Dishes such as gumbo, jambalaya, and black-eyed pea fritters are often considered classic Southern cuisine. Sean Brock, executive chef at Husk Restaurant and McCrady’s, recently traveled to West Africa to research how the dishes have been influenced by West African culture.
Lynne Rossetto Kasper: I hear you’re back from a trip to West Africa. Why did you go?
Sean Brock: The cuisine that I study we call the “Lowcountry cuisine.” It’s the cuisine of Charleston, S.C., and Savannah, Ga., and this whole region. In my opinion, a lot of the dishes are influenced by West Africa because of the Atlantic slave trade and the rice plantations, the indigo and the cotton, which were the three major crops here in Charleston.
Basically if you try and understand how a cuisine works, you have to understand the importance of the cultural influences. The major cultural influence is West Africa, so I went there to do a little bit of research with some plants, some specific peas and rice. But I really wanted to see the original, truest and most honest form of all these classic dishes that we call “Southern dishes” and that we consider Southern food. Things like gumbo, jambalaya, black-eyed pea fritters and Hoppin’ John.
I really wanted to see where they came from and see them in their most original form, and then take a look at where they are today and try and explain that. It’s amazing how a dish can change when it moves to a new place and there are different cultural influences. I was there cooking with people who have the same interests. One day, in fact, I cooked with four generations -- it was unbelievable.
LRK: What was the dish that you were making with the four generations?
SB: It’s our version of gumbo. What was incredible was it looked exactly like our gumbo, but it was completely different. It didn’t have tomato, it didn’t have a roux, but the colors were the same, the texture was the same, the flavor was the same.
LRK: Did it have the filé, the dried sassafras leaves for thickening?
SB: They have a different thickener, but it’s almost the same thing, it’s very, very similar. It’s a bush, a small tree, and the leaves are used in lots and lots of dishes there. I may or may not have brought some back in my luggage if you want to try it.
LRK: We don’t have to go there. If I were to ever get to West Africa, anywhere in Africa, I just imagine that the peas and the beans would have to be fascinating.
SB: One of my passions is collecting beans and peas. When I went to that market where they have just bags and bags and bags of these things, people were actually laughing at me because I was buying so much of them. The vendors were like, “What is wrong with this guy? Why is he so excited about this?” Because it’s so common to them, it’s just a common thing.
Wait until you see these things. They’re just beautiful: speckled black and gray peas and some that are all white and these beautiful red ones. Again, I may have or may not have brought some back in my luggage.
LRK: And the flavors are all different?
SB: Completely different. Different levels of earthiness, different levels of sweetness, different starch levels -- they’re all used for different applications. There was this dish that I’m actually making today at the restaurant that I learned there. It’s called akara and it’s like street food; it’s a black-eyed pea fritter. What they do is they take black-eyed peas -- well not what we know as black-eyed peas, they’re a little lighter in color, they’re a little creamier color -- and they take those and they soak them for a couple days and allow them to ferment. Then you rinse them a couple times and you have to sit there with your hands rubbing these peas together to remove the outer hull.
LRK: One by one?
SB: It took probably three hours to get all the hulls off these peas -- all by hand, no machines. Then you have to wash away all the hulls and rinse and rinse and rinse. That’s the hard part. Then what blew my mind was they took the peas and smashed them in a mortar and pestle with some water, then dropped them in some hot peanut oil and they puffed up like a beignet. I was asking, “There’s no baking powder in there?” They’re like, “No, no, no. It’s just two ingredients: water and peas.” Then I started thinking, “It’s the fermentation, it’s the gas that’s produced during the fermentation process that acted in the same way that baking powder acted.”
These things were as light as a beignet and the flavor of that lightly fermented cowpea was just amazing and still one of those things that just haunts you. You have to have it again. Essentially the pea was raw so it wasn’t this braised pea flavor. It was that raw pea flavor with that fermentation and it was slightly sweet but had that sourness. There was so much complexity in a dish that was water and peas.
LRK: You’re making it today?
SB: I can’t wait.
LRK: I wish I were there. I could try this with almost any bean probably and get something that I’ve never tasted before.
Each week, The Splendid Table brings you stories that expand your world view, inspire you to try something new, and show how food brings us together. We rely on you to do this. You have the power to keep us cooking, sharing these stories, and helping you in the kitchen.
Donate today for as little as $5.00 a month. Your gift only takes a few minutes and has a lasting impact on The Splendid Table.
Lynne Rossetto Kasper has won numerous awards as host of The Splendid Table, including two James Beard Foundation Awards (1998, 2008) for Best National Radio Show on Food, five Clarion Awards (2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2014) from Women in Communication, and a Gracie Allen Award in 2000 for Best Syndicated Talk Show.