips for the African Diaspora (Black)Woman



I was in high school when I first began hearing my late mother complain about High Blood Pressure. Everyone in our family and anyone who knew my mother knew that she was a High Blood Pressure patient. During that same time, I can recall my stepmother also complaining about High Blood Pressure. I did not know what that meant, however, but one thing was clear: the two mothers in my life had High Blood Pressure.

I also began thinking, hey, maybe all women in their early middle ages or older were bound to have High Blood Pressure.

Maybe that didn’t have to be.

Those two beautiful women, my mother Datedor Mary Hney and my stepmother, Nmano Jabbeh died in their early sixties from complications of High Blood Pressure made complex by the Liberian civil war with its bombings and lack of medical care.

But that’s not true of many of us today. We do not have to die of the same illnesses that killed our mothers. Many of us are more educated and better off economically than our mothers were, and have every resource it takes to survive the silent killer called High Blood Pressure. But that is not the only illness that can kill us however.

The stories are numerous and sad. The reality of the stories is that High Blood Pressure as a disease is more common among us black women than women of other races. The symptoms are so subtle, you never know you have High Blood Pressure just from feeling something inside of you. You can be dying of the disease and not know it. And worst of all, everything we do every minute of the day, including eating can contribute to raising our blood Pressure.

If High Blood Pressure can easily kill people at home in Africa where the stresses of everyday living are far different than the stresses of living in a high pressure, busy, hurried, capitalistic, puppy-eat-puppy world,then of course, the story is worse here in the US than at home.

Everyone knows how busy all of us are. The things that will hold off High Blood Pressure or other related diseases are not as accessible to us immigrant women. The food many of us now eat in the US is far different from the food we used to eat at home. The children we are raising are far different from the ones we would have raised in Africa.

Here in the US, our children are more rebellious and more difficult, and are themselves faced with the popular culture of rebellion that children coming up in other parts of the world do not face. And yet these are the children that we who are prone to High Blood Pressure and its related diseases must raise. To crown it, we do not have the extended family network of grandparents, uncles and aunties, neighbors and a long line of extended relatives on all sides that Africans are used to. Of course, these extended relatives come with their own stresses upon African families, but hey, the benefits such family connections at home give us far outweigh the disadvantages. Unlike our mothers who raised us at home in Africa, the stresses we deal with in a simple immigrant family community are far higher and far more complex.

And yet we must live longer than our mothers and our grandmothers because we are far better off than our mothers and our grandmothers. I know, some of you may say, “No-no, that’s not true.” Some Diaspora women today are not better off than their parents were; however, and in fact, many from my own country came from families that were far better off economically. This makes it even more imperative that we live longer, healthier and better than our parents.

Tips to Help You Overcome High Blood Pressure:

Remember that High Blood Pressure is more common among women than men, so watch yourself as you climb up the age ladder. When you are thirty-five years old and older, this is the time to really be on a watch out for those stresses and signs of High Blood Pressure. Always ask the nurse to tell you what your pressure is when you visit the doctor, and if you are over 40 with children at home, you should begin to take control of your pressure readings. A black woman with a pressure of 125 over 90 should be concerned since one salty meal will raise your pressure without you even noticing it.

If you have other problems like Diabetes, a heart condition or high cholesterol, you are at a higher risk than someone without these added conditions. If your mother or your sisters have high High Blood Pressure, you should know that you might have or could develop High Blood Pressure.

If you have High Blood Pressure, you have the illness for life, so girl, just buckle up and begin the process of doctoring yourself along. High Blood Pressure does not go away simply because you are feeling good on a particular day. You will need to work with a family doctor to help bring your High Blood Pressure down to a level that is normal. This is what I and my doctors consider normal for a black woman. 120 over 80 or less is better than 130 over 90 or higher.

Most black (African women) need two types of High Blood Pressure medications. One of them is supposed to be a water pill that helps your body get rid of salty fluids. I have friends who have complained about water pills that drain one’s body of all of the potassium; therefore, you need to work with your doctor so you get the right kind of water pill. There are water pills that get rid of the bad water while retaining your potassium in your body. Work with your doctor until you find the right medications that works only for you.

The same tablets that work for your mother or your sister may not work for you, and some medications will be bad for you because of your body make up. You need to remember that each time your blood is splashed against your heart’s interior walls, the heart needs time to relax before the next splash against the walls, and an individual with High Blood Pressure has the blood splashing at a higher speed and at a faster rate than a normal blood pressure individual. This therefore puts added weight on the heart because it is required to do what it was not made to do, and each pressure weakens the heart’s muscles. After many years of your heart doing a job harder than it was cut out to do, you are losing life time, and finally, after many years, your heart will give up, and you will die. All of this is in a lay man’s terms. I am not a medical doctor, so you need to talk to your doctor about this.

You need to remember that the foods we eat contribute to how healthy or how sick we are. Avoid foods that are high in cholesterol, high in salts, foods that are fatty, and sugary, etc. Remember that fresh vegetables, home cooked meals, sea foods like fish, white chicken, etc. will keep you living well. Avoid too much beef, pork, prepared meals, processed foods, fast foods, etc., especially, at your age.

The foods we eat as African immigrants are less troublesome, but it depends on how you cook your food. Avoid vegetable oils and use more Canola or Olive oils. Olive oil is expensive, but Canola oil is better for you. Avoid frying your chicken each time you need to eat chicken and try baking your chicken (wings and white parts of the chicken) in spices, hot peppers, and you will see that jollof rice tastes good with baked chicken too. This cuts the use of oils. Make a point of buying fish, roasting or baking your fish more and more.

Now, let’s talk about how to watch your Blood Pressure:

You need to have a High Blood Pressure machine if you are a High Blood Pressure patient. Make a point of taking your pressure with either a digital machine or a hand one if you can use one. While you are under a doctor’s care for High Blood Pressure, take your pressure every day until a time when your pressure is brought under control by your daily pills.

If your life is as stressful as mine, meaning that you are a professionally busy woman, a mother, a wife, and if everything under the sun waits for you in your world to be done, then of course, you need to take your pressure machine with you whenever you travel, and take your pressure on long trips to avoid getting sick when you are away from home. Do not ever ignore swelling feet or hands because these are signs of danger. Remember that it is better to drive yourself to the emergency room than to wait until you need to call 911.

Exercise is also key to bringing your pressure under control:

One of the mistakes immigrant African women make is to believe that they can live here in the US as if they were still at home in Africa. I know a few women who do not exercise, and when you ask them, they will pretend that exercise is a white woman’s thing. They are like me, drive to work, return home and drive right into their garages at the end of each day. They want to exercise, but cannot find the time to visit a gym where they can exercise. Unlike me however, they do not find time to work out at home. Of course, they are intimidated by the very complex machines even if they could get to the gym.

Well- you don’t need to go to a gym to exercise. Just do your work-out at home, right in your own home where you do not have to make any great effort to be physically fit. This is what I do. I simply turn on my African music or cd, a favorite one that has the kind of beat I need, a whole cd with music I like, and do my dance, my push-ups, and sit-ups, letting my music inspire me at least four times a week, working out for forty minutes each time.

Exercise keeps you younger, healthier, and physically fit enough to beat up anyone you may feel like beating up-ha-ha.

My eighteen year old son is taller, bigger, and looks stronger than me, but hey, he cannot knock me down if he tries. He likes to wrestle me when he gets bored and wants to play fight and his older brother is not around, and when he throws a pillow at me, and I try to fight back, he gets himself into a real fight if he tries to wrestle me. He’s done that since he was a kid, and now he has discovered his Mom cannot be beaten.

Well, I hope none of us ends up like my mother who died at 63 from High Blood Pressure. I can tell you that all of the above tips have helped me have the best pressure for five years now, I mean far lower than what is the normal. Do not let your blood pressure get a hold of you- okay?


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


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.