My African journey began, unexpectedly, in a Center City parking garage. I overheard the banter of French behind the register, where the attendants' conversation had turned to lunch. Of course, I couldn't help butting in.
So where was the best West African cooking in Philly, I wondered. A little fufu or jollof rice, perhaps a spicy mafe peanut and mutton stew? They gave me a startled look, then the cashier gushed: "Oh, there are soooo many! Just go to Woodland Avenue!"
So I left the garage with my car - and a couple of new addresses scribbled on a receipt. The next day, I headed with my colleague and fellow fufu fiend, Rick Nichols, on a quest to the great Southwest, a neighborhood where I hadn't spent nearly enough quality eating time. We turned left from Gray's Ferry onto Woodland Avenue, and a world of diverse storefronts unfurled - Caribbean, Vietnamese, a rib shack, and yes, numerous African eateries.
Should we go for grilled Cote d'Ivoire lamb dibi at Le Baobab? Potato greens at the African music cafe Le Mandingue? I'd heard a good word about the Senegalese fried fish at Touba Teranga, but it was closed. We needed some expert guidance, and Rick found it by following the heady aroma of smoked pike into the Mosel International Market, where the owner decisively sent us several blocks off Woodland entirely: "I go to Memdee's for my African food."
Tucked deep in the residential heart of Elmwood at 68th and Guyer, Memdee's is the kind of restaurant even the most dedicated food tourist might never find. But I'll count us among the lucky. After dipping into a powerfully soulful bowl of a starchy orb of fufu and soup, it was clear that this Liberian kitchen produces flavors worth seeking out.
The small menu offers four daily items that rotate through the week. But for local Liberians (of which there are about 10,000, mostly in the city's southwest corner) this humble yet tidy little dining room with plastic-covered tables is as close as it gets to a home-cooked meal in Monrovia, near where owner Antoinette Butler hails from.
Butler, who was a government worker when she fled Liberia's political turmoil in 1993, opened Memdee's eight months ago, adding her middle name, Memie, to her sister Dorothy Massaquoi's Dee. There are two other sisters - Martha Davis and Corrette Zayzay, plus mom Bah Davis - who help Butler in the kitchen during the lunch rush, peeling eggplants for stew, stirring cassava-leaf purees, checking on the still-baking banana-corn bread.
But if it weren't for Massaquoi's tableside lesson in the proper Liberian etiquette to eat the soup (with a spoon), the good-natured regulars at Memdee's would still be chuckling at Rick's fufu faux pas, an innocent slip that spoke to the regionalism of West African cuisines.
Rick, you see, was eating his fufu expertly - Nigerian-style - pinching off bits of the doughy loaf, which came in one bowl, and dipping it into soup that brimmed in another. After some friendly ribbing from our neighbors, Massaquoi strode into the dining room and kindly strained the broth for us, from the soup bowl piled with bony chunks of beef, smoked chicken and fresh white croaker fillets, right onto the fufu. She mashed roasted sesame paste into the mahogany liquid, and we then spooned into the broth and the yellow ball of fufu like a tender, giant dumpling.
The flavor was electric and earthy, with a complexity of rare dimensions. The pungent currents of land, water, smoke and habanero spice roiled up then softened, swirling into one coherent beam of broth, thanks to the buttery sweetness of sesame.
The yellow-tinted fufu, meanwhile, was unusually tender and mellow. That's because it was made from plantain flour, rather than the blander white cassava flour typical in many West African kitchens.
The culinary differences between West Africa's myriad nations can be subtle to discern, but they're significant to those seeking a taste of home. At Le Baobab nearby, grilled marinated meats and crisply fried tilapia come topped with a tangy mince of onions and tomatoes that defined that restaurant's zesty Ivory Coast cooking.
Memdee's, meanwhile, is decidedly focused on the slow braise, and that distinctive trio of odd stew-mates - beef, smoked chicken and fish - make repeat cameos together for what Butler says is the trademark base, the sweet fullness, of a true Liberian flavor.
A typical American palate may not actually find so much to eat from the gnarly cuts Memdee's usually uses - though one of my guests impressively stripped the gelatinous beef skin and tripe, frayed chicken legs and fish until they were bare. These building blocks, though, lend depth and magnetic flavor to every dish. They added layers of intrigue beneath the musky spice that wove through the pureed cassava greens like a brushfire. The silky sweet orange palm butter sauce, made from crushed palm seeds, found just the right off-beat of African funk.
Memdee's has a number of rice specialties, including a tasty fried rice filled with fresh shrimp and roasted drumsticks that crackled with spice. On Tuesday, Memdee serves "checked rice," blended with spinach and okra. The saucier jollof rice, reddened with tomatoes and filled with beef cubes, is one of Wednesday's favorites. The fufu and soup, thankfully, is the one dish that Memdee's serves every day.
If you're lucky, a pan of hot corn bread sweetened with banana will just be leaving the oven in time for dessert. As we savored our slice of the nutmeg-scented cake, its fluffiness laced with a delicate crunch, a diner approached our table from across the room. He had been one of the friendly fufu hecklers before, but now he grinned at the sparse remains of our meal.
"It makes me so happy to see you enjoy my country's food!" he beamed.
Unexpected, unpredictable, and yet with rewards of such spirited flavors, the pleasure of this day's journey had been all ours.