Michael Twitty Wants You to Know a Bit More About Rice
His new book explores the connection between enslaved Africans and rice
Thanks for visiting The Bittman Project, a place where food is everything (or pretty close).
Before the pandemic, Michael Twitty found himself visiting Ghanaian chop bars in his travels around Ghana. As he watched people chopping onions and peppers by hand, he reflected on his own grandmother and culinary upbringing. He also saw — nearly everywhere he went — a pot of rice, a dish that’s come to define part of his culinary career.
Twitty’s new book, Rice, links the proliferation of rice across the South to its African origins. Recognizing the ubiquity of rice in Asia, Latin America, and other parts of the world, Twitty doesn’t claim Africans invented rice; instead, he presents a forgotten and often ignored history of African influence in how rice is cultivated, prepared, and served throughout the South and the world.
“It has so often been told, much like barbecue and other areas of our food culture, that we're [Black Americans] tertiary, we're not primary,” said Twitty. “And I think it's still important that people realize that, that's not how this goes — that we're the center of this history.”
Twitty’s Rice is part of a University of North Carolina Press series that recognizes the history and influence of Southern ingredients like pecans, okra, crabs, and oysters. It also reminds readers that rice, as we know it in the South, is inextricably linked to the agricultural and culinary contributions of enslaved Africans.
“The most important thing for me was to show the kinship between two sides of the ocean and the dishes that resulted from the forced migration of Africans, as well as the resistance of those Africans to assimilation — the drive to maintain our culture and our history around food,” says Twitty. He illuminates dishes like red rice, a Southern favorite that can be traced directly to West Africa, and gumbo, introduced here by enslaved Africans.
Recognizing the global uses and production of rice, Twitty describes “the dance” rice takes in dishes around the world: with chicken in perloo, with Vietnamese herbs in cơm tấm, and with beans in Haitian cuisine.
“It's Kurdish; it's Cuban; it's Iranian; it's Korean; it's Vietnamese; it’s Sephardic Jewish; it's Italian,” he says. “[Rice] is in so many different forms, but essentially it's this interplay between those global stories, the country cooking that’s shared between different ethnic groups, and the African origins of the dish.”
Through dishes like jollof, coconut rice, and sausage pilau, he also introduces the history of Southern varieties, such as the storied beginnings and legacy of Carolina Gold rice. Yet he points out that rice is still a meal, side, and snack of the present and future, in the South and beyond.
For Twitty, rice is a connective tissue between all cultures, largely crafted by Black and Brown women.
“If the aliens were going to come down and get the most common human being, it wouldn't be somebody on the set of a sitcom in the West — it would be a Black or brown woman cooking a pot of rice.”
When he wrote his book, Twitty leaned on support and guidance from friends, family, and colleagues, some of whom offered recipes. He also included recipes from his former blog and from his travels to West Africa. He also recounted his visit to Ghana, a country I traveled to, as well. “I’m feeling this connection and connectivity, but also this diversity,” said Twitty of his time in Ghana. “There are many ways to be Black.”
Having spent time in the Volta Region, I was eager to try Twitty’s Ghanaian Crab Stew, a recipe inspired by his time in the country’s coastal communities. For Twitty and me, it serves as a connection that a nation we both adore.
The result is a bright stew representing what one might find in a Cape Coast market. This dish is by far one of the simpler stews I’ve prepared, a welcome recipe for weekday dinner. As Twitty points out, amping up hot peppers and doubling the garlic and ginger give this dish more punch. Enjoy this stew with white rice, and be sure to make Twitty’s Kitchen Pepper, an excellent seasoning to have on hand.
Ghanaian Crab Stew
Makes: 4-6 servings
Time: 40 minutes
1 medium yellow onion or 6 green onions, green and white parts, minced
1 habanero pepper, seeded and minced
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 medium tomatoes, peeled and chopped
1 green or red bell pepper, seeded and diced
1 pound cooked blue crab meat
2 teaspoons minced ginger or ginger paste
2 teaspoons minced garlic or garlic paste
1/2 teaspoon Kitchen Pepper (see recipe below)
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
3/4 cup vegetable, chicken, or beef stock, homemade or store-bought
Chopped parsley, for garnish
4 cups cooked long-grain
White rice, for serving
1. In a medium bowl, mix the onion and habanero. Heat the oil in a large Dutch oven over medium-high heat, add the onion and peppers, and cook for 5–7 minutes, until soft. Add the tomatoes and bell pepper to the pan. Sauté, stirring frequently, until the tomatoes begin to soften and break down, about 10 minutes.
2. Flake the crab meat into the pan and add the ginger, garlic, kitchen pepper, salt, and stock. Stir, turn the heat down to low, and simmer, uncovered, for about 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. Garnish with chopped parsley and serve with rice.
Makes ½ 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.
Sweet Potato Leaf Stew
Makes: 2-4 servings
Time: 40 minutes
Michael Twitty writes that this is the original greens with rice. “This version is from the Rice Coast of West Africa. The flavor profile of sweet potato leaves is akin to spinach meeting collard greens. If you cannot find sweet potato leaves and don’t grow them yourself, substitute finely shredded collards and spinach mixed together.”
2 pounds sweet potato leaves, washed and stemmed
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 cup peanut or vegetable oil
2 medium tomatoes, finely chopped
1 small yellow onion, finely chopped
1 green bell pepper, seeded and diced
1 garlic clove, finely chopped
1 cup finely chopped unsalted roasted peanuts (optional)
1/4 teaspoon ground cayenne pepper, or to tste
1 cup vegetable stock
4 cups cooked long-grain white rice, hot, for serving
1. Tear the sweet potato leaves into small pieces or cut them into very thin strips. Fill a small saucepan with water, add the salt, and place the pan over high heat. When the water is boiling, drop in the pieces of sweet potato leaves. Cook quickly, uncovered, until the leaves are soft, 10 to 15 minutes. Drain the leaves and puree them briefly in a blender until semismooth. Set aside.
2. Heat the oil in a skillet over medium-high heat. Add the tomatoes, onion, bell pepper, and garlic, and cook, stirring frequently, for several minutes, until the onion is soft. Add the peanuts (if using) and ground cayenne pepper and cook for 5-10 minutes. Add the sweet potato leaves, stir, and cook for 2 minutes. Add the stock and gently cook, uncovered, for 15 minutes, or until the liquid is reduced by at least half. Serve with hot white rice.
— Recipes from Rice, by Michael W. Twitty. UNC Press