Let Us Eat

Since our arrival, and even before we left America, Nick and I have gotten many questions from friends and family about food. What kinds of food do they have access to in Liberia? What is Liberian food like? Are you starving? (To quickly address this last question, I want to reassure you all that we are eating plenty. As I am writing this, Nick is at the training hall learning how to make empanadas and carrot cake on a coal pot, and I have a doughnut for breakfast pretty much every day. We’ll be fine.)

So, today let’s talk a little about the traditional Liberian food we are learning to love.

Oil! During one of our first health training sessions on nutrition, we learned that Liberian food is half food, half oil. Coming from a country where the minimum amount of oil necessary is carefully measured out into the pan (1 TBS of olive oil has 120 calories, and approximately 14g of fat), the amount of oil used while cooking here is still a big culture shock. When I say a lot of oil, I mean cups of oil in every dish- which I do my best to sneakily drain off the side of my spoon before eating.

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Oil by the gallon.

There are different types of oil: palm oil (red oil) and argo oil (vegetable oil). I’m not sold on the red oil yet. It has a very, eh heh, distinct taste, but I may get there in time. Palm trees are plentiful here, and the plant has many uses within the culture. Palm nuts and oil are used in cooking, branches are used for quick fences, and palm wine, which comes straight out of the middle of the tree, is used for decompressing after a rough day at model school…

Salt! Liberians are not bland people, and they simply do not tolerate bland food. Every dish is heavily seasoned with salt, black pepper, and multiple bullion cubes (maggi cubes, as they are called here). These delicious little health bombs are mainly salt, palm oil, and MSG. They come in different flavors, chicken/shrimp/tomato, and can be found in almost every Liberian dish. So far, I am loving them in scrambled eggs (dripping with oil when our Ma makes them, of course). We will likely definitely come home with hypertension, but when in Liberia…

Spice! The word for pepper in Liberia is pepp-eh. And it’s a word we learned very quickly. Currently, we are still working our way up the scoville scale (hi Dad!) in an attempt to kill enough taste-buds that we can eat full on spicy Liberian foods. Every meal is served with a peppeh sauce, which is made by pounding hot peppers in a giant mortar and pestle with some onion and oil (yes, more oil). The peppeh adds flavor, with the bonus of numbing your mouth when you get stabbed with a fish bone. I am not Liberian enough, yet, to be trusted with pounding the peppeh, but I hope to get there someday.

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Peppeh is sold by the bunch in the market.

I don’t know what kind of hot peppers they have here, but they are small and they pack a punch. We usually get our peppeh sauce on the side, because our Ma knows we are weak Americans.

Rice! A Liberian must eat rice every day, or they will not feel satisfied/full. As far as I can gather, there are two types of dishes Liberians make, and rice is the foundation of both. Soup is an oil based sauce with some combination of meat/vegetables/peppeh that is served over rice. Pumpkin, ground pea (peanut), split pea, palm butter, and potato greens are some of our favorites.

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Pretty typical soup and rice, with a side of cucumber.

Dry rice is a rice dish where the meat/vegetables/seasonings are cooked in the rice- closest to what I think most Americans would call fried rice. Jollof rice is our favorite; it is sort of a baked rice dish with tomato paste, meats, and other goodies that is commonly served at parties here. Though I am obviously biased, I am pretty sure our Ma has the best recipe. If you come to visit us I promise to make you some. Maybe you’ll get some palm wine too.

Meat! Much like rice, a meal is not a meal if there is not some type of meat in it. In different parts of the country, different types of meat are more or less common depending on the region. If you are closer to the coast you’ll have better access to fish, a bigger town will have access to imported meat like turkey, and chicken and canned sardines are pretty ubiquitous in most parts of the country. We have seen a few cows, and a few goats, and I did have some really good street meat (which I hope was cow) on the side of the road the other day. A quick note on bush meat (i.e., meat acquired from the wilderness), some Liberians do eat animals most Americans would not consider food. We do our best not to.

The outdoor meat market is intimidating (remember no electricity = no refridgerators). I was initially convinced I would adopt a vegetarian diet after walking through the first time, but it’s amazing how quickly things become normal.

Something I will most likely not adapt to is eating bones. Apparently it’s the best part of an animal, which makes sense because I know fancy restaurants in America charge $$$ for marrow. Quick side story: We were at an Independence Day party earlier this week (shout out to Liberian independence!) and the family offered us some barbecue chicken. Twice now I have had this peanut (ground pea) coated grilled chicken in Liberia, and I desperately need to track down the recipe. So we scarfed it down, and asked where we should put the chicken bones. They looked at us quizzically. Like, “Put the bones in your mouth and eat them?”. We did not, and were able to laugh about our weak stomachs. Nick used the phrase “tha my taboo” for the first time, which means my cultural background will not allow me to do it.

Someday I will write about some of the other unique Liberian dishes like fufu, GB, and tobogi, but I must withhold small information to keep you coming back to check in.

Cooking! One of the objectives of the home-stay program is to teach trainees the skills they need to survive on their own. One of these skills is cooking, and while I am a passable cook in America I have much to learn about cooking Liberian food on a coal pot. So, during one of my precious free Saturdays our Ma took on the challenge of teaching me to cook a Liberian staple- fried potato greens.

You start with fresh picked greens (they grow everywhere here) and wash them in a bit of bleach water.

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Next, gather the leaves into bunches and cut them into thin strips. Something interesting we are learning in Liberia, that probably applies to other cultures as well, is that there is a very specific way to do everything. From wringing water out of a shirt to making a cup of tea, you can either do it the Liberian way or the wrong way. Cutting greens is no different. Even though I could have chopped the potato greens on a cutting board much less perilously, I sat outside with our family and did it like Ma. FYI- the Liberian way to chop is to hold the bunch in your fist, run the knife across the top of your hand to make very thin slices, and hope thin slices of your hand don’t end up in the bowl as well…

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I’ll let you infer, by the look on my face, how I feel about this.

If you survive, you then heat up two snaps of argo oil (AKA so so much vegetable oil), add some onion and peppeh, and fry the greens. Once they’re nice and fried, add some cooked chicken or bony fish, more onion and peppeh, small water, three maggi cubes (AKA so so much salt), and simmer everything together in a pot. Celebrate your success and serve over rice.

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Frying the greens on the double coal pot. The pestle for pounding peppeh is sitting in the background.
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Ta dah! Fried potato greens and rice.

To return the favor, we cooked some “American food” for our family (hashtag third goal). What’s more American than bacon and french toast? Acquiring many ingredients here can be a challenge, but there is a “supermarket” in town that has some conveniences (think ice cream people, and wine). It’s terribly expensive compared to the local market, but it’s a nice occasional treat to take the edge off training. There we purchased bacon, vanilla, and syrup. We were able to find the rest of the ingredients at the market in town.

While I personally think the finished product was delicious, it got mixed reviews from our family. The children loved it, probably because french toast is sugar bread topped with more sugar, but the adults were a little grossed out. Eating fish skeletons whole is delicious, but bread dipped in egg is too much? We still have much to learn. To make up for it, we fried up some french fries with a bit of ketchup. They were salty, oily, and a huge hit.

Once we get to our site we will lose our amazing family’s cooking, lunch at the training center every day, and possibly even access to a large market to buy local ingredients. It is going to be a big adjustment, but we are looking forward to the opportunity. Though we may be eating rice and sardines for a few days, I’m confident we’ve acquired enough knowledge (and emergency ramen/beef jerky) to get us through.

Site announcements will be this week! Many possibilities for the future.  Stay tuned!

-Amy

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