Being a true Southern child, I ramble on through my life, career, and especially through Bojangle’s. Carolina born & bred-ed, baby! It wasn’t until I moved to our nation’s capital that I realized how rare a commodity free-flowing, life-giving sweet tea was.
It also occurred to me that despite all indication from remedial chemistry, people outside of the South seem to think you can actually dissolve sugar in an iced glass of unsweetened tea. Born from a culture of family-first, generosity & food, and raised in a place where that spirit only amplified, growing up as an Indian-American in the South made sense on probably even a metaphysical level. Baseball is a lot like cricket anyways, isn’t it?
Tracing a dish’s roots really shows how connected this world’s cultures are, creating links that at once mystify and simplify your understanding of what you eat. The South has had a long-standing love affair with Indian subcontinent’s warm, spicy flavors. Country Captain curry (yellow chicken curry w/ almonds and raisins, served on white rice) and its variations have been a staple of community buffets for several generations. The spicy flavors from the Bayou up to the peppery-vinegar barbeque sauces of Lexington, NC, lend their support to a massive melting pot of homegrown tastes. Under the guise of a birthday vacation, I recently ventured on an eating trip through Charleston, SC, where you feel the food not only comforting you but also educating you. And I finally had the true privilege of trying pirlau (pronounced purr-low, at least where I had it).
Years ago, a memorable Southern Christmas brought me a cookbook called Charleston Receipts, a compilation of old Women’s Junior League recipes, dating back to the early 1800s. My obsession with Southern food hit the fan. Recipes for everything from the sweetest Carolina shrimp to turtle to squirrel, for vegetables we throw out like trash nowaday, and for plenty of rice dishes. Charleston was the rice capital of the country during the colonial times, and cooks paid homage to the golden grain in all sorts of ways. A recent rice revival of sorts has brought rice production back into full swing, as we Southerners are taking more pride, at least commercially, in our delicious traditions. Carolina Gold rice is a celebrity in itself, yet it never gets caught partying with its pants down. Just like Dean Martin, it’s classy and smooth â€˜til the last grain.
One of the most popular dishes was, and still is, pirlau. Or pilaf. Or pulao. Or biryani. Get the picture? Through tips culled from the massive spice & rice trade by way of Britain, from the traditions of West African slaves brought over, from family farmer pride, they all morphed into a Southern rice showstopper. Fixed any number of ways, the dish usually mixes meats or seafood with onions, garlic, tomatoes, okra, maybe some eggplant & peppers, good stock, and raw rice (usually sautÃ©ed until it’s golden). The meat, vegetables, and rice are separately cooked, then layered in a pot and baked. Not unlike a traditional biryani from Lucknow or pulao from Iran. My homemade versions could not compare to the clarifying version I had. But the spirit of generosity was still the same. If you think about it, how can a region where rice is a staple NOT appeal to the thousands of South & Southeast Asians who’ve settled down there?
It’s worth noting that in the Charleston Receipts cookbook, there are about 15 recipes, which involve the use of curry powder, and several recipes for pickles & chutney. My favorite part of the book is where a certain recipe for chicken curry lists the â€œtraditionalâ€ accompaniments to eat alongside the curry. These included: fried onions ( tarka !), shredded coconut, hot peppers, several types of pickled fruits & vegetables, peanuts, and sliced eggs. I’m not sure about the peanuts, but I know I’ve definitely added onions, especially raw, to almost any curry I’m eating, along with the pickles. It’s striking to imagine Southern belles & gentlemen at a Saturday afternoon buffet luncheon, feasting on curry, rice, and pickles. It’s also comforting to know that my tastes are literally shared and supported by an unlikely slice of history.
I had a sweet creek shrimp pirlau at a restaurant called Magnolia (where I also purchased 4 lbs. of grits between appetizers and entrees). There have been few better moments in my life. That rice linked together the most important traditions of my life. It showed how a dish could travel; how cultures adapt flavors to their own, how an idea can have countless variations yet still have the same foundation. At the end of the day, the only difference between all sorts of colors of peoples down there is the color itself â€“
Beneath it all, we all live to experience comfort like that through food. We all provide it in our similar way. We’ve had a rich history strife with racial tension, but this is something we can all agree on.
Now it looks like we gotta fix ourselves a little something to eat. I fell in love with the tomato-based, sherry-tinged crab bisques of Charleston all over again, but we did seafood in the last column. I do love the idea of fresh tomato soups in the late summer though (along with grilled cheese â€“ btw, email me for a kick-ass recipe for grilled pimiento cheese, provided you know what it is; if you don’t, email me anyway because you don’t wanna miss this).
Just one note – I beg that you take considerable care in choosing ripe, firm tomatoes. Don’t chill them in the fridge after you buy them, it just makes them more mealy. Go for San Marzano whole, canned tomatoes if you can’t find decent fresh ones; they’re really worth the hype.
Now, if you’re stuck with mediocre tomatoes, here’s what you can do to make them taste better:
â€¢ Take half of the tomatoes and roast them, rough-cut, in the oven with a little olive oil at 350 o F for about half hour. That intensifies the flavor & makes that sweetness come oozing out.
â€¢ Take a few tomatoes & just blacken the skin over an open flame (grill, gas stove). Once they’re a bit blistered, put immediately into a brown paper bag, seal & let steam for a few minutes, and then peel the blackened skin right off. Fire-roasted tomatoes in a cinch.
The pirlau will take a while to make, but you’ll taste the love once you pull this baked pot of heaven out of the oven. Be patient, and coax as much flavor out of the ingredients as you can. Btw, this isn’t for the faint of heart. The tomato soup might keep you slim & trim, but the pirlau is for those who realize the point in sometimes not caring about how healthy you eat.
â€˜Chilled’ Tomato soup
2 lb fresh beefsteak or roma tomatoes, really ripe, chopped OR two cans of canned San Marzano tomatoes (or really, really good quality ones), crushed by hand
I tbsp sliced garlic (~ 2-3 cloves)
4 small shallots, diced + 2 small shallots, sliced OR one medium onion, diced
1/2 tbsp garam masala
2 tbsp olive oil
1-cup chicken stock (optional)
2 tsp sherry vinegar (or 1 tbsp tamarind water â€“ not a substitute, just another flavor suggestion)
2 tbsp heavy cream or half-n-half (optional)
1 bay leaf (optional)
Â½ bunch cilantro
1 tbsp water
1. Heat the olive oil to medium, medium-high in a wide-bottomed pot. Add shallots & then garlic, lowering heat if necessary to prevent ingredients from burning. SautÃ© & sweat shallots for ~5 minutes. Add garam masala & a little salt & some crushed chili flakes (optional), and stir to create a paste, cook for ~3 minutes, letting oil separate from mixture. Lower heat if necessary, you don’t want to burn this, trust me.
2. Add tomatoes, preferably crushing by hand into pot. Let cook for 5 minutes, stirring frequently until tomatoes begin to cook vigorously. Lower heat to medium, add stock if you’d like, vinegar/tamarind/even lemon juice, bay leaf and let simmer for 10-15 minutes, longer on lower heat.
3. Meanwhile, puree the cilantro with the water in a blender/food processor. If you lack the facilities, just chop it up real nice & fine, without the water. Keep separate.
4. When soup is almost done, stir in heavy cream if you’d like, and simmer for a minute or two more.
5. Pour soup into bowls, and top with a bit of the cilantro puree & swirl. Serve Lukewarm/Cold.
(Email me for the grilled pimiento cheese sandwich recipe!)
Curried Pirlau (adapted from Robert Stehling of Hominy Grill in Charleston)
1 medium chicken fryer, cut-up (with skin) or any combination – 8 pieces of dark or white meat
1/3 cup canola oil + canola oil as necessary
2 cups onion, diced
1-cup celery, diced
1 cup green pepper, diced
2 tbsp garlic, minced (~6 cloves)
1 tsp + 1 tbsp curry powder (yellow Madras)
2 cups diced eggplant (unpeeled, but only because I like the skin)
2 cups long-grain white rice
3 cups chicken stock
2 cups sliced okra (or more, you can never have too much okra!)
1-cup tomatoes, diced
2 dried bay leaves (or 1 fresh)
Â½ teaspoon dried basil
Â½ teaspoon dried thyme
Hot sauce, to taste
1 tbsp salt + salt to taste
Freshly ground pepper, to taste
1. Preheat oven to 375 F
2. Sprinkle 1-teaspoon curry powder over chicken pieces, coating as well as you can. Heat 1/3-cup oil in a wide skillet (big enough to hold all the chicken pieces; if not, you can cook them in 2 batches). Over medium-high heat, cook chicken pieces skin-side down until browned on all sides (~6-7 minutes). Remove & set aside.
3. If skillet is dry, add 1-2 tablespoons canola oil. Cook onions, celery, green pepper & red peppers until tender (~6 minutes). Add a little salt & pepper to get the juices flowing. Turn down heat to medium, add garlic & curry powder and cook for additional 3 minutes. Turn back up to medium-high and add eggplant, cook until tender (~4-5 minutes). Remove vegetables from heat and spread in the bottom of either a dutch oven (heavy-bottomed pot) or 9 x 13 baking dish.
3. Add a little more oil to the skillet & cook raw rice over medium heat, stirring frequently (this is important, don’t let the rice stick to the bottom of the skillet & burn) until rice is golden & toasted. Spread rice over vegetables. Layer reserved chicken on top of rice.
4. Adding oil if necessary (but probably won’t be), sautÃ© okra until lightly browned & then add tomatoes, chicken stock, bay leaves, basil, thyme, 1 tablespoon salt & freshly ground pepper. Bring to boil and cook for 2 minutes. Pour okra & tomatoes mixture over chicken & rice, making sure all the goodness seeps to the bottom. Cover the mixture tightly with foil, and also put on the lid if you’re using a dutch oven.
3. Slip into oven & bake until rice is fork tender & chicken is done, ~1 hr 15 min â€“ 1 hr 30 min. Remove the bay leaves and sprinkle with hot sauce to taste.
– FARHAN MUSTAFA