Old world ingredients you should know and use from the South
In their book, "The World in Skillet," authors Paul and Angela Knipple reveal that because America is a nation built by immigrants, traditions from Uganda, Liberia, Brazil and beyond can be traced to the food people think of as being "American" - or in this case, "Southern."
"We were inspired to write the book because of the diversity we see in the South, but looking back to everyone we talked to, we realize that essentially everybody's the same no matter where you go," says the husband-and-wife team.
Let's take a dip into America's melting pot without stepping north of the Mason-Dixon line.
Five Old World Ingredients You Should Know and Use from the South: Paul and Angela Knipple
1. Thank ya, thank ya very much
"Elvis Presley, good old southern boy and tragic 'King of Rock and Roll,' was known for kindnesses like buying cars for strangers and quirks like shooting TVs. In culinary terms, he was known for his quirky love of fried peanut butter and banana sandwiches - preferably cooked in bacon grease.
While those sandwiches are admittedly not one of the cornerstones of Southern food, the combination of peanuts and bananas is a familiar flavor to most of us. But what most of us don't realize is that flavor combination comes from a culture a lot further away than Tupelo, Mississippi, or Memphis, Tennessee.
Elizabeth Kizito, a cookie maker in Louisville, Kentucky, tells us that in her native Uganda, people eat peanuts and bananas every day, although the bananas she's referring to are starchier plantains instead of the sweet bananas we're used to eating here. The dish, mato ke nabinyebwa, is a staple food eaten almost daily by every family as a tasty way to get necessary nutrients.
So, the Ugandans call them bananas? What's the difference between bananas and plantains? Bananas are edible raw and come to us from Central America, while their cousin plantains, even the ripe ones, originated in Africa and need to be cooked."
"Whether you like it slippery and slimy, battered and fried crisp, or lurking deep in a bowl of gumbo, there's probably no vegetable that you think of being more Southern than okra. But really, it's not. Even the word gumbo comes from ngombo, the Wolof word for okra.
The exact origin of the plant is uncertain, and it may have first been cultivated in either South Asia or West Africa. Historical documents show that it was eaten in Egypt as early as 1200. It arrived in the New World with the slave trade as early as 1658, the first time its presence was recorded in Brazil. Thomas Jefferson noted that it was well established in Virginia in his writing in 1781.
But are southerners the only people who eat okra anymore? Not even close. Check your local Indian buffet for okra dishes like stir-fries, bhindi gosht or in sambar. You'll find okra in Malaysian food, Caribbean food, Brazilian food, African food, South American food, even modern Japanese food."
3. Paprika: The Boomerang Spice
"Countless plates of deviled eggs and bowls of potato salad - Southern staples both - are dusted with paprika every year, a subtle beautification like the blush of a Southern belle's cheek. Paprika followed a particularly interesting route to the South. Like tomatoes and potatoes, peppers are native to the New World. Paprika, however, is a product of Europe.
Columbus returned to Spain with peppers, which then made their way west and north to Hungary. In the milder European climate, the paprika pepper evolved to be milder in flavor and became a national treasure that allowed for the creation of what we think of today as Hungarian and Slavic cuisine. Although much of our paprika is grown in California now, the styles we use hearken back to the Old World: Hungarian hot, Hungarian sweet and Spanish smoked. Now, is that dusting all you should do with paprika? Absolutely not, unless you don't mind missing out on a world of subtle pepper flavors."
4. World Wide Greens
"Fine. So maybe some things we think of as Southern aren't really just Southern. Or maybe they are but they left here to get famous before they came back. You can't say that about greens though. Greens are Southern. We know that they were an African tradition, but we adopted them. We put them on our tables; we sopped up their potlikker; we made them our own. It's true. We did.
And so did everyone else in the world.
In Brazil, a traditional side to Elena Pereira of Richmond, Virginia's incredibly filling meat-and-bean feijoada is couve refogada, collard greens cut into long thin ribbons and sautéed with garlic. Father Vien Thé Nguyen of New Orleans, Louisiana, recalled using the juice from pickled mustard greens as a child in Vietnam to make a starvation meal of plain rice taste like something special. Saag or palak paneer in India? That's greens. Bok choy in China? Greens. And in Africa? Whole cookbooks could be written just on the variety of greens eaten and their different preparations. You may not see Europeans diving into a mess of greens with a hunk of cornbread, but they've got greens, too. Swiss chard, anyone?"
5. The Mother Dishes
"Cooking is a tradition of people and time and territory. Sometimes, you can follow migration patterns by following food, by seeing dishes appear that have the same backbones as a dish from the motherland but that have been changed by the ingredients available in a new home or the taste preferences there for spices. Keep following it, and it may change again, still visibly connected to a mother dish, but something uniquely its own as well.
Jollof rice is one of those mother dishes. You'll find it served throughout West Africa, and, even as a mother dish, no two pots served are ever the same. Chef MaMusu, a restaurant owner in Richmond, Virginia, gave us a Liberian version of the recipe that has more traditionally Southern flavors because of the history of Liberia. To give a basic description, the dish is rice, meat, and vegetables, all seasoned with peppers, garlic, and onion. The vegetables you use can vary based on what you like or what's available based on the season.
This is a recipe that left Africa with enslaved men and women. When they landed in the Caribbean, they had it with them. In Cuba, it evolved into the arroz con pollo (recipe below) shared with use by Elizardo Sanz in Marietta, Georgia, taking advantage of sour orange juice to marinate the chicken and add a new flavor to the dish and annatto seeds to add vivid yellow color. When they landed in Louisiana, it evolved into jambalaya, using the spicy sausages of the Cajuns who were already living there."
Arroz con Pollo (Cuban-Style Chicken and Rice)
1 chicken, quartered
1/2 cup orange juice
1/2 cup lime juice
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1 teaspoon ground cumin
2 cloves garlic, crushed
1/4 cup annatto oil or olive oil
1 large yellow onion, diced (about 1 cup)
1 large Ají pepper, Cubanelle pepper, or green bell pepper, chopped
3 cloves garlic, minced (about 1 1/2 teaspoons)
1 small tomato, seeded and diced (about 2/3 cup)
2 teaspoons salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 bay leaf
1 1/2 cups beer
1 cup chicken broth
1/4 teaspoon saffron strands, crushed
1/2 teaspoon annatto seeds
1 pound Valencia or Arborio rice, rinsed
1 cup fresh or frozen green peas
Place the chicken in a large container with a lid. Pour over the orange and lime juices with the oregano, cumin, and crushed garlic. You can replace both the orange and lime juices with the juice of sour oranges if it is available. Seal the container and allow the chicken to marinate in the refrigerator for 4 hours or overnight.
Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat.
Carefully add the chicken and fry for about 5 minutes per side or until brown.
Remove the chicken from the skillet and reserve, draining all but 2 tablespoons of the fat from the skillet.
Add the onion, Ají, Cubanelle, or green bell pepper, and garlic to the skillet and cook for about 5 minutes or until the onion is translucent.
Add the tomato, salt, and black pepper and continue cooking for 1 minute.
Return the chicken to the skillet and continue cooking for 2 minutes. Carefully add the bay leaf, beer, chicken broth, and saffron to the skillet. Bring the mixture to a boil.
Reduce the heat to low, cover, and allow the mixture to simmer for 30 minutes.
Remove 1/4 cup of the cooking liquid from the chicken mixture. In a small saucepan, pour the 1/4 cup cooking liquid over the annatto seeds. Simmer over medium-low heat for 5 minutes before straining the liquid back into the chicken mixture. Discard the annatto seeds.
Return the chicken mixture to a boil.
Stir in the rice, reduce heat to low, cover, and simmer for 25 minutes.
Remove the bay leaf and stir in the green peas. Allow the arroz con pollo to cook for another 5 minutes.
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