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Chatting with five masters of the classic Lowcountry dish

Red Rice Roundtable

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"Damn homie! You got me in here eating this bootleg jambalaya?"

That was my precise reaction when a friend of mine introduced me to red rice. He and everyone else in my neighborhood had ranted and raved and passionately big upped red rice, which prompted me to tag along with him to Hannibal's Kitchen, eager to dissect the hype. Upon first taste, it was a sort of gummy, decently seasoned, but not something I'd go brag about. My friend's facial expression and body language led me to believe that he was not only offended, but poised to jump across the rickety wooden and burgundy leather booth and either punch me in my face or put me in a headlock. I immediately tried to soften my criticism: "Maybe the lady who usually cooks it is off today."

I've said this before, and I'll say it again — I'm not from Charleston, or the surrounding areas or islands. As a matter of fact, I have more family in the South Bronx than I do in the whole state of South Carolina. My introduction to Gullah Geechee culture came from Miss Nita's daycare where we would watch Gullah Gullah Island.

Even though I grew up in Brunswick County, N.C., which is technically a part of the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor, I've never described anything extremely good as "bussin" and anybody in my family would look very foolish attempting to fold palmetto fronds into roses.

Though my ignorance about Gullah Geechee culture is insanely deep, one thing I'm not ignorant about is Charleston's relationship with rice.

The conservationist Richard Porcher brilliantly summed it up: "Without rice, the city of Charleston as we know it today would not exist." Back in 2006 while I was living in New York City, my cousin Jinka took me to Afrika Kine, a restaurant in the Le Petit Senegal section of Harlem, marking the first time I'd ever eaten "authentic" African food in my life.

I ordered the Thieboudienne, also known as chebu jen, which in the Wolof language of Senegal simply means "rice and fish," but there was nothing simple about that dish. Even though I was right there on 116 Street, in my mind and in my mouth, I was buzzing through the frantic streets of Dakar on a moped headed to play a pickup soccer game at Plage des Mamelles.

This past summer, I found myself back in Harlem asking the same cousin about African food. I found myself, 2:30 in the morning, at a restaurant called Accra, and the same ranting and raving I'd heard about red rice in Charleston was what I was hearing about jollof rice. This beloved West African dish, likely named after the Jolof Empire (1350-1549), is so revered there is an ongoing beef between Ghana and Nigeria called the Jollof War about which nation cooks up the most delicious version.

As soon as my bowl of jollof rice came to the table I immediately thought about the red rice I'd had in Charleston. The optics were the same — a deep reddish-orange hue — but as I dug my fork into the heap of fluffy rice the plume of steam carried a fragrance that blew me away. If the red rice in Charleston was a decent cup of light blend, small batch coffee, the jollof rice with its palm oil and spices like tamarind and nutmeg, was an espresso — the flavors were deeper, more pronounced, as vibrant as Ankara fabric.

Both versions have a tomato paste backbone, both use a medley of sautéed onions and bell peppers, but the similarities start to fizzle out with the lack of porkiness and smokiness from the sausage and bacon that really carries the flavor of Charleston's red rice — the Ghananian who prepared my jollof rice was a devout Sunni Muslim, so that meant absolutely no pork.

Even with those differences, it seemed to me that the two dishes were twins who'd been separated at birth and grew up in two completely different environments, thus giving them their own unique character.

I'm willing to bet that if I asked 100 black Charlestonians what jollof rice was, 90 percent couldn't give me a solid answer without pulling out their smartphones. They wouldn't know they likely grew up eating and loving a variation of it. They may not make the connection that out of all the Africans who were plucked from Mama Africa and stepped foot onto Gadsden's Wharf, at least 100,000 were from West Africa, where jollof rice was born.

During the middle passage, in the wretched bellies of slave ships, we went from saying Alhamdulillah to Hallelujah, from tribes called Fulani to tribes called Quest, from traditional names like Sankara, to Anglo-Saxon ones like Simpson, and with that, our food was bent and molded in the same fashion, but it's still here in some way, shape, or form, 400 years later — I call that edible resilience.

Now that I have a solid understanding of why the Charlestonians I know feel a way about red rice, and why K.J. Kearney orchestrated Red Rice Day to be Sept. 29, 2018, I'm intrigued. I decided to sniff out the masters of the dish, dig into their pots, and pick their brains.

Eastside Soul Food - RUTA SMITH
  • Ruta Smith
  • Eastside Soul Food

City Paper: Are you aware of the red rice connection to Mama Africa?

Brooks Harrison, Eastside Soul Food: Absolutely! Some of the elders in my community who were scholarly and well-traveled had been to some places and shared what they'd learned. Which was a fair amount of our food, including this dish, came from West Africa. It was like "Hey, this is where that (red rice) came from."

Sameka Jenkins, Carolima's Catering: As a child I wasn't aware of the connection. It was really something we all just ate growing up, most of us really didn't know. As an adult it all started to make sense. My mom started making and selling sweet grass baskets and as she did her research about the origins, of course it all led back to Africa. She began telling me certain rice dishes like red rice came from Africa.

Sandra McCray, Dave's Carry-Out: No, Not at all. I'd never heard of any connection to Africa. All I know is my grandmother from James Island would make it every Friday. I've been eating red rice and fried fish since I was two years old. I'm 70-something right now.

Julia Grant, Bertha's Kitchen: I really didn't know it was an extension of what we cooked in Africa, to be honest.

Debra Worthy, Martha Lou's: No. I didn't know anything about that. I do remember we were invited to an event at Butcher & Bee and they had some sort of red rice from the Middle-East. I asked "Is this what you call red rice where y'all are from?" It was pretty good, even though it wasn't what I expected.

 

CP: If you're having a family shindig, who's bringing the red rice?

Harrison: That would be my Aunt Sheila, she's definitely number one, not just for my family but a lot of families on Wadmalaw Island. It's more close-knit than a lot of communities in the actual city of Charleston, so everybody knows about her red rice.

Jenkins: It would probably be my sister or I, and that's unanimous! My sister actually just taught me a new way to cook red rice.

McCray: Me! I do it all the time for all the family gatherings. My sister is pretty good and my daughter is catching on.

Grant: My sister and I always bring the red rice.

Worthy: My daughter Melanie. I taught her, now she's better at making it than I am. It's all good though!

 

CP: Is it red rice without the bacon grease and sausage?

Harrison: It definitely can be. It's more so about the actual base. You can use oysters, or shrimp and call it "seafood" red rice, which is completely fine. It all boils down to what your family has available.

Jenkins: Is shrimp and gravy still shrimp and gravy with Tasso ham? If you want to be authentic, it has to have the bacon grease and sausage, that's what truly makes it authentic red rice. That's how our ancestors did it. I like to use Rogers Wood brand sausage in mine, and what kitchen doesn't have bacon grease sitting by the stove?

McCray:The bacon and sausage are great for seasoning the dish but I know a lot of people who use shrimp — it's still red rice, as long as that tomato base is there.

Grant: There are a lot of people these days who prefer it in a vegetarian style, but that bacon and sausage pumps the flavor up. I always use mild, smoked sausage when I make mine.

Worthy: We don't put meat in ours, but if we did, it would be the spicy Rogers Wood sausage.

Martha Lou's makes red rice on the stove - RUTA SMITH
  • Ruta Smith
  • Martha Lou's makes red rice on the stove

CP: Oven or stove?

Harrison: I've done it both ways, but if you don't do it in the oven, you ain't doing it right. You can tell right away if it's cooked on the oven or the stove. When you cook it on the stove, the texture is stickier, a little mushy, almost like a jambalaya. There's more of a science when you cook it in the oven: The rice absorbs the tomato paste better, along with the other seasonings. It takes an hour longer than the stovetop does but it comes out more flavorful.

Jenkins: You can do it the old school way — on the stove, that's how my mother or mostly anybody over the age of 50 would cook it. Cooking it in the oven eliminates that thick layer of crust on the bottom. Before I put mine in the oven I double wrap it with aluminum foil and plastic wrap and make sure it's sealed tight. It takes almost two hour but it's always worth it.

McCray: I never, ever use the oven to make my red rice. It's always in a pot on the stove.

Grant: Well, a long time ago we did ours on the stove. We just recently started using a rice steamer. When you do it in a pot on the stove, there's a lot of burnt crust, but with the steamer your red rice comes out nice and fluffy.

Worthy: I cook the whole thing in the oven baby!

 

Bertha's line - RUTA SMITH
  • Ruta Smith
  • Bertha's line

CP: What makes your red rice better than the one next door?

Harrison: I'll be honest, we cook our red rice different on the Island (Wadmalaw). Not to say ours is better, but it's definitely a different variation. The main thing is we use more vegetables, more diced up peppers and whereas somebody else may use just onion powder, we'll use the actual onion.

Jenkins: Well, one thing I like to do is add Heinz Ketchup to mine. It has to be Heinz. I found that it gives the dish a little twang and bite on the end.

McCray: (laughing) I really, honestly couldn't tell you. Maybe the fact that we make our own seasoning blend in-house, so it doesn't taste like anybody else's.

Grant: We put love into what we do. That's the way our mother Mrs. Albertha Grant taught us. When you put love into it you'll always satisfy the taste buds.

Worthy: Sweetheart, it's the one and only thing. I got that love in me! It's all about the love, and wanting it done right.

 

CP: Describe red rice's significance to an out-of-towner like myself.

Harrison: Red Rice is the biggest staple in Charleston and there's no debating that. It's so dynamic and it defines our culture so well.

Jenkins: It's like the air we breathe. Whenever I'm catering an event I can always tell when I'm dealing with a "Binyah" (a local) because they ask for the red rice immediately. Other places have their thing, if you go out towards Kingstree, they'll have chicken bog, red rice is our thing here in Charleston.

McCray: It's a Charleston thing. Plain and simple.

Grant: Anybody that's from here knows Friday is red rice and fried fish! It's tradition, it's been that way forever.

Worthy: Man, everybody knows about red rice! Next question?

Julia Grant of Bertha’s Kitchen says she likes to make her red rice with a “mild, smoked sausage” - RUTA SMITH
  • Ruta Smith
  • Julia Grant of Bertha’s Kitchen says she likes to make her red rice with a “mild, smoked sausage”

CP: Is red rice always better with fried fish?

Harrison: I'll tell you this, if you're having a fish fry in Charleston you have to bring some red rice, you might as well. Actually, if you're having a fish fry in Charleston and you don't have red rice, I don't want the fish.

Jenkins: What else would you eat it with?! Seriously, fried fish or fried chicken, it has to be one or the other.

McCray: I eat red rice with fried fish, that's what black folks do in Charleston.

Grant: Absolutely, but we sell a lot of red rice with fried pork chops, a good red rice goes with anything.

Worthy: Yes! Fried chicken works too, but red rice and fried whiting is the way to do it.

 

CP: Is it important to pass this dish down to the next generation?

Harrison: Absolutely! Our culture in general needs to be preserved. We're losing footing in different areas, so I say passing dishes like red rice down is essential. Other cultures do it, so it's important that we do so as well. I'm fortunate that my father and both my grannies taught me.

Jenkins: Absolutely. All my Gullah recipes will be passed down to my 15-year-old daughter. I told her she needs to start learning now. It's like when my mother was weaving the sweetgrass baskets, I wish I would have learned how to weave them when I had a chance. A lot of that stuff in our culture is becoming obsolete.

McCray: Yes. It's a part of our history, for my family and other black families in the area. We're already losing enough of our history, it's important that we don't lose our food.

Grant: Oh yes! It's always important to pass the torch. You have to think, if we don't, who will? I passed my recipe for red rice down to my daughter. Right now I have to stand over her to make sure she's doing it right, but eventually, she'll get it.

Worthy: Yes! I have three granddaughters and they're all learning how to make red rice as we speak.

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