I can’t believe it’s been over 15 years since my friend, Bobson, first made this dish for me in Germany. A refugee from war-torn Sierra Leone, Bobson was a young man in his late 20’s trying to make a new life for himself. He had never learned how to read but he possessed a depth of wisdom that elicited respect from those who knew him. Friendly and out-going with a winning smile and a great sense of humor, Bobson was also kind-hearted and generous with what little he had.
He invited me and a couple of friends over for a traditional dish from Sierra Leone. After the first bite I was hooked. He served it with something he called pounded yam (aka “fufu”), a thick, starchy neutral-tasting substance that’s ground and then reconstituted with water. You pull off a wad of it and make an indentation with your thumb to serve as an eating utensil to scoop up the food and mop up sauce.
The next time he invited us for dinner the unanimous request was that he make that same dish. This time I watched him make it. And that’s the dish I’m sharing with you today, Bobson’s version of Sierra Leonean plasas.
After moving to the U.S., I lost contact with Bobson. I don’t know whatever happened to him but I’ll always treasure our friendship and the memories.
This is for you, Bobson.
This dish is simply called plasas or sometimes also referred to as palava sauce or palaver sauce. It doesn’t refer to a specific recipe so much as a specific kind of dish: Plasas is a sauce comprised of some type of greens (either spinach, collard greens, kale, etc), some kind of meat, peanut butter for flavor and thickening, and often dried fish. It’s commonly served with some kind of starchy side dish. Plasas is most commonly eaten in Gambia and Sierra Leone.
The scenic road from Kenema to the Kailahun district in Sierra Leone.
A farmer in Sierra Leone holding his rice harvest, the nation’s most important staple crop, cultivated by nearly 85% of all farmers. The average Sierra Leonean consumes around 170 pounds of rice per year.
The steps and ingredients in making plasas are simple, but the outcome is a perfect example of West African comfort food at its best.
Let’s get started!
Heat some oil in a heavy pot or Dutch oven until very hot. Generously brown the chicken pieces on all sides. Remove the chicken. In the same pot cook the onions until caramelized. Add all remaining ingredients.
Bring the sauce to a simmer and stir until the peanut butter is fully incorporated. Add the chicken pieces, nestling them in the sauce. Cover and simmer for at least an hour. Add salt and pepper to taste.
This dish tastes even better the next day as the flavors have had time meld.
Serve with steamed rice or African fufu and your choice of vegetables and a leafy green salad.
West African Plasas (Chicken in Peanut, Spinach & Tomato Sauce)
- 1 pound bone-in and skin-on chicken pieces (alternatively, beef is also commonly used)
- Palm or coconut oil for frying
- 1 large yellow onion
- 2 cans diced tomatoes
- 1 6 ounce can tomato paste ,not tomato sauce
- 1 10- ounce package frozen spinach ,fully thawed and drained
- 1/3 cup unsweetened peanut butter
- 3 Maggie or Knorr tomato bouillon cubes (a popular ingredient in West African cooking)
- 1 1/2 teaspoons sea salt
- 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 1 cup strong chicken broth
- Optional: For some heat add some red chilis or hot sauce
- Heat some oil in a heavy pot or Dutch oven until very hot. Generously brown the chicken pieces on all sides (crucial for the flavor of the sauce). Remove the chicken.
- In the same pot, add some more oil and cook the onions until caramelized. Add the remaining ingredients and bring to a simmer, stirring until the peanut butter is fully incorporated. Return the chicken to the sauce, nestling it in the sauce. Cover and simmer over low for at least one hour. Add salt and pepper to taste.
- Serve with steamed rice or African fufu (see blog post for explanation).
- **This dish tastes even better the next day after the flavors have had more time to meld.
Sierra Leone photo courtesy Lindsay Stark via Flickr