Is it really Jambalaya? - Recipe #4
Names matter, especially to cooks and eaters
I made jambalaya this past weekend, or at least I started to. And because I was approaching the cooking with a slightly looser, brothy version in mind, I started to wonder what makes jambalaya authentic. I love rice dishes that are one-pot meals, like paella (not loose/brothy) and asopao (brothier) and while I initially wanted something with all the jambalaya flavors, I was definitely going looser/brothier because I adore asopao. And it was cold out!
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I think for the most part we all agree food should simply taste good, but with many recipes, especially ones with cultural and historical stories worth holding on to, or ones with social significance, a needed historical accuracy from an equity or justice standpoint, then what you call food is VERY important. And names matter. They matter to people. And they should matter to cooks and eaters.
BLT … tomato soup … apple pie …. Call ’em anything you want, cook them your way, have at it.
Dishes like gumbo or chicken vindaloo … not so fast, right? Exactly. So I got curious and, since this had to cook for a while, I did some reading.
On one hand jambalaya is a combination of rice, spices, vegetables, chiles and meat/seafood. In some old books it’s even referred to as "rice dressing.” Common wisdom and most light research has the dish pegged to 18th century Louisiana. There it included andouille or other smoked sausage, typically pork-based (hello, Spain!), and the holy trinity of celery, onion and bell pepper (influenced by French mirepoix and Spain’s sofrito) that season the dish along with something spicy like cayenne pepper. The idea put forth by many writers that jambalaya came about because Spanish colonists couldn’t make paella without saffron is an old whitewashed history trope, in my opinion—the worst kind of food story. It’s the old “Well, let’s do the best we can with these local ingredients" story that I find never really holds up.
Jambalaya in 18th century southern Louisiana was certainly influenced by the Spanish, Senegalese and Ghanaians, the rice that came from West Africa, the French, indigenous first peoples of the region and Caribe peoples … I get it … it developed over time and many hands touched it.
But as someone who has spent a lot of time in Africa and first started cooking loose rice dishes after tasting so many in Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic and Trinidad, I thought the dish was really African, first and foremost. And I think the narrative needs to start there and be acknowledged at each step along the way. As so many have said before me, the history of African American food can’t be discussed outside of the context of colonialism and slavery. But I wasn’t 100% sure about the jambalaya question so I kept digging.
The best thing I found on the subject was the work of Kayla Stewart who did both a written piece and a podcast on her search for the origin of jambalaya.
I have eaten jollof rice on the streets of many West African towns and mostly by the coast, where it is heavy with fish and seasoning that I love. Nigerians, Ghanaians, Senegalese all good-naturedly think their jollof rice is the jollof rice. According to Stewart, its origins are most likely Senegalese, and my personal experience there bears that out. I’ve dined on ceebu jen, the Senegalese dish of rice and fish that Stewart believes is not one of the grandparents of jambalaya but rather a dish that emerged at the same time. And it’s this line that got me: Stewart says,
“What I’ve come to believe, after months of research, is that rather than jambalaya being a direct descendant of jollof rice, the two dishes may have emerged along the same timeline. While this speaks to colonialism’s role in the spread of ingredients that inform some of the world’s favorite dishes, it also embodies how aspects of Diaspora cultures, such as the level of spice in our food or our affinity for one-pot rice dishes, transcend time, border, tragedy, and triumph.”
That’s a great mindset, and by the time my wet version of this rice dish was done, I came back to the place I started. Hungry for a taste of another place that, like all places, is filled with stories both triumphant and bitterly sad, all best told through food. You should listen to Stewart’s podcast episode while you make this dish.
• 3 tablespoons vegetable oil
• 4 tablespoons flour
• 2 onions, minced
• 2 cups minced celery
• 2 red, yellow or orange bell peppers, cleaned and minced
• 1 tablespoon ground hot chiles like chipotles, cayenne, etc (I used Senegalese ones I still had from Sandaga Market)
• 1 chopped hot fresh chile (I like serrano chiles for their dependable heat, but you can use what you like)
• 5 garlic cloves, peeled and smashed
• 1 bouquet garni of rosemary and thyme sprigs
• 3 tablespoons paprika
• 1/4 cup tomato paste
• 1 cup tomato purée
• 2 quarts broth (I used chicken broth)
• 2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken thighs
• 1 pound andouille or Cajun beef sausage (or use pieces of pork or goat cut into golf ball sized pieces)
• 1 1/2 cups of rice (I use Carolina Gold or other long grain rice)
• 1 pound crab meat
Place the oil in a large pot over medium heat.
Sprinkle the flour on the oil and cook, stirring every few minutes as it turns from blond to red to brown to very dark brown.
When it hits that point, add all the onions, peppers and chiles, herbs, seasonings and tomato paste, and stir. Keep cooking until the vegetables are glassy and wilted (don’t scorch them!). Add the tomato purée and broth.
As that comes to a simmer, cover it and lower the heat.
Cut the chicken thighs in half, and brown them in a sauté pan over medium heat in a tablespoon of oil. Add them to the pot. Brown the sausages and do the same.
Simmer it all covered for 45 minutes.
Uncover and cook for 15-20 minutes more at a simmer.
Season with salt and ground black pepper.
Add the rice and stir. Keep at a bare simmer… stir it every 3-4 minutes. After about half an hour, taste for seasoning and for the tenderness in the rice. Stir in the crab meat. Let the stew sit for 5 minutes and stir delicately. There will be a little bit of brothiness to it, but when you stir it you won’t see much, and the rice will keep absorbing the moisture, but it won’t get stiff like traditional jambalaya.
Serve in bowls with big spoons. I slice the sausages in half but you can do what you like with those.
All the best,