Like The Cooking Gene before it, the newest book from historian Michael Twitty provides lessons on African-American culinary history in the South, and excitingly, its insights into the region’s food culture come through a laser focus on one ingredient: rice.
Rice: a Savor the South cookbook is the latest in UNC Press’s series of deep dives on single subjects essential to Southern cooking. “For many of us southerners, no other ingredient tastes this much like home,” Twitty writes in the book’s introduction. But rice is also global, and “bonds the Lower South with much of the rest of the planet, for whom a meal without rice is, frankly, not a meal at all.”
After tracing rice’s journey to the South through Asia and Africa, Twitty lays out 51 recipes for rice dishes from the South and around the world. In the “Deep Origins” section of the book, you’ll find recipes for African rice dishes like jollof, Liberian rice bread, and thiebou niebe, while the “Diverse Approaches” chapter features the Cuban rice and beans dish Moros y Cristianos, Sephardic pink rice, and a recipe for “unforgettable rice” from Mexican chef Pati Jinich, among others. Throughout the book, Twitty calls on chef friends like Jinich, as well as culinary experts; legends, including Edna Lewis and Princess Pamela; and family members for a collection that demonstrates that of all the Southern grains, rice, as Twitty puts it, is “without question the most versatile.”
From the “Southern Classics” section of the book, here is a recipe for country captain, a Southern curried chicken and rice dish. This version comes from Twitty’s “Alabama grandmother,” Hazel.
Country Captain à la Hazel
This is my Alabama grandmother’s recipe for country captain, a Southern curry-flavored rice dish popular in the Carolina Low Country and other parts of the Lower South. You can also taste the influence of West Africa, India, and Great Britain in the rural South all at once.
Makes 6–8 servings
8 pieces skin-on, bone-in chicken (thighs, legs, drumsticks, breasts cut in half)
For the chicken rub:
1 tablespoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon Kitchen Pepper (see recipe below)
1 teaspoon Madras curry powder
1 teaspoon poultry seasoning
1 teaspoon red pepper flakes
For the country captain:
3 cups basmati rice, washed and drained
1/4 cup canola oil or bacon fat
1 green bell pepper, seeded and chopped 1 large red onion, chopped
4 garlic cloves, minced
1 tablespoon peeled and finely chopped fresh ginger
1 tablespoon Madras curry powder
2 teaspoons Kitchen Pepper (see subrecipe below)
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 28-ounce can crushed tomatoes, with juice
1 6-ounce can tomato paste
4 cups no-salt-added vegetable stock, homemade or store-bought
1 cup vegetable or canola oil, or 1/2 cup vegetable or canola oil mixed with 1/2 cup bacon fat
1 cup all-purpose flour
For garnish (optional):
Chopped fresh parsley
Sliced green onion
Unsweetened coconut flakes
Step 1: Pat the chicken dry with a paper towel and place it in a large mixing bowl. Add the salt and seasonings and rub them all over the chicken, coating it well. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 3-4 hours, or preferably overnight.
Step 2: When you’re ready to begin cooking, place the rice in a large pot with a tight-fitting lid and add enough water to cover the rice by 1 inch. Cover and bring to a boil over medium-high heat, then turn the heat down to low and simmer, covered, until the rice is fluffy and the liquid has evaporated, about 20-25 minutes. Fluff the rice with a fork and then replace the lid to keep it warm. Set aside.
Step 3: While the rice is cooking, in a large, heavy-bottomed pot with a tight-fitting lid, heat the canola oil over medium-high heat. Add the bell pepper, onion, garlic, and ginger. Sauté until the onion has softened and become translucent, about 5-8 minutes. Stir in the curry powder, kitchen pepper, and salt, then add the crushed tomatoes with juice and the tomato paste. Continue to cook, stirring constantly, for 3-4 minutes. Add the stock and bring it to a boil over high heat, then turn the heat down to low and simmer, uncovered, for 30 minutes. Taste and adjust the seasonings as needed.
Step 4: While the sauce cooks, prepare the seasoned chicken for frying. In a large, heavy-bottomed pot, heat the vegetable oil over medium-high heat. The oil is hot enough when it can brown a cube of bread. Place the flour in a shallow bowl, dredge each piece of chicken in the flour, shake off the excess, and place the piece of chicken on a plate. Working in batches to avoid over- crowding the pan, shallow-fry the chicken for about 4–5 minutes per side, until the chicken is golden brown on both sides. As you finish each piece of chicken, place it on a plate lined with a paper towel.
Step 5: Add the fried chicken to the pot of simmering sauce and bring it to a boil over medium-high heat, then turn the heat down to low. Cover and simmer for about 35 minutes to allow the chicken to finish cooking and the liquid to thicken into a stew. Turn off the heat and let the chicken rest for about 10-15 minutes. Serve with the rice and any or all of the suggested garnishes.
Kitchen pepper is an old-school spice mixture that was very popular in early American cooking, especially in the coastal South. While it takes its main cues from quatre épices, a spice mix of pepper, cloves, nutmeg, and ground ginger common in French cooking, it also helped to preserve both medieval and Silk Road flavors in southern foodways, as well as the flavors of West Africa, where indigenous and Middle Eastern spices had long influenced the cuisine. This is my take on this classic. It has the complexity of garam masala without quite the punch and heat.
Makes about 1⁄2 cup
2 tablespoons coarsely ground black pepper
1 tablespoon freshly grated nutmeg
1 tablespoon ground allspice
1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
1 tablespoon ground ginger
1 tablespoon ground mace
1 tablespoon ground white pepper
1 tablespoon red pepper flakes
Combine the ingredients in a small bowl. Store in an airtight container in a cool, dry place for up to six months.
From RICE: a SAVOR THE SOUTH® cookbook by Michael W. Twitty. Copyright © 2021 by the University of North Carolina Press. Used by permission of the publisher. www.uncpress.org