Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Recipe for the African precursor to jambalaya

Jolof rice was the dish Nymah Kumah taught us to cook so we could stop resorting so often to pizza.

My buddy Lij and I drove out to Roxbury, Massachusetts in the mid-nineties to record Nymah, who grew up in the Liberian bush in what he described as a "Stone Age culture." Lij and I were amateur folklorists, altogether down with Nymah's centuries-old songs and stories. But, when it came to cram in a quick meal between takes, we did what we had always done as traveling musicians: we drank beer and ate pizza.

We noticed Nymah was destroying a piece of pizza without exactly eating any of it. Lij asked him what was wrong. "Man," Nymah said, "pizza is not food." So, the next time we took a break, we took a longer break and drove to Nymah's tiny apartment, and he showed us how to make jolof rice.

I have been making it ever since. When John Eiler and I cooked up the idea of The New Monastic Workshop, and decided to stage two cooking demonstrations, one each, Men With Knives I and Men With Knives II, I knew my contribution would be Nymah Kumah's jolof rice. Here is how you prepare it.

Bring to boil a big pot of pepper soup. You can put just about anything in a pepper soup you want. Nymah used lamb with a lot of bones, and a smoked turkey leg, which is what I also use. You can add whatever vegetables you'd like to taste with the meat you choose. Nymah used carrots and onions. The hot pepper can come in any form you like. Nymah preferred scotch bonnet peppers or habaneros. If you don't have any peppers that damn hot, you can augment them with crushed red pepper. He also used a fair amount of seasoning salt, to taste.

Once your soup is boiling away, heat some olive oil in a small skillet and flash fry tomato paste with curry. You don't need much oil, because you are going to add this delicious red slurry to your soup and you don't want it to be too oily. Keep stirring until the curry and tomato paste and oil are, as I said, a rich red slurry, then dump this into the soup. It's my contention that Nymah innovated this ingredient to approximate for palm oil, but he kept doing it this way after he could find palm oil in African shops in the Boston area. Olive oil being healthier and easier to find than palm oil, go with this slurry, as Nymah did.

Once your soup with slurry is tasting good and your onions are looking filmy, dump in enough white rice to expand and fill the pot. Nymah would first rinse the rice a few times to get out some of the starch. I do this when I remember to do it. Stir your pepper pot as the rice absorbs soup and puffs up to fill the pot. The final dish should be fairly dry - it's a rice dish, not soup - so you can add more rice if all the rice you added the first time puffs up and the dish is still soupy.

Like most spicy foods, this dish tastes great with Guinness. It's also a great dish for feeding masses of people or for eating it for days on end. On the Monastic weekend, it fed quite a few monks and our guest coed performance poet, Jenna Bauer. K. Curtis Lyle left the Monastic campus without his leftovers, and it was important enough to him to turn right back around and come get them. It's good stuff. As an historical footnote, I am convinced that jolof rice is the West African precursor to jambalaya.

Nymah Kumah is gone now, but I dedicate this and much of what I do to his living memory.