red crab rice, blue cabbage and spiced chips: how to reinterpret a Gullah recipe fot MTC Taste the World
MTC Taste the World challenge about the Gullah-Gheechee culture and the red rice that characterizes its gastronomic specificity, I reproduced In my previous post the original basic recipe, where I reasoned about its red color: it’s also called Mulatto rice for the brown color due to tomato but in a great part also to the roasting of the vegetables and the bacon sizzling fat. Each Gullah family obviously has its own recipe: some prefer it beautiful red and fragrant with tomatoes, others are interested in a more complex flavor and less to a pronounced color, so that the tomato is there but not as the main star.
Once discovered that Alessandra ties the dish very much to its African origins, and consequently to jollof rice and thieboudienne, while I dedicated myself to deepening its evolution in America, I decided not to research here Gullahs' ancient culinary ties with their Motherland, which are however investigated by many other participants, but to find legacies all Lowlanders are indebted to the ancient slaves: rice history ,obviously, but also the one of indigo as a fabric dye.
But it is an American recurrent vice: one of the iconic symbols of the United States are blue jeans, which owe their canvas to Genoa (or to Chieri, or to Nimes, the diatribe is still open, however European fabrics that arrived in America in the 1800s on Genoese ships) and they owe the blue jeans color precisely to the indigo, which had become familiar to them thanks to the teachings of the enslaved African experts and their descendants.
The Gullah-Gheechee people have a curious relationship today with the African origin of their cuisine: in the Gullah Festival held every year in Beaufort, there are not so much performances by the local community as by African artists invited to represent traditional dances and songs from the native land. The need to affirm and consolidate their cultural roots appears fundamental, so the Festival has stalls where you can buy t-shirts and gadgets with slogans about African Afro-American and Gullah pride.
They sells also objects related to local artistic crafts, not only African, such as baskets woven with multicolored straws (derived from the traditional Sierra Leone shukublay, once used for rice cleansing and fruit harvest and today memory ornaments), brooms of palm treeleaves, drums, wood carvings, containers made from pumpkins, hand-dyed blue fabrics, quilts made with African patterns' clothes, and paintings by Gullah artists. But it’s quite difficult to find traditional “pure African food” there.
Food stalls, in fact, show how different the Gullah-Gheechee cuisine is today from the current West African one: there are many direct links, of course: rice, okra and sesame are the easiest example. But many products of African origin, nowdays growing in US too, are now cooked in an "African-American way”... not only with combinations or techniques different from the usual African ones, but in a different spirit.
In short: those who today come from Senegal or Sierra Leone and, at a Gullah dinner, taste a purloo (a rice very rich in additions), a Frogmore stew (potato and corn stew with sausage and prawns, all cooked in beer and spices) or goobers (chocolate coated peanuts) can understand that these recipes have historical links with jollof, mafè or kulikuli, exactly like we Italians in American spaghetti and meatballs or chicken parmesan can find (strange!) references to Italy.
But these ones are new dishes, "authentically" African-American and Gullah (or, in our case, authentically Italian-American ones), which tell a story of evolution and adaptation but also represent the birth of different tastes, alternative, albeit with naive respect, to those the palate of the old Motherland still use.
Centuries have not passed with impunity: mixing knowledges and customs have (rightly!) created evolution also in the gastronomic field, so perhaps it is wiser for new generations to learn to cook from their grandparents, making their own what their ancestors have been able to create in new land and conditions, because it can be tricky to try to rebuild distant and ancient tastes, that are quite unrelated by now to their (and their parents’) direct experiences.
When I was in US, decades ago, I cooked my “authentic” Italian spaghetti al pomodoro for my fourth generation Italian-American friends and they couldn’t believe the taste of my dish was so much different from their grandma's recipe. They loved my spaghetti very very much but considered it an “ethnic curiosity”, to eat again when they’ll come to Italy, perhaps, but not to be served to their granmother or to their children as a family "Italian" dish. And I think they were right.
In our search for the Gullah culinary autenticity we must even underestand that, as in every local cuisine, different evolutions exist also at Gullah local level: each area and each family has its own taste, so the exact "reconstruction" is impossible, expecially from outside their community, because, as in Italy, also in the Gullah-Gheechee tradition there is not only one cuisine.
Slaves were deported from different territories of the West African coast (between present-day Senegal and Cameroon) and, once arrived in the Low Country Regions (beyond 40% ot them landed in Charleston port!), they were distributed to work in two differente areas: the Lowlands, the slightly more inland mainland, where over time the community took the name of Highland or Freshwater Gheechee, and the Sea Islands, that names the islands and the very coast, with the name of Saltwater or Lowland Ghechee. Hence first macroscopic differences.
All terms however were considered derogatory by those who considered the Gullahs ignorant and stupid for their speaking “broken English”. In truth, first deported people remained practically isolated for at least the first 60 years of their stay in America, both because the landhowners lived far from rice plantations to avoid malaria spread by mosquitoes, and because for a long time there were no bridges to the islands, which could be reached only by boat.
Real bridges were built only in the 1920s, so the descendants of the first slaves were able to keep languages, customs and traditions for a long time, which they only gradually mixed with those of the host country. Current Gullah way of speaking (it's not a dialect but a real language) is therefore an English mixed with the languages of the tribes of origin, the Creole of Belize, the Jamaican patoise and the dialects of Barbados and the Bahamas. And the same can be said of their cuisine: a stratified and complex way of cooking, even inside the Gullah community, given the subtle but fundamental differences between coast and island dishes but also between one family tradition and another.
What remains strong, intensely "African" and distinctive in each family or restaurant kitchen is, above all, a food based on culture spirituality, family, and a style that involve slow cooking, putting everything available in the same pot, and a real passion for every ingredient from land and sea that is fresh and in season.
That's why in my creative version of red rice I don't try to insert, except for a small touch, the "old" African ingredients the slaves brought with them (like okra, yam, peanuts, sesame, black cabbage, aubergines or shea butter), but I want to think about those products that slaves found on their arrival, somehow recognized as familiar and therefore easy to use from the beginning: crabs, prawns, oysters, whelks, red mullet, sea bass, whiting, sharks, turtles, hares, and any possible vegetable, as pumpkins, beans, courgettes and peas.
Over the time many of these ingredients settled in the cuisine of their descendants, combined with the new ingredients they had learned over time such as tomatoes, corn, potatoes, bellpeppers or turkey, creating with them the bases of typical Gullah flavors, which, now we can see, are slightly different from African ones.
Those African flavors often are not even known by that the deported slaves’ great-grandchildren in the New World, and “new” flavors invented by Gullah generations with mixed ingredients and traditions, are so identifying of their specific taste that today’s Africans obviously do not recognize them as totally their own.
So in "creative" rice I introduce ingredients that could have been used by the first slaves landed in America, with curiosity and amazement for new products and affection for those that resembled African ones left behind. My small quote of West Africa does not lie directly in rice and my link to indigo parallel history is simply a blue note in the two side dishes: the historical and symbolic link between rice and indigo can't be ignored, if we want to tell the decisive role the Gullah-Gheechee people had in American history.
But let's go back to indigo: the cultivation of the indigofera tinctoria, a plant of the fava beans family, flourished in South Carolina, Georgia and Florida starting from 1719 to commercially diversify the rice economy and make profits by exporting the precious dye in the UK. The plant was of African origin, used there for hundreds of years to dye clothes, amulets and even the skin (remember Tuareg and Blue Men?); the processes were concentrated precisely in the areas of the rice fields because tey required a lot of water to allow the color to penetrate the fabrics in the dyeing process.
The dye production techniques were handed down from father to son as a family secret; to avoid that the dye penetrated in certain points of the fabric they were covered with wax and as fixative they used cassava starch. This kind is called "reserve dyeing", also known in India as batik and in Japan as shibori-zome (絞り染め). There rice starch was used, and subsequent commercial exchanges with Japan, via California, teached to American indigo workers of East Coast to use rice starch, further improving the profitability of the double rice/indigo crops.
The process for obtaining indigo was complex: the leaves were fermented, then oxidized in the air, then the pigment precipitated and dried. A continuous exchange of expert personnel was therefore necessary because of toxic substances developing in the process, so that a labourer hardly survived more than seven years in daily work. Even in Africa, in fact, the dyers’ villages were isolated from the others and the work was often done in areas far from the village and surrounded by woods, to prevent the dangerous blue powder from being transported tehre by the wind.
Beyond the danger of malaria, also for this reason owners of the American indigo plantations lived far away the fields, and for this reason the search for expert slaves was continuous: in the notices of the time for slaves recruitment, slave traders were explicitly required to provide young and healthy men with dyed blue hands, a sign of their practical experience with indigo.
Basically: the slaves were imported for rice and indigo together, because they were living (and available to kidnappers) in the same African areas, and they had similar skills, exploitable in economic synergies that linked rice, indigo and the nearby cotton, a perfect material to be dyed, in particularly profitable business. This is the theme of my recipe.
In Gullah areas several projects for the revaluation of traditional indigo production are springing up, after several decades of abandoning old-style indigo crops and dyeing activities, now with organic cultivations but obviously with completely safe processes. This can be a strong contribute to the recovery of historical memory but also to the preservation of Gullah cultural integrity, and also to the economic sustenance of local families.
It represents a stimulus for the new generations not to leave the territory, with the prospect, once the circuit is well activated, of succeding in offering semi-artisan products of high and sustainable quality to a market that is not only local and for tourists.
Moreover indigo permeates the Gullah-Gheechee culture: in the 1930s an author of the Federal Writers Project visiting the Gullah-Geechee fishing community of White Bluff, just outside Savannah, described jambs and doors of Gullah houses painted blue to protect inhabitants from the evil, and blue bottles hanging from the trees in front of them, believed to trap bad spirits.
The symbolic use of the blue color, in fact, and the trust in its protective power is part of the Gullah spirituality linked in part to Christianity and in part to the hudu culture of African origin ("commercially" known as woodoo). Color of protection towards evil spirits (haint blue, is the Gullah word for indigo and haint means haunt), blue is often used for many simple everyday objects by the Gullah-Gehchee.
Indigo is the predominant color in many superstitious and religious objects and symbols because it imitates the color of the sky, deceiving the spirits who believe they have to go beyond it to go elsewhere, or the color of the water, in which ghosts believe to have fallen and from which they can no longer come out. If today the most "magical" part has quite been lost, many Gullah still paint blue their doors and shutters, and dissolving the indigo paint with milk and lye is considered a deterrent for wasps and spiders.
Ceiling of Gullah porches is often painted blue to make slave ancestors' spirits confortable, while the deceased are buried with blue beaded amulets. When the remains of an eighteenth-century cemetery in Charleston were found a few years ago during construction excavations, a touching ceremony was paid to honor the deads, giving them an African name and burying them in a new site, wrapped in blue shrouds.
Even the flag of the Gullah-Gheechee Nation has a blue background: the ring with the inscription represents the unity created by the language, the golden disk symbolizes the legacy of the "People of the African sun”, the wide blue bottom recalls the sea where a group of deportees of Igbo origin (now Nigeria) in 1803 preferred to drown by sinking the slave-ship rather than leading slave lives.
But that blue is also the symbol of the vast ocean that connects the American coasts with those of African ancestors, while the light blue segment is the sky that protects the sweetgrass fields, with which typical Gullah baskets are woven. Finally, the deep, living roots of the Gullah-Gheechee tree anchor at the past and its green foliage reaches out towards the future of new generations.
Bringing indigo into my creative recipe is due to all these reasons. Unfortunately, indigo powder, although of natural origin, is a textile dye unsuitable in the kitchen, and I have to look for another way. Anyway I can't prepare a blue rice (which really exists, in different traditions: it is the Malaysian kerabu nasi, colored with the blue flowers called butterfly pea, of convolvulus family), or the judges would throw me out! So my blue flavour, once found, can be on the plate but not in the rice.
That being said: which red rice do I choose? I start from red rice recipes I knew before the MTC's one: I learn some of them when I was there in the 90s, and others from cooking books. Obviously they are all different from each other, exactly as it appens all over the world when family tradition intervenes, and none of them in the Toni Tipton Martin's one mentioned by the MTC... despite one of them is by the same author*!
One recipe uses 1 raw tomato and 1 tablespoon of tomato paste in 2 cups of (granular) chicken broth for 1 cup of rice, with cumin and abundant fresh coriander. Another one uses 1 tomato and a half, no tomato paste and home made chicken broth with onion, thyme and bay leaf, it cooks the pilaf in the oven and adds toasted pecans. A third one cooks the rice directly in the tomato puree slightly diluted with water and decorates with crispy bacon; another one mince a small raw tomato in the sautéed rice and then serve with separate tomato sauce.
Several recipes rice enrich this base with seafood, sausages, turkey neck and/or with vegetables such as green peppers, sweet potatoes, spring onions, but also with dark overcooked creamy kale leaves. All this additions, however, are mostly cooked separately and added to the rice at last minute, with, almost always, a final dollop of soft butter or lard.
All very interesting, I got a loto of cues for my red rice... but nothing blue! Luckily I got a Gullah recipe of cabbage sauteed with bacon, red bell peppers and onions to which I could invert the colors: if I use red cabbage, which becomes blue when blanched, and yellow-green peppers insetad red ones, I have a readymade side dish and I can get my second “indigo touch” from the water where I cooked the cabbage, which obviously turns in blue water.
Id’like something blue to put ABOVE the rice too, not only by its side, as blue sky is above Gullah lands and houses. That’s why my blue water I prepare some “rice clouds”, crispy chips in my intention similar to the clouds of the Low Countries. I make them with Japanese rice flour: it is perfectly impalpable, as asked by the recipe, but also it's exactly like the Japanese starch from which Georgia learned to dye indigo cotton fabric in the absence of cassava!
I perfume both the vegetables and chips with a mix of "very Gullah" spices, hence garlic, onion, paprika, bay leaf and thyme are mandatory. I pound the mix in a mortar into rough powder using seeds, berries and whole dried herbs, but there are ready powdered mixes on the market in US or online.
I add sesame seeds to the chips dough to quote Africa directly, becouse sesame, typical of Madagascar, spread throughout West Africa and then arrived in America through slaves in the same way rice and indigo did, but I know that sesame seeds immediately take those who know the area to benne wafers, Charleston typical sweet biscuits.
They represent the sum of cultures and contributions consolidated in local cuisine over the centuries: they derive from classic English tea bisquits made with flour, eggs, butter and baking powder, but they contain sesame too, and they are also said to bring good luck. The same thing the Gullahs think of sesame seeds (and the same is believed in Africa, “incidentally”), which in both Bantu and Gullah languages are just called... benne!
To tell the truth, in my first test with cabbage blue water chips became forest-green when baked and then olive-green when fried, so I tried again adding also a little blue spirulina powder: it is natural and cames from the sea… you do what you can!
It was not enough and in my second test the freshly-kneaded blue dough became gray-green after steam-cooking, iron-green once dried and pearl gray by frying. You can see the grey ones on the right in the picture. However, I preferred them to the first too green ones, you cansee on the left, because greyish puffs on a blue background can look like clouds, after all!
I'm sorry I had not time for a third version, definitely more indigo. Maybe instead of all these chatting I should have used abundant chemical dyes like in American confectionery, but this recipe pays homage to Gullah cuisine, not the American one, so let's say that we are satisfied vith greyish couds, leaving the chemical blue all to velvet cakes.
Sautéed cabbage is a side dish and puff chips are a decoration, but the business core here is red rice: I allow myself to merge its basic stsandards with ones of another typical Sea Islands preparation: crab fried rice. Usually in that recipe there is no sign of tomato, rice is not pilaf but cooked in water and then sautéed with bacon and local crab meat, together with the usual onion plus green bell peppers plus celery, the “holy trinity” that dominates in the Southern cuisine.
Both crab and holy trinity are quite classic additions for homemade red rice and both are fine with tomato, so I decide to contaminate mine and I add them (also) to cooked red rice. I also use a little crab meat to flavor the broth, which remains a chicken stock. Maybe it seems strange to Italians, who use only fish or vegetable stock for sea-based recipes, but chichen broth is typical in many traditional American fish soups, including the legendary Southern she-crab soup.
I only regret not having found the crab I was looking for, nor fresh nor even frozen, and not having had time to order it in my local fishmonger shop: my city is near Alps mountains and very far from the sea, so in the end I had to use canned crab meat.
Now we have to decide which drinks we can pair to this “creative” red rice: in my opinion a light and semi-dry variant of Muscadine wine** (the local wine "invented" by the Gullahs from a local grape with huge grains, that has variable colors and sweetness) is almost a must.
For teetotalers, on the other hand, a nice pitcher of swamp water is ready... which here is not real "swamp water", nor even the famous pineapple/Chartreuse cocktail, but, in a family way, a simple mix of lemonade and tea.
My recipe was long to motivate but actually it was quickly made in the kitchen, especially with dried chips base made in advance. So let's get down to kitchen business... is almost dinner time!
RED CRAB RICE WITH BLUE CABBAGE AND (VIRTUALLY INDIGO) SPICY "CLOUD" CHIPSserving 2-4... depending on how hungry
200 g long grain rice, here Brazilian (no Carolina Gold available, but both have a very similar history)
250 g crab meat, drained net weight
30 g smoked bacon
1 small well-ripe tomato, chopped
1 small onion, here red, chopped
1/2 green bellpepper, chopped
2 thin spring onions, cut into thin round slices
1 celery stalk, chopped
2 cloves garli, finely minced
600 ml chicken broth (homemade as in my previous post)
1 large spoonful tomato paste
1 sprig fresh coriander, coarsely chopped
2 tablespoons peanut oil (canola oil is poorly considered in Italian tradition and not easily available, but peanuts came to America from Africa...)
20 g butter
4 black peppercorns
1/2 teaspoon sugar
salt to taste
1/2 red cabbage, about 600 g
100 g rice flour, the non-glutinous one
80 g crab meat (net weight)
1 tbsp sesame seeds
1 teaspoon powder mix of: celery seeds, paprika, garlic, onion, black pepper, thyme, bay leaf, ginger, nutmeg, mustard seeds
4 g spirulina powder
peanut oil for frying
1/2 cabbage boiled leaves (white and raw in the original recipe)
1 yellow-green bell pepper (red in the original recipe), cut into stripes
1 small onion, chopped
1 clove garlic, minced
1 tablespoon peanut oil (but lard or bacon would go)
1/2 teaspoon of spice mix (not in the original recipe)
reel black pepper to taste
salt to taste
Prepare chips' base a couple of days in advance: cut the cabbage into large wedges and drop them in boiling water with a pinch of salt. Cook for about 3 minutes, until leaves color changes from violet into bluish.
Turn off, drain the cabbage and filter 100 ml of water (if it is too violet, add a pinch of baking soda to make it bluer). Cool quickly the boiled leaves in cold water, drain them well, cut them into 1,5 inch squares and keep them for the side dish.
Work vigorously for several minutes, enough to compact the dough but without giving in to the temptation to add more water, or in frying the chips will not swell.
Form a compact blue cylinder about 10 cm long, place it in a basket lined witha pricked baking sheet (or a white cabbale leaf) and steam over boiling water, closed by a heavy lid, for about 1 hour and a half, until the surface is shiny and gelatinous and slightly sticky to the touch.
Leave to cool, tightly wrap the cylinder in plastic wrap and leave it to compact in the fridger for almost 24 hours. Slice it with a slicer or a potato peeler into about a hundred gossamer slices.
Place them on two large baking trays lined with backing sheets and let them dry for a couple of hours in fan oven at 60 °C (140 °F), turning them after the first hour. Slices are ready when dry, hard and slightly curved. They can be kept for months in a tightly closed plastic bag, waiting to be fried.
Fry them, just before eating, in oil at 180 °C (350 °F); drop in the hot oil only a couple at a time because they widen a lot and puffs up in a few seconds. Drain on paper towel and serve within two hours, or they’ll lose crispness.
For the side dish stir-fry the boiled cabbage leaves in oil with onion, garlic and bell pepper; when the volume is a little reduced, add salt and spices and cook another 2 or 3 minutes, leaving the vegetables tasty and cruncy, not “stewed”. In the end sprinkle with abundant grated black pepper.
For the broth boil the chicken stock with 50 g of crab meat (and, eretically, beingthe crab canned, also 4 or 5 tablespoons of its preservative liquid, which is a sum of water, salt, sugar and citric acid), sugar and peppercorns; simmer for half an hour until it is fully flavoured. Filter and measure 500 ml.
For the rice cut bacon into strips and sautè in a cast iron casserole until crispy. Remove and add oil in the pan. Brown there onion, celery, bell pepper, garlic and the white slices of spring onions; cook for a few minutes on medium heat, possibly covered, until onions and peppers are quite soft.
Remove most of the vegetsbles from the pan, leaving there a couple of spoonfuls; add the rice and toast it for two or three minutes, until it turns white. Combine in the pan tomato paste with chopped tomato and cook two minutes, then pour in the boiling broth, cover the pan with an heavy lid and cook for about 15 minutes on low heat, until the water is fully absorbed.
Short before turning off, in another pan heat the "holy Trinity with the Pope" sauté with 200 g of crab meat; cook for a couple of minutes, adding a spoonful of broth to prevent from drying out too much. Add the green slices of spring onions and the crispy bacon and cook another minute.
Add the crab sautè to the rice and mix well with two forks to get a well seasoned and fluffy rice.
Place a handful of cilantro and the butter knob on the top of the rice, cover again and leave to rest for another 5 minutes.
Mix again the rice, spoon it into serving or individual plates, decorate with fresh coriander sprigs and one crispy chips and serve with a bowl of blue cabbage and some other chips aside.
Both rice and cabbage are excellent hot or warm, but drinks must always be ice cold.
- * the first stories I read about Gullah cuisine are some specific chapters titled "Low Country Cuisine", "Gullah Cuisine", "American Rice" and "Soul Food" written by Toni Tipton-Martin in: AA. VV., United States. A gastronomic discovery, Koenemann, 1999, ISBN 3-8290-3985-9. From there I took the photo of purloo.
- ** intresting news about muscadine wine: here and here
- delving into the Gullah-Gheechee cuisine on You-Tube you’ll find several English subtitled videos in which red rice is written ray rice but it is a mistake: ray rice doesn’t have tomato and is prepared roasting rice with chopped noodles
- an interesting lecture on indigo traditions in Gullah culture is this video
- very interesting historical report about Gullah evolution (and specifically about a family of American indigo landolords with African slaves) is in the book of anthropologist and anatomy professor: William P. Pollitzer, The Gullah People and Their African Heritage, 1999, University of Georgia Press , ISBN 0-8203-2783-2
- an authentic and "spontaneous" book about Gullah cuisine is: Sallie Ann Robinson, Gullah Home Cooking the Daufuskie Way: Smokin 'Joe Butter Beans, Ol' Fuskie Fried Crab Rice, Sticky-Bush Blackberry Dumpling & Other Sea Island Favorites, 2003 The University of North Carolina Press, ISBN 978-0-8078-5456-3
- earch for videosby the same author, which are simple but accurate and cheerful, including the one where she shows cabbage and bell peppers recipe
- The whole meal here is naturally gluten free
• indigo leaf: here
• African dances at the Gullah Festival: here
• "Rice Harvesting" painting, by Jonathan Green: here
• Gullah text: here
• Gullah food: here
• American indigo fields in 1739, hanging blue fabrics, tree with bottles: here
• Nigerian dyers: here
• Gullah man with blue-painted face: here
• Gullah flag: here
• Malaysian blue rice: here