After the pair of billion-calorie meals I ate earlier in the week, I started to realize that I might just get fat doing this little project. That worried me a little bit, so I decided to go out for a nice plate of palm butter. Yes, “palm butter” is a classic Liberian entrée, and I’m sure that it’s about as healthy as it sounds.
Most Americans would probably think that Maima’s Liberian bistro is a little bit strange. When we walked in at 2:00 in the afternoon, there wasn’t a soul in sight. Maima’s is a six-table affair in a distant corner of Jamaica, so we weren’t exactly expecting a maître’d… but this was a little bit creepy. No music, no customers, no kitchen noise. Just an awkward silence.
My buddy Rene and I stood around feeling stupid for a few minutes, not sure whether we had inadvertently trespassed in an empty building that masqueraded as a restaurant. Eventually, we wandered back into the kitchen, and finally spotted an older African gentleman at the back of the building. He ambled over, and we awkwardly asked him for a menu. He said something that I think meant “there is no menu, but we have some stuff that involves chicken and okra and palm butter.” My buddy and I looked at him blankly, and asked him to repeat. I think we ordered two dishes, called “chicken” and “okra.”
I have very mixed feelings about what happened next. After about ten minutes, we were served two massive plates of rice, along with two massive bowls of oil. The green and yellow bowl of oil had pureed okra and bits of
meat and bone, and the reddish bowl of oil had some large chunks of chicken floating in it. We were also served a tiny dish of an oily brown sauce. The kindly cook/server smiled at us, and just said “pepper.”
Rene and I both love spice, so we threw a few flecks onto our okra oil. Seriously, we’re both pretty tough when it comes to spice. I’m a veteran traveler who occasionally eats marinated jalepenos straight from a can. Rene is a beefy Puerto Rican who once did a few months in military prison… and everybody in the brig was afraid of him. He practices Krav Maga, which is probably the most brutal martial art in the world. The little flecks of pepper almost made us both cry. Very cute. Two points for Maima’s, just for almost making my badass friend teary-eyed.
(And just in case I’m making Rene sound like a shaved-headed militaristic animal: he’s actually one of the nicest, most intelligent guys you’ll ever meet. Built like a tank, but very non-threatening.)
The chicken dish was reasonably tasty, but not amazing. It consisted of oil, chicken, oil, bits of pureed tomato, oil, lots of spices, oil, onion, and more oil… so I guess that maybe the sheer quantity of oil was amazing, even if the flavor wasn’t. Communication was an issue, so I couldn’t quite tell whether we were actually eating the dish called “palm butter,” or if this was something else.
In any case, I think there’s something mildly terrifying about the fact that a dish called “palm butter” would be eaten as a main course. It sounds like something that one might spread on tropical bread, or at least use sparingly as a condiment on breadfruit. A whole bowl of it? Straight to the hips. Or straight to the arteries. Or both.
The okra, on the other hand, was absolutely delicious. The bowl contained oil, okra, oil, spices, oil, onions, and oil. The oil overwhelmed the chicken dish, but it didn’t seem to overwhelm the flavor of the okra and spices. If I were smarter, I would tell you more about the spices involved. But I’m not that smart, and I did a really crappy job of asking questions while we were at Maima’s. Sorry.
By the time we had finished inhaling our mountains of rice with giant bowls of oily stuff (hey, it slid right down!), the matriarch (let’s call her Maima) had returned to the restaurant. A few other African customers had come into the restaurant, but Maima took a particular interest in the pair of random white-ish guys who had somehow found their way to her establishment. We asked her about dessert, and she said that she had banana bread and grapefruit pudding, but that we had to be careful of the banana bread because it was a little bit spicy.
Of course, we weren’t remotely hungry, and we knew that we wouldn’t be remotely hungry again until sometime next week. But when a restaurant owner warns you that dessert is spicy, it’s awfully tough to resist. And we also were worried that grapefruit might cause some curdling issues in any sort of milky pudding. Which meant that we had to order some.
By some miracle, the grapefruit pudding was uncurdled, rather milky, and shockingly tasty. Grapefruit is a fairly bitter fruit, so I struggled to imagine how it would work with milk and sugar. But it actually had a great balance to it, and we both loved it. I also managed to finish a big chunk of the banana bread, which was made from rice flour, bananas (duh), and a ton of ginger—which provided the spice that Maima warned us about. Tremendous stuff.
The worst part about Maima’s is that it’s past the end of the subway line in Jamaica, and it was easily a one-hour trip each way from Midtown. I should also mention that white Manhattanite weenies (disclaimer: I’m white) who worry about “bad neighborhoods” would probably be uncomfortable in this area at night—we were easily the palest people around. I’m not saying that this area is necessarily dangerous, but I know that many Manhattanites would feel awkward in much of Jamaica. Just a friendly warning.
Is it worth the long subway ride? For the dessert, probably. For the main courses, probably not. But Maima’s definitely has a certain novelty value (where else in the United States would you find Liberian cuisine?), and the food is very reasonably priced—we paid a grand total of $21 for two entrees and two desserts. If you live in Queens or don’t mind a long trek from other parts of NYC, drop by for a bite or two.
Maima’s Liberian Bistro
106-47 Guy Brewer Road, Jamaica, Queens
Subway: Jamaica Center (E, J, Z trains)