The Palavah Hut Steams Up Beloved Food Memories

For years, Hawa Ware did not know where the man who taught her to steam collard greens was, and believed him to be dead. He was her father, Ciapha Ware, and this started in 1990 when Ware was 11—in civil war-torn Liberia. Her father sent his wife and children on a bus to the Ivory Coast, thinking it would be for just a short while. "We had always lived in a company town, almost like a gated community, and we didn't know what we were going into; we thought we were just going to a safe place for a few months, until the rebels were at peace," recalls Hawa in a lilting, soft English that is her native tongue. "But we got stuck in exile for three years."

Ciapha did not escape and rejoin the family until right before they departed the Ivory Coast for Knoxville in 1993 as part of a United Nations resettlement program. "He came to us from Guinea and it was almost like seeing a dead person walking, I was almost collapsing," says Hawa.

Ultimately, her home country's civil war dragged on until 1996, displacing more than one million and killing 200,000. Their own family experienced three years of drudgery and fear as refugees, but that's not what Hawa has carried with her. Instead, the young woman and her husband, Armaa Johnson, and mother, Kay Ware, are intent in sharing the joy of their homeland—the vibrant colors, the simplicity of the mountains and seaside, and, most importantly, the steamy, savory tastes of the authentic Liberian cuisine.

The three opened Palavah Hut in May, at the former site of Mary's Tamales on Magnolia. It is a cheery little place, with folk-painted signs and brick walls. They serve takeout only Thursday-Saturday—homestyle specials replete with stews and rice and greens, like Taro root with tilapia in olive oil with fresh herbs and vegetables, and any number of pastries and chicken dishes. "It's just like art to me," says Hawa. "I put different things together from the basic knowledge of cooking in Liberia, then I fuse it the way I enjoy it, or the way my husband likes it."

Fish fritters, Kay's creation, are popular; here they're made with tilapia, whereas in Liberia the fish probably would have been red snapper, or, on the low end, mackerel. The collard greens, though, are precisely what Hawa would have eaten in her childhood, and a homage to her father. Ciapha died in 2009, but you can almost hear him coaching when Hawa relays the instructions for proper preparation: "You slice the collards really thin, with a really sharp knife, holding them tight. Then you salt them, and set aside in the refrigerator. Put the oil on, make it very hot. Add some onions and peppers, some garlic and basil too, and when you hear that sizzling sound, cover it right away. Right away, so the steam is trapped! Grab the collards and throw them in there, and stir them until they kind of join together. Then cover and steam it until it all shrinks way down into the oil. Then if you're adding meat—we do smoked turkey sometimes—add it and broth into the collards after it's kind of fried down."

I have to press Hawa for a few more details. The peppers are pretty, but not too hot—jalapenos for instance, diced up. The oil is vegetable—she uses canola at the restaurant—maybe a teaspoon or two; a little more broth. "You don't want too much oil, or too much water; they should be just a little saucy," she says.

She serves collards just as they did in the country she hasn't seen in 21 years. Says Hawa: "Put it on top of the rice, with chicken and maybe split peas—that's our Sunday dinner."

"A Day Under the Palavah Hut: Bringing the Community Under One Roof," will be held Saturday, Aug. 13 from 4-6 p.m. at the Palavah Hut Cafe, 1931 Magnolia Ave. It will include samples of Liberian foods, face painting, discussions about Liberian culture and cuisine, head wrapping and musical entertainment. Call 237-0014 for more information.