International Cooking: Food from Liberia

This week I cooked from another African country, Liberia. Some kind people on Reddit gave me some good suggestions, including YouTube links, which improved my initial list of food from Liberia considerably!

Liberia is situated on the coast of West Africa. Although the official language is English, over 20 indigenous languages are also spoken.

In order to explain how Liberia began, it’s first important to describe the American Colonization Society and what that is. It was founded in 1816 to encourage both freeborn people of color and emancipated slaves to settle on the African continent. This is because many held the view that free people of color could not integrate into US society. Although some people may have liked the idea of a fresh start, many were pressured into emigrating despite having lived in the United States for generations.

Liberia began as one of the American Colonization Society’s projects, and they started moving people of color to the region in 1822. The new settlers did not get on well with the indigenous people, who were excluded from birthright citizenship in their own land until 1904.

Liberia declared independence in 1847, but the US didn’t recognize it until 1862. It was one of two African countries able to maintain its sovereignty when the European colonists arrived (the other was Ethiopia).

During World War II, Liberia supported the US in their war effort and received considerable American investment in return. This helped with the country’s development. However, a military coup in 1980 began over two decades of political instability, which resulted in the deaths of 250,000 people and dealt a major blow to the Liberian economy. Democratic elections resumed in 2005.

What Do People Eat in Liberia?

Liberian cuisine is based on easy-to-obtain staples such as rice, cassava, plantains, yams, and vegetables. Spicy chilies such as habaneros or Scotch bonnets are very popular.

There are many common stews based on a pepper sauce with a variety of meat and vegetables. The leaves of the sweet potato plant are a common ingredient, as are okra and garden eggs or bitterballs, which are similar to small eggplants.

Meat and fish are both common. It is quite popular to hunt a variety of animals including elephants and monkeys for food, the meat of which is referred to as ‘bushmeat’. Unfortunately, this often includes endangered animals.

Liberia produces a few standard liquors such as beer, but also makes traditional palm wine and a sugarcane-derived rum.

What I Made

Scroll down to read about other popular Liberian dishes I didn’t make!

Pepper Soup (Spicy Soup with Chicken, Beef, and Shrimp)

Pepper Soup (Spicy Soup with Chicken, Beef, and Shrimp)

This is a popular soup, and it’s usually served with fufu (cassava, yams, or plantains boiled and pounded until it forms a kind of stiff porridge or dough). I’ve kind of had my fill of fufu since starting this challenge and I really don’t like it, so I did not include it here. Instead, I had some bread on the side.

Pepper soup is made from a base of blended habanero peppers and onion, and it can include a wide range of protein. The recipe video I loosely followed included fish, shrimp, chicken, beef, shrimp, and pork; I was making less soup so I just used chicken, beef, and shrimp. It’s topped with a paste made from mashed up bitterball (which seems to be a type of eggplant), okra, and toasted sesame seeds.

I started by blending up an habanero, onion, and a bell pepper—I knew I probably needed to reduce the spice level! I added this to a pot with some cubed chuck steak, a bone-in chicken thigh, sliced onion, a whole habanero, and some okra. The recipe said to add the shrimp here too but I didn’t want them to be overcooked so I held them back until later. I was also meant to add the bitterball but I couldn’t get it and didn’t want to use a large eggplant so I skipped it. As anyone who has been following me on this challenge knows, I don’t really like eggplant anyway!

Next, I added the seasoning. The recipe used a combination of various all-purpose seasonings, which I didn’t have. I looked up what was in them and added a combination of salt, pepper, garlic powder, onion powder, turmeric, paprika, and oregano.

I covered the contents of the pot in chicken stock and let it simmer for a bit over an hour. I added the shrimp towards the end of the cooking time so that they would be just cooked through.

Meanwhile, I toasted some sesame seeds and mashed them up in my mortar and pestle. I took the okra out of the soup and mashed that in too (and I would have added the eggplant if I’d included it.

I served the finished soup with the sesame-okra paste on top. I thought it seemed like a weird technique but it actually worked pretty well. Strangely enough, it’s my most enjoyable okra experience so far! I’m not generally an okra fan.

The recipe I used is from Cooking with Winn on YouTube.

Liberian Spaghetti (Spaghetti with Spicy Pepper Sauce)

Liberian Spaghetti (Spaghetti with Spicy Pepper Sauce)

I thought this sounded interesting—it’s Liberia’s take on spaghetti. Instead of tomatoes, the sauce is made primarily from chilies and bell peppers. It looks like the protein choices can vary greatly, but shrimp and sausage are common. This version included boiled eggs too!

First, I blended up the habanero, onion, bell pepper, and garlic for my sauce, along with a little chicken Better Than Bouillon.

I started cooking my pasta (without adding oil to the water or breaking the spaghetti as in the video). I also started boiling my eggs.

Then I browned some sliced kielbasa. The recipe didn’t call for browning it but I really prefer it this way so I added this step. The recipe also included hotdogs, but I felt the kielbasa was enough for me.

Next, I heated up some oil and added my sauce as well as some tomato paste. I seasoned it with salt, pepper, garlic powder, onion powder, turmeric, paprika, and oregano to replace the all-purpose seasonings I didn’t have. After cooking for a few minutes, I added some water. Then a few minutes later I added my kielbasa and shrimp.

Once the shrimp were cooked through, I stirred in the cooked spaghetti and the boiled eggs, and it was ready.

I thought this was pretty good, though I feel like this may be the only time I’m saying that the addition of the egg probably wasn’t necessary. I actually really like a fried egg on top of pasta with a runny yolk so it mixes with the pasta and sauce; maybe it’s just the fact that this egg was boiled that I didn’t appreciate so much. So maybe I’ll make this again but with a fried egg instead!

The recipe I used is from Cooking with Winn on YouTube.

Jollof Rice (Rice with Meat and Vegetables)

Jollof Rice (Rice with Meat and Vegetables)

Jollof rice is popular across many African countries, but Liberians on Reddit said that their version is the best. So I knew I needed to try it! It’s basically just rice cooked with a variety of protein and vegetables, which can differ greatly depending on the recipe.

First I seasoned some chicken thighs and chuck steak chunks with what appears to be the Liberian usual—salt, pepper, garlic powder, onion powder, turmeric, paprika, and oregano. It’s possible this is just the preference of the person making these videos; I did have another Liberian YouTuber who was recommended to me too but her recipes were more difficult to follow so I stuck with this one.

I browned my beef, chicken, and kielbasa, and set them aside for the moment.

Next, I chopped some habaneros, bell peppers, celery, and onion in my food processor. I heated up some oil in a pan and added the vegetable mixture and seasoning. After cooking for a while, I added tomato paste. I did add a little less than the recipe indicated (though I have to note here that specific amounts aren’t given for most of the ingredients) since it seemed like a lot. I’ve overdone tomato paste before while following a recipe and I didn’t like the flavor; it was just too savory I think.

I added my beef and chicken, since they needed to cook for a while, and then I added my uncooked rice and chicken stock. The recipe said parboiled rice was preferred, though I can’t see that it matters since it’s going to cook for over 45 minutes anyway. I just used regular rice. I added more seasoning and then let everything cook until the rice was just about done.

Then, I added kielbasa, frozen mixed vegetables, and shrimp. Once everything was cooked through, I took out the chicken and took the meat off the bone, then added that back in so that it would be easier to eat.

I think I had a bit too much liquid in my jollof rice (I’m bad at cooking rice) but the flavor was pretty good.

This was another recipe from Cooking with Winn on YouTube.

  • Pepper kala – Liberia’s fried dough dish, consisting of small round doughnuts (also called ‘puff puff’). In Liberia, they are usually served with pepper sauce, hence the name.
  • Pepper sauce – a sauce made primarily from blended habaneros and served with many dishes, such as rice, chicken, or plantains.
  • Liberian shortbread – this looks a bit more like a dense cake or bread than the shortbread most people are familiar with. The sweetness level can vary and it is often flavored with vanilla and nutmeg.

Final Thoughts

All the food from Liberia was pretty good, though I felt the flavors were a bit too similar across all the dishes. My favorite was the Liberian spaghetti.

Next week. I will be cooking food from Libya.

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