Welcome to the second installment of my Food Questions series, where I investigate the stories behind food, just to satisfy my curiosity. (Find installment 1 about Catherine de’Medici here.) Remember: I’m not a historian or food expert, just a hungry, curious blogger asking questions.
People move, taking their customs and ideas with them. Language, culture, music, and food are among the cultural artifacts that that people bring with them in migration.
It’s a story that has repeated itself since the beginning of history.
Italy didn’t have tomatoes until the 16th century, when explorers to the New World brought them from Peru to Europe. Pizza was born in Naples during the 1700’s, and it wasn’t until 1889 that the classic tomato-mozzarella-basil combination wasn’t dubbed the Margherita, after the Queen. Neapolitans took the creation with them to the United States in the early 1900’s, where it exploded in popularity. Thus, in the grand scheme of food history, the ubiquitous pizza is nothing but a baby.
On the other side of the world, tempura (or classic Japanese deep-fried goodness) was originally introduced in the 1500’s by some poor lost Portuguese sailors who found themselves in Japan on the way to Macau. 300 years later, the British found their way to Japan and introduced a dish from one of their imperial colonies: Indian curry. The dish has been reworked to better suit Japanese tastes, and is now one of the country’s supreme foods.
Today’s question is about the influence of cooking traditions and the evolution of those dishes that travel. Specifically, the possible relationship between the Puerto Rican dish, arroz con gandules, and Jollof rice, a West African specialty.
Let’s start with an introduction to arroz con gandules.
Rice (arroz in Spanish) is a staple in Puerto Rican cooking, as it is in many other world cuisines. In her childhood, my grandmother remembers her mother cooking rice dishes as a way to stretch what little meat they had, be it pork, chicken, or seafood. Rice dishes are the bread-and-butter of the Puerto Rican table. Arroz con gandules (“Rice and pigeon peas”) is a dish that is especially important during the end-of-year festivities. As with any classic dish, every home cook has their own spin on the dish, and their own jealously-guarded secret ingredients.
Gandules are pigeon peas, a legume originally from India, which was later brought to Africa, then to the New World. They are small, pert beans that are soft and creamy in the inside. When combined with rice, you have a meal that provides a complete protein.
For my version, I start by rendering the fat from smoked lardons in a heavy-bottomed pot, adding a touch of additional olive oil. Next, homemade sofrito (the base of all Puerto Rican cooking) goes in to bubble with minced garlic, ground coriander, oregano, bay leaf, green olives, tomato purée, and sazón until powerfully fragrant. At this point, I tip in my rinsed gandules, followed by rinsed medium-grain rice, along with enough water to cover by about 2cm. Once the cauldron of lusciousness has simmered to evaporate much of the water, I stir once before tightly covering, lowering the heat, and letting the rice steam itself to completion.
The resulting dish is fluffy grains of fragrant rice that maintain their textural integrity. It can be enjoyed on its own, or served alongside simmered beans, gently fried sweet plantain strips, and fresh avocado. A fantastic comfort food.
I like mine to be a deep red color, from tomato purée and achiote (either from my own infusion of annatto seeds in oil, or in powdered form, as part of any commercial sazón mix).
For another take on this dish, check out chef Meseidy’s version at The Noshery. She features lovely photos, a detailed recipe, and an ingredient breakdown and additional cooking tips.
Today’s food question came to mind when I came upon an article on Jollof rice, a West African rice dish, fluffy long-grain rice seasoned in various manners, over which several countries claim to have perfected, between Nigeria, Cameroon and Ghana, among others. A dish originally made with barley, which was swapped for rice in the 19th century. Traditional ingredients include thyme, scotch bonnet peppers, stock cubes, and curry powder. Drooling over the pictures, I noticed quite a few similarities with my beloved arroz con gandules.
I got to thinking: Could it be that arroz con gandules, the ubiquitous Puerto Rican dish, evolved in tandem with the iconic West African Jollof rice?
Let’s look into the story of Jollof rice. There seems to be some debate as to where the dish originated, but many sources (including this lovely infographic on the food blog Kitchen Butterfly) point to Senegal as the starting point for this dish. The name Jollof comes from Jolof, a ruling center of the empire of the Wolof, in Senegal and the Gambia, from the mid-1300’s to 1890.
During this time, Portuguese trading posts were operating at the Senegal River. This region came to be called the Grain or Rice Coast, for (unsurprisingly) its prolific grain cultivation. Tomatoes came in from the New World, and it is conceivable that the birth of this dish followed thereafter.
Now, to address the slave trade and its role in global movement. This document from the UNESCO archives, written by the late Cuban professor José Luciano Franco, details European slave trade in the Caribbean and Latin America.
Spain and Portugal started importing slaves from West Africa to their soil in the 14th and 15th centuries. After Columbus’s discovery of the New World, as early as 1501, they were quick to move in establishing a transatlantic slave trade, thereby increasing the efficiency with which the New World territories could be exploited. There are records of the Spanish slave trade continuing through the late 1800’s.
At first, African slaves were transported from Spain and Portugal to the New World, but this tactic proved problematic. The Wolof people were specifically mentioned in Professor Franco’s report, as a group who quickly developed a reputation for instigating uprisings and revolts. In an attempt to put the kibosh on those pesky slave uprisings, the Spanish began transporting slaves directly from the African continent to their colonies. The King of Spain even declared that no slaves who had spent more than 2 years in Spain or Portugal were to be transported there. Thus, slave traders ramped up activity in the ports of Guinea, where the trading posts dealt in foodstuffs and human flesh.
Meanwhile, back in Boriken (the original Taíno name for Puerto Rico), the native population didn’t stand a chance. Most of the Taíno were decimated shortly after the arrival of the Spanish–if not by brute human force, then by disease. They themselves left behind no written records. The population of Puerto Rico now consists of the biological remnants of indigenous peoples mixed with European, West African, and Asian ancestry. Starting from the early 16th century, Puerto Rican cuisine was left open to interpretation; ingredients from both the Old and the New Worlds were left to mix with the various cooking methods belonging to the new multiethnic population.
Looking at modern Caribbean cooking, we clearly see other dishes that trace the complex history of transatlantic movement. For example, bacalaítos (delectable seasoned fritters with bacalao, or salt cod) are very similar to Haitian and Trinidadian accra and French-Antillean accras de morue, which seem to share ties with fried bean fritters called akara in West Africa, known as acarajé in Brazil. Indeed, it is a tangled web of food history–perhaps a grand family food tree is needed to give order to it all!
I’m venturing to claim that the connection between jollof rice and arroz con gandules is like that of not-so-distant cousins. They share roots, and evolved in slightly different directions over time. At the heart of it, you’ve got two dishes that start with an intensely flavored tomato-based sauce; add rice that’s been either generously rinsed or parboiled; cook in a tightly-covered vessel, stirring infrequently to ensure the final product is soft and fluffy. Both are also commonly served with fried plantains.
Food is not simply sustenance, but living culture. Our multiracial heritage was born from centuries of European colonization. It has left an indelible mark on our physiognomies, the tongues we speak, the food we eat, and the cultural practices we observe.
Arroz con gandules, a Puerto Rican culinary staple, represents a legacy of our storied past.
Let’s chew on that during this holiday season.
Carney, Judith A. “Black Rice: The African Origins of Rice Cultivation in the Americas: Chapter 1.” Harvard University Press. Accessed 12/21/2017.
Franco, José Luciano. “The Slave Trade in the Caribbean and Latin America from the Fifteenth to the Nineteenth Century.” United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization. 28 February 1977. Accessed 12/1/2017.
Sokoh, Ozoz. “An Infographic: A Brief History of Jollof Rice.” KitchenButterfly.com. Published 17 August 2017. Accessed 12/20/2017.
“Part 1: A Short History of Jollof Rice.” Published 19 November 2014. Accessed 12/20/2017.
“Part 2: #Jollofgate – In Defense Of Our Traditions.” Published 20 November 2014. Accessed 12/20/2017.
Sokolov, Raymond. Why We Eat What We Eat. Touchstone, Simon & Schuster, 1991.
My stomach sinks, then jumps into my throat. I can’t breathe. Braced for impact, eyes are gritted together, and bitter tears start to eke out. Is this my fate, to die with shitty airline food in my stomach? Clutching to F’s sleeve, dampening it with my anxiety and dark imagination. I’ve lived a good life. I hope everyone knows I love them. I hope my mother-in-law doesn’t lose respect for me when she’s forced to go through my dirty laundry and bed-side table… Our plane is rocking side to side as the captain tries to land in a rainstorm. The French couple behind us sound nonplussed as they contemplate their lunch options. Two feet away, I’m having an existential crisis, regretting my shortcomings and life choices.
We finally touch ground, and the passengers give a round of applause. I’m short of breath, wiping away tears. Screw this plane, I want out!
For the second and final leg of the journey, the sun has come out.
Turns out Lady Gaga and Michael Jackson bring the funk hard enough for me to forget how much I hate takeoff. This time, I’m too busy bopping like Carlton to notice the horrible airplane engine revving. The sky is a perfect prism of rainbow, sitting above perfect Bob Ross clouds. Happy little clouds.
I’ve passed through the doom of my turbulence, and I can find humor around me once again.
I have seven hours to kill. I start by watching the people around me and judging them based on their in-flight movie choice. The dadboner to my right is cracking up at The Hangover. Hair parted down the middle, checked button-down, corduroy pants: check, check, and check. He’s taken off his shoes, and his little toesies wiggle in their comfy socks. Sitting in front of him is a nerdy scruffy dude watching Casino Royale. It’s a series of sculpted, eternally sweaty men gazing intensely at each other. So hot.
Me, I’m jamming. Lipsynching to Mariah Carey one minute, then pulling an Elvis lip when nobody’s around and I can get away with it. Hell, if everyone on this plane were asleep, I wouldn’t be against the idea of practicing my Michael Jackson flair leg kick. “Bad” comes on, and suddenly the cabin lights dim. You know I’m bad, dah, jamon! In my mind’s eye, I’m wearing a jaunty fedora. I sling a suspicious gaze at every passerby; the scowl transforms into a knowing smirk. Heh… I eat punks like you for breakfast. Then my profile slides neatly out of view. The song in my ear changes, and in my imagination I AM Lady Gaga’s background singer, wearing a velour onesie, saucily wagging my finger and hollering about my fill-in-the-blank. Yeah, if I wanted to, I could totally sing like that.
It’s a flight that arrives just in time for Christmas, and I appreciate the effort they’ve put into making it feel festive around here. Flight attendants wear earrings with Rudolph and candy canes. Buttons that read “Michief Maker.” Somehow, I doubt that. Garlands (admittedly a bit scraggly) have been hung, crookedly designating the bathrooms. One is awkwardly draped, the shape reminiscent of a middle-schooler’s tentative drawing of the road map of a woman’s reproductive system. No matter. It’s got a certain charm to it.
At the moment, we’re just off the southern coast of Greenland. Traveling back in time. We left Dublin at 3:00pm, and arrive on the East Coast just before 5:00pm. I’m almost home! I’ll be laughing about all this in no time…
It’s my day today. I’m taking off, all alone, to have an adventure in another city.
I get on the train while the sky is still black. It slowly fades to blue, then pale yellow when I step off the train at my destination. The morning is spent poking around the quiet walkways, before shops even open.
It’s lunchtime. There’s an inviting café that serves tapas, and my stomach is starting to rumble. I sit in the back, surrounded by funky art: psychedelic cartoon faces wink at me while I consider the menu, which is written in chalk on a large piece of slate.
I choose a mild Catalan saucisson, with sardine rillettes, a creamy fish spread that I enjoy on crusty brown bread. Last, the server brings out hot spinach puffs in flaky pastry, served with lamb’s lettuce (mâche) and balsamic vinaigrette. I’ve got a glass of beautifully robust red wine to enjoy with it. The meal is deeply satisfying, and there is nothing to distract me from savoring each tasty morsel.
After, I continue walking through town, getting lost in small side streets, following no particular direction. I appreciate the care and attention each shopkeeper has put into their window display. Light, texture, color, and movement are all incorporated to attract and delight the passersby. I make my way to the central square, where the Christmas market is in full effect. Artisan truffle products stand next to gleaming handmade jewelry and leather-bound journals. Now this is a market.
I order myself a cup of vin chaud and rest it on a barrel to take out my notebook. The hot spiced red wine goes down smoothly and sweetly, and I’m absorbing the scene. Above my head are pine garlands, clusters of gold ornaments, and twinkling lights. The carousel with grinding pipe organ music is a fine backdrop to the squealing delight of children.
The sun is so brilliant, my eyes start to water as I make my way back to the train station. Stamp my ticket, step up from the platform onto the small local train that will bring me back home.
I ease into a seat next to the window. A group of teenage girls giggles into the car, bringing along a typhoon of pink sparkles and flowers. They speak unintelligibly fast about some incoherent, yet apparently highly important, subject. I am unmoving in the midst of this thick fog of unbridled youthful female naïveté. It’s almost painfully resonant and familiar.
In a flurry of hair flips, they disappear at the next station. In their place, a woman about my mother’s age gets on. She quietly sits in the seat facing me with a journal and a book about food, puts on some sunglasses, and gazes out the window.
This local train is pulling us through endless green fields, sensuously illuminated in the golden sun. The trees are bare, except for the clusters of mistletoe that are suspended in their spindly branches like Christmas ornaments. The sunlight is so warm and inviting, one could easily imagine it was spring or summer.
I’m brought back to a childhood memory: visiting a relative’s house in the summer, and running around the seemingly endless back yard. There were no obstructions, nothing between me, the grass, the hot sun, and boundless lightness within myself. That is the feeling I want to go back to. The source of life. Pure joy, safety, warmth, freedom, possibility.
I notice my reflection in the glass. I’m smiling to myself. The woman’s reflection is just next to it, facing mine like a time-lapse mirror.
Later that evening, F and I are around the fireplace at our friends’ house. The wind outside thumps at the windows, but we’re cozy and safe inside. We’re toasting with some bubbly, and just enjoying each other’s company.
It’s been a day of quiet fulfillment and loving kindness. My heart and soul are full to bursting, and I am overcome. I smile into my glass of bubbly, and my eyes well up. Where I’ve been, where I might be tomorrow, are not my concern.
I am living Now, which is just where I belong.
It’s that time of the year again, and I’ve been looking forward to it. Silver lights suspended all around town from the beautiful Haussmanian balconies, and neat rows of red and blue cabins erected in the town center. The Christmas Market is the embodiment of the spirit of the season. I love the glow of the lights, the smell of cinnamon and mulled wine, and the glorious explosion of rich colors. The holiday season is a beautiful time to be alive.
With this lovely image in mind, I dance out of work, looking forward to strolling about the market on my way home. My spirit is light, and I’m surprised there aren’t twittering doves lifting my coattails on the way out.
I arrive at the market with a bounce in my step.
A young couple is swinging their bags as they stroll, and they’re unceremoniously perfect in converging into my path, cutting me right off. No matter, they must be so lost in their loving reverie that they didn’t see me.
Then my heart starts to sink as I pass by each little cabin.
Vendors are selling snake oil and toe socks, ugly overpriced jewelry and cured saucisson that smell like feet. Waffles and churros are made from boxed mixes and dredged with off-brand imitation Nutella. Sacrilege.
Warped speakers vomit out “Last Christmas,” and the tinny sound of George Michael narrates my walk through town. The song echoes and distorts off the storefronts, intercut with snippets of banal dialogue.
A vendor is displaying huge slabs of chocolate, filled with nuts and dried fruit. There is no plastic barrier, and I imagine passersby inadvertently touching the chocolate with their putrid hands, and germy children sneezing all over it. Merry Christmas, Grandma; here’s a taste of gastroenteritis.
A group of sour-smelling, salty-looking homeless dudes play patty cake while their dogs gnaw at their rope collars. One dog is spreading his own Christmas cheer all over the sidewalk; something tells me he hasn’t been eating enough kibbles.
All the while, George Michael’s buttery voice indulges the word “special,” and it’s following me at every turn. His sensual whispers are giving me douche chills. I try to keep my spirits up as he flirtatiously caresses each word, but it’s starting to wear on my soul.
Just ahead, a fat homeless guy shuffles along, muttering to himself. At once, like a backfiring jalopy, he fires out of both ends. He releases a massive wet fart, then coughs up onto the cobblestone.
A crescendo of wails starts up from the other side; a kid has just evacuated his churro all over the front of his jacket. Mom looks beyond exasperated, and she herself is fighting the urge to gag as she wipes up her kid with cheap disintegrating napkins.
I don’t have time to wish them a Merry Christmas because I’m dancing around the pavement now, swerving and side-stepping the well-trodden doggie piles. Like an unholy mandala, the traces of shit radiate outward from the foul nucleus. Animals.
This is no Christmas market. This is criminal. This is a farce.
On a human level, this is offensive. They’ve taken the spirit of Christmas, dolled it up with rouge and cheap perfume, and sold her off to the highest bidder. They’ve turned her out, and for what? As Seen On TV gimmicks and radio-controlled planes that the vendor insists on dive-bombing in front of you, expecting you to be impressed. Where are the homemade crepes with real fucking Nutella? Where’s the hippie selling handmade hemp bracelets and artisanal soap? This is sordid business.
Tim Curry is laughing diabolically somewhere, as “Time of My Life” starts to ooze out of the speakers. I gotta get outta here, man.
The holiday season is a beautiful time to be alive? Humbug.