Food for Thought
Meditation on Rice
A staple food of the South
By Bridgette A. Lacy
“Rice was a frequent visitor at the table,” says Michael W. Twitty, an African American cookbook author and food historian. “It’s also a deep part of my family history, being a descendant of the Gullah Geechee and of enslaved South Carolinians.”
Twitty pens a love letter to rice — an accessible grain with limitless possibilities — in the form of a cookbook, RICE, the final volume in The University of North Carolina Press’ “Savor the South” series. He delights readers as he takes them around the globe from West Africa to Italy examining this humble ingredient with which he has a long and storied relationship. In his words, “rice bears narratives laden with struggle and survival, migration, movement, and family tradition.”
Many readers will recognize Twitty’s name as the James Beard award-winning author of The Cooking Gene: A Journey Through African American Culinary History in the Old South. He’s also featured in Netflix’s popular High on the Hog, a four-part docuseries based on the book by Jessica B. Harris that traces and acknowledges the contributions of Africans and African Americans to American food culture and cuisine.
Twitty breaks down how rice came from Africa and Asia to the United States, making its way to tables of folks around the world, creating their own cultural fusions and adding their own flavors and spices to this grain. In rich detail, he highlights 51 mouthwatering rice dishes made with vegetables, tomatoes, meats, and seafood, including Wanda Blake’s Jambalaya, Curried Rice Salad and Meyer Lemon Rice with Candied Garlic. And several desserts as well.
He describes different types and varieties of rice from long grain, basmati, jasmine and the regional Carolina Gold.
He also demystified the process of making rice, which can burn easily.
“Patience,” he tells me. “It’s not to be rushed and you have to watch.” No distractions such as talking or texting. He says the best way to perfect it is to cook it over and over again.
Now you can start with this spicy recipe, perfect for a summer gathering.
From RICE: a SAVOR THE SOUTH cookbook by Michael W. Twitty. Used by permission of the publisher. www.uncpress.org
Ghanaian Crab Stew
Eaten with rice or kenkey, a fermented corn dish, this dish from Ghana influenced later dishes like perloo and shrimp and grits. Sometimes okra is added, and there you have it: a grandfather dish to gumbo. For real Ghanaian flavor, provide additional hot peppers at the table and double up on the garlic and ginger for more punch. This is to be savored, not gulped!
Makes 4–6 servings
1 medium yellow onion or 6 green onions, green and white parts, minced
1 habanero pepper, seeded and minced
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 medium tomatoes, peeled and chopped
1 green or red bell pepper, seeded and diced
1 pound cooked blue crab meat
2 teaspoons minced ginger or ginger paste
2 teaspoons minced garlic or garlic paste
1/2 teaspoon kitchen pepper (see below)
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
3/4 cup vegetable, chicken or beef stock, homemade or store-bought
Chopped parsley, for garnish
4 cups cooked long-grain white rice, for serving
In a medium bowl, mix together the onion and habanero. Heat the oil in a large Dutch oven over medium-high heat, add the onion and peppers, and cook for 5–7 minutes, until soft. Add the tomatoes and bell pepper to the pan. Sauté, stirring frequently, until the tomatoes begin to soften and break down, about 10 minutes.
Flake the crab meat into the pan and add the ginger, garlic, kitchen pepper, salt, and stock. Stir, turn the heat down to low, and simmer, uncovered, for about 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. Garnish with chopped parsley and serve with rice.
Kitchen pepper is an old-school spice mixture that was very popular in early American cooking, especially in the coastal South. While it takes its main cues from quatre épices, a spice mix of pepper, cloves, nutmeg and ground ginger common in French cooking, it also helped to preserve both medieval and Silk Road flavors in Southern foodways, as well as the flavors of West Africa, where indigenous and Middle Eastern spices had long influenced the cuisine. This is my take on this classic. It has the complexity of garam masala without quite the punch and heat.
Makes about 1⁄2 cup
2 tablespoons coarsely ground black pepper
1 tablespoon freshly grated nutmeg
1 tablespoon ground allspice
1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
1 tablespoon ground ginger
1 tablespoon ground mace
1 tablespoon ground white pepper
1 tablespoon red pepper flakes
Combine the ingredients in a small bowl. Store in an airtight container in a cool, dry place for up to six months. OH
Bridgette A. Lacy, a feature and food writer, is the author of Sunday Dinner, a Savor the South cookbook by UNC-Press. Her book was a 2016 Finalist for the Pat Conroy Cookbook Prize, Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance.