The West African Republic of Liberia was founded in 1847 by freed American slaves, who named their capital Monrovia, after the fifth U.S. president. Constituting an elite class, their descendants ruled the country until a coup in 1980 threw the country into chaos. After a period of repression and civil war, in which an estimated 200,000 were killed, relative calm ensued in 2003, led by a group called Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace.
Civil wars will be the furthest thing from your mind, though, as you journey down Guy R. Brewer Boulevard, a minor commercial thoroughfare in Jamaica that—with its non-franchise frame storefronts—retains the sort of small-town feel that reminds us that Queens was once a collection of autonomous villages. This pleasant neighborhood north of Baisley Pond has become home to a burgeoning African population, with a Nigerian, a Senegalese, and a Liberian restaurant recently appearing. Located near the intersection of 107th Avenue and Guy Brewer, Maima’s is the Liberian place, the only one in town. The sparsely decorated dining room is small and bright, and three steps in the rear lead up to the kitchen where Maima, the cook and matriarch of the establishment, presides.
During West Africa’s colonial era, Liberia was known as the Pepper Coast, referring to melegueta pepper, which was considered a poor man’s substitute for black pepper in 15th-century Europe. Also known by the poetic name “grains of paradise,” the dark seeds are unlike any spice you’ve ever tasted. They’re also a primary ingredient in pepper shrimp ($25), considered the national dish. Cradled in an oblong bowl at Maima’s, find a dozen magnificent prawns, shell-on, swimming in a gritty red sauce. It’s one of the hottest things I’ve tasted all year, and you should eat everything—head, shell, and all. That’s the way Liberians do it.
A starch is the focus of most meals in West African cuisines: In Nigeria, it’s white-yam fufu; in Burkina Faso, a mash made from millet called toh; in Senegal, polished rice that’s often tinted red with palm oil; and in the Ivory Coast, a coarse cassava meal that cooks up something like couscous. Liberia—which, after its founding, served as a destination for liberated slaves from all over Africa, Europe, and the Americas—benefits from a multi-starch approach. One evening, we had plantain fufu ($10), an off-white dome that arrived prettily decorated with eggplant and peanut relishes.
The fufu came sided with a mixed-meat “soup”—a catch-all term that designates the bowl of liquid used to dip fufu in. In West Africa, a single small soup with only a few ingredients would serve an entire family. On American soil, the floodgates of affordability have been flung open, and a soup designated “mixed meat” may contain beef, lamb, dried and fresh fish, chicken, goat, and any other proteins the cook has on hand, as a tribute to America’s culinary opulence. We were thrilled to find cow feet, oozing marrow bones, goat, and ox tripe in our soup one evening.
“Dry rice” ($12) is another important Liberian starch, though it isn’t dry in the least. The grain has been cooked with okra and bitter ball, a stunted green relative of eggplant that adds a subtle, harsh flavor. The okra lubricates the rice like ice on a luge run. While the American culinary mainstream eschews bitterness, it’s an important aspect of the West African flavor arsenal. The menu also offers plain polished rice, fufu made with plantains or white yams, attieke (the cassava stodge mentioned earlier), and a mash made from cocoyam that goes by the hilarious name of “dumboy.” Though the daily menu of three or four dishes often specifies soup-starch pairings, you can usually match any soup with any starch.
Some soups are so thick you might call them purées. One made from cassava leaf forms an agreeable dark-green sludge, dotted with chicken chunks. Another, designated “seafood soup,” omits vegetables entirely, but includes shrimp, squid, and hunks of fish in one of the most flavorful fumets imaginable. Whatever the language spoken, the cuisines of many West African countries show French influences.
For those who don’t feel like foraging too far into exotic flavors and textures, whole fish are available at bargain prices, each enough to feed two. You can have a generic “snapper” (who knows what actual species?) fried for $10, or poached with a thick relative of ratatouille for $15. In fact, if you order the fried fish with plain white rice, Maima’s might be any good soul-food spot in town—as if the Liberians had never left America.