Jessica Harris' Red Rice
This classic Lowcountry dish takes many forms, and it started inWest Africa.
I came across red rice—a lynchpin dish that connects Africa to the American South—on my first trip to Charleston, South Carolina, in 1983. I was sitting at a local eatery with a group of friends who had each spent time in Senegal. When a starch was proposed to accompany the meal, all of the newcomers to Charleston's cuisine were intrigued by red rice and ordered it. We each took one bite, savored the rich tomatoey flavor with a hint of smoked bacon, and exclaimed in virtual unison: "thieboudienne!" It was a true culinary epiphany, one that's defined my relationship with it ever since.
Senegal is a region of West Africa that has its own form of rice—which is the country's preferred starch. Thieboudienne (pronounced che-boo-JEN), Senegal's national dish, can be prepared in different ways but usually has fish and vegetables served with rice made red with tomato paste. (As tomatoes are not native to Africa, it is thought that it might have originally been prepared using palm oil.) When thieboudienne eventually migrated to other parts of West Africa—notably English-speaking Ghana and Nigeria—it took on the name of the Senegalese empire that originally spawned it: the Jolof Empire (also known as Wolof or Jollof), which ruled the land from the mid-1300s to the mid-1500s. Jollof rice has been adopted and adapted; it swaps fish for chicken and adds and subtracts vegetables at the whim of the cook.
Whether from Senegal, Nigeria, or Ghana, the taste for the dish crossed the ocean with enslaved Africans. On the other side, South Carolina's vast wealth was based on the grain. Slave traders valued the technological and agricultural know-how of Africans from rice-growing regions and sold them for work in the fields. As a result, traditional African dishes were transformed into red rice and other bedrock staples of Gullah Geechee cooking. Farther south, in Louisiana—another area where enslaved Africans labored in rice fields—jambalaya, a close cousin of the West African dish, was created. Both are prime examples of how history can often be found hidden in plain sight at the dinner table.
Jessica's Three Tips for Her Traditional Recipe
Go Vegetarian: Red rice is a forgiving dish and can be made without meat if you like. In Step 2, omit the bacon and substitute 1 tablespoon olive oil for the drippings. Use vegetable broth instead of chicken broth in Step 3, and omit the ham.
Peel Like a Pro: Don’t forget to peel the tomatoes. Cut a small X on the bottom of each with a knife. Blanch them in boiling water about 30 seconds; then transfer to an ice bath. The skins will slip off easily. If ripe, fresh tomatoes are unavailable, you can just use canned peeled ones.
Simmer Before Baking: My recipe has separate yet tender and fluffy grains because the rice, vegetables, and cooking liquids are all simmered in a skillet on the stovetop (to reduce the liquid) and then transferred to a baking dish to finish cooking in the oven.