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 century.
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 flavours 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 flavour 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 colourful 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 Apocalypse Now. 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 bedevilled them were 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 neighbourhood, 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 sautéing Scotch bonnet peppers with onions and, yes, dried fish.
At Musu’s, a bar on Tubman Boulevard near the Congo Town neighbourhood, 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 4am 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. 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 muttered.
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.