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"The Negroes cook uniformly very well, and at moments are inspired in the direction of palm-oil chop and fish cooking." wrote Mary Henrietta Kingsley in 1896 (in Travels in West Africa; note that Kingsley uses the word Negro to refer to the peoples of Western Africa; and Bantu to refer to Central African peoples.) Palm-Oil Chop is a traditional dish from Western Africa (one of many African palm oil dishes) that is prepared for big dinners and family celebrations. Part of the fun is letting diners add their choice of garnishes and accompaniments. Like many African recipes, it is very easy to adapt to whatever is on hand. See also: Palm Butter.
What you need
What you do
It is the palm oil that gives this dish its flavor and distinctive red coloring. If palm oil is not used, then canned Palm Soup Base (also called Sauce Graine, Noix de Palme, or Cream of Palm Fruits) should be used. As a last resort, using regular oil with some paprika will at least get the color right. Palm oil and canned Palm Soup Base are available in international grocery stores and African import stores. Palm Butter Soup, Poulet Moambé / Poulet Nyembwe, Moambé Stew, and Okra & Greens are other African recipes that use palm oil or canned Palm Soup base. Groundnut Stew is a similar recipe made with peanuts (or peanut butter) instead of palm oil and palm nuts (or canned palm soup base).
Emily G. Bradley, in A Household Book for Tropical Colonies (London: Oxford University Press - Geoffrey Cumberlege, 1948), writes:
Palm-Oil Chop is another famous West Coast dish, for which many people have acquired a taste. Germans of the Cameroons call it 'country chop.' It was popular in Calabar and the South-East Provinces of Nigeria in the Niger Company days, when native chiefs dined with traders on Sundays. It was always preceded and accompanied by many glasses of gin.
Briefly it is composed of chicken cooked in palm oil, with vegetables, water, and spices, prawns, onions, tomatoes, etc., ad variorum, depending on what produce is available. It is not a dish that a European is likely to make without the assistance of his cook, who is certain to have his own ideas about it, as it is a modification of the native soup.
It is served as a stew in its own sauce, on a bed of boiled rice, accompanied ... with a dozen or so little dishes of relishes. [such as] breadcrumbs, sliced orange, sliced banana, sliced tomato, salt, pepper, chopped-up chillies, chutney. Some of each relish is added to the heaped plate.
Richard F. Burton, the great 19th century traveler, writer, and translator, encountered Palm-Oil Chop in his Wanderings in West Africa (New York: Dover Publications, Inc, 1991 "Two Volumes bound as One"; originally published by Tinsley Brothers, London, 1863).
"Palm-oil chop" is the curry of the Western coast, but it lacks the delicate flavour which turmeric gives, and suggests a coarseness of taste. After some time Europeans begin to like it and there are many who take home the materials to Europe. Besides palm-oil, it is composed of meat or fowl, boiled yam,* pepper, and other minor ingredients. I always prefer it with rice; pepper, however, is the general fashion. The best and only sensible drink with this "chop" is palm wine, but the article is seldom procured sweet, and it mixes very badly for the digestion with all other fermented liquors. Next to it claret, but by no means Burgundy, which would recall a flavour, perhaps already too strong. And I advise the young beginner to conclude his "palm-oil chop" especially when eaten at a native house, with a "petit verre".
*The West African yam is of two kinds--white and yellow; the former is sweet, the latter bitter, and consequently preferred by the natives and by old hands among the whites. It never has the internal light purple tinge, nor the drug-like flavour which renders this vegetable anything but a favourite in India. The best yams in this part of the world are grown by the Bubes of Fernando Po.
(Volume II, Chapter IX, A Pleasant Day in the Land of Ants [Accra])
Joseph H. Reading's The Ogowe Band: A Narrative of African Travel (Reading & Company, Publishers, Philadelphia, 1019 Cherry Street, 1890) is a travel diary which describes a tour of the towns, trading posts, and Christian missions on the Atlantic coast of Africa. Calabar, on the Calabar River in Nigeria, was (and is still) a center of palm-oil production:
Old Calabar is noted for its palm-oil chop, which is blacker and hotter than elsewhere on the coast. What they had for dinner this evening was made by a wife of one of the chiefs and was so hot with pepper it fairly burned like fire... The dish is a great favorite with "old coasters," and is both wholesome and nutritious. It is made of palm-oil and the pulp of the palm nut, fish or chicken, yams, and a whole handful of small chilli peppers, and tastes,... "like concentrated African sunshine." The best of all meat to put in it is monkey, although crocodile or hippopotamus meat does very well; some of the native people use snake-meat cut up into suitable lengths.
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Wo ni wo agya akoa tya abe-a, ofre wo ave. (Oji) : When you cut down a palm-tree with the slave of your father, he will call you friend. N.B. -- If you are intimate with your inferiors, they will lose respect for you. . . . It is almost equivalent to our saying, "Familiarity breeds contempt."
(from: Wit and Wisdom from West Africa, Richard Francis Burton)
Obea tenten so' abe-a, onwam di. (Oji) : When a tall woman carries palm-nuts, the birds will eat them. N.B. -- It is a man's work to cultivate the fields, woman's to carry home the produce, which is balanced on the head. The proverb accounts for why the latter sex is shorter than the former : it is necessary for the station and occupation allotted to it. (ibid)
Ke osi nme le, eko ya omama mli. (Ga or Accra) : If thou pound palm nuts, some will stain thy cloth. (ibid)
Ke otao nme le, ya Tutu. (Ga or Accra) : If thou wish for palm-nuts, go to Tutu. N.B. -- Tutu is a town in Akwapim, where palms abound. (ibid)
A ki iwa alaso ala ni iso elekpo. (Yoruba) : We do not look for a man clad in white cloth in the quarters of the palm-oil maker. N.B. -- We should not expect any result from incongruous or inadequate means. (ibid)