This last October I took the most amazing course, “Shared Soul: A Culinary Journey with Michael Twitty.” Not only was the course fantastic, being able to listen to Michael Twitty share African history through food was enlightening. In order to prepare for the last class we made Jollof Rice on our own. I previously learned the historical similarity between the dish and New Orleans Jambalaya and other dishes, but Mr. Twitty’s in-depth explanation added more clarity.
When I began cooking the dish, I experienced a very familiar feeling. I couldn’t pinpoint it initially, however at first bite I recognized the flavors as a dish I grew up eating, I just didn’t recall it having a name.
Shortly after that class, I cooked what I grew up eating and just instinctively put in ingredients. I didn’t have a recipe and not a clear specific memory, just a vague knowing of a regular childhood experience with my elders. My mind flew back to the days of just being in the kitchen, soaking up the wisdom while I played.
When I sampled what I was preparing, the taste brought me back to my childhood and I realized the dish has roots in Jollof rice and Jambalaya. The memories swept through me and I felt a smile come to my face. It felt like home and I had a very powerful realization. I grew up with Jambalaya and didn’t even know it.
During my ancestral discovery journey, I’ve learned that I did have an ancestor born in Louisiana. Interestingly enough, I discovered that he was also a chef, maybe in the late 1800’s or early 1900’s. The Black side of my family also has substantial Nigerian ancestry, and a picture of my Great Great Grandmother (His wife) had similar features that I’ve seen in Nigerian women from historical photos.
Everything made sense. The feeling as I cooked, the familiar smells and the flavor that transported me back to that little McAllister Street flat in San Francisco. The Jambalaya I prepared truly reminded me of home. Even though I grew up with Jambalaya and didn’t even realize it, the legacy still lives on within me.
As I reflect on my own ancestry, many of my childhood foods makes sense. I know our ways were very Southern, as the elders I had the opportunity to grow up with were all from small rural towns in Texas. They were all women of African descent and had an amazing flair for the culinary arts. I grew up with really good food!
Learning from Michael Twitty has been a tremendous blessing. His storytelling takes me on a journey with my ancestors and the gifts they offered me through food. As a child, I may not have been aware, but their lessons passed on just by me growing up in their presence. Whenever I even think about a dish, I am reminded that even through a modest childhood, I had a wealth of knowledge passed on by some beautiful Black women.
Since that day I’ve continued to prepare the popular meal that I grew up eating, the dish I know of as Jambalaya. It brings me home to a place I haven’t experienced in way too many years. Plus, my son loves it too. The beauty is when I cook, I’m able to share a part of my childhood that my son never got to experience since I birthed him after most of my elders passed. This warms my heart.
If you choose to prepare this particular version of Jambalaya, please note that different people make this meal in variety of different ways. This Jambalaya dish is similar to what I grew up eating as a child. How your family or favorite restaurant makes the dish, is how they make it. This is my own based on my recollection of several childhood memories.
Note: I make my own chicken broth. If you’d like, you can skip the homemade chicken broth section, and replace it with store bought. Just make sure your chicken is well prepared when you put it in the Jambalaya.
Homemade Chicken Broth:
2-3 Free range chicken thighs
3-5 Garlic cloves
2 TBSP Sea salt
1 TBSP Black Pepper
1 TBSP Turmeric
1-2 TSP Chili Flakes
5 cups of water
3 TBSP Extra Virgin Olive Oil
1 Medium onion
2-3 Celery Stalks
1 Large bell pepper
2 Andouille sausage
1.5 cups uncooked rice
3-4 ounces tomato paste
3 Cups chicken broth
2-3 cooked chicken thighs (From chicken broth if you made it from scratch)
1 Pound wild prawns
Place chicken thighs in a stock pot and add in chopped garlic. Sprinkle over sea salt, black pepper, turmeric and chili flakes. Pour water over the chicken and bring to a boil. As soon as it starts to boil, turn the chicken down to a simmer. Cook for approximately three hours. Turn off the broth while you prepare the rest of the ingredients.
Pour extra virgin olive oil in your pot of choice. I use a cast iron dutch oven. Chop onions, celery and bell pepper, then place it in your pot and turn it to medium. Stir around and wait for the veggies to become soft but still has their color.
While the vegetables are sauteing, chop the andouille sausage and cook on medium heat in a pan until lightly brown on both sides. Place to the side.
If you are using white rice, rinse it thoroughly until the water is clear. Add your well-rinsed rice to your onion, celery and bell pepper. Add the tomato paste and then stir around until completely combined. Pour in your chicken stock, stir and then add the chicken. Cover and let cook on low for about 30 minutes.
**Please note: All stove tops and pans are different. Gas and electric stoves cook differently. I’m used to cooking with a gas stove so my recipes are tailored to this. Additionally, cast iron cookware seems to cook foods at a more intense heat. If you are using a non-cast iron pot, check your Jambalaya at about 30 minutes. If you still see liquid, stir the mixture, cover and cook for approximately 5-10 minutes more.
Shell and devein your prawns while the Jambalaya is cooking, then rinse well. OR, if you are using prawns that are already cleaned, just put them in the pot, mix with the rest of the ingredients and cover. Let cook for five more minutes, then turn off the heat. The prawns will continue to cook from the natural heat of the dish.
Season with more salt and pepper to taste. I tend to like my foods heavily seasoned, so it’s important that you taste your Jambalaya prior to adding more spices.