Curry Rice vs. Gumbo: What Louisiana has in Common with Japan

Japanese Curry Rice. (Photo by Hyougushi in Kyoto)

Japanese Curry Rice. (Photo by Hyougushi in Kyoto)

Last week I was honored to do a two-day interview with Conrad Chaffee and Mr. Yoichi Takeuchi, correspondents with the Tokyo Shimbun, a daily newspaper headquartered in Nagoya, Japan, and with a circulation of 3.5 million.

The two were on a quest to find out exactly what gumbo has in common with curry rice, one of Japan’s national dishes and surprisingly made with roux, and not-so-surprisingly served with rice.

The first day, we met in the New Orleans French Quarter at Arnaud’s, where proprietor Katie Casbarian graciously allowed us in the restaurant’s kitchen for a step-by-step demo of chicken and andouille gumbo. After a flurry of photos and many questions, we sat down for lunch in Remoulade’s, Arnaud’s causal eatery. Through courses of seafood gumbo and baked oysters, Chaffee and Takeuchi picked our brains on Creole gumbo’s popularity in the city’s restaurant establishment.

The following day I did a lot of questioning, when the two came to my home in Baton Rouge to watch me prepare a smoked sausage and wild duck Cajun gumbo. (Many thanks to Ed Ball, who keeps me supplied with ducks.) Since it’s not every day that a Japanese food enthusiast visits my kitchen, I also invited Cheramie Sonnier, my editor from the Baton Rouge/New Orleans Advocate, and a questioner par excellence.

After much quizzing and surfing of the internet, we Louisianaians learned that curry rice is a thick, brown, roux-based gravy that most often contains beef, and sometimes potatoes, and is seasoned with curry spices and served with a mound of rice. The dish was created in Japan in the late 19th century, when the Japanese were open to everything Western, and when the British ruled India and from there brought curry to Japan. At the time, British chefs on the island nation were unsure of what to do with curry powder, and so mixed it with a French butter and flour roux. From there, curry rice was born.

Who’d have thought that one of our favorite dishes has so much in common with what just about everyone eats in Japan. And another interesting tidbit is that the Japanese make curry rice from blocks of already-seasoned instant curry roux and roux powders, which only require the addition of water and beef. Hmmm — I see an opportunity there for some Louisiana gumbo entrepreneur.


Ga-Ga for Grapefruit

A Prolific Backyard Grapefruit Tree

A Prolific Backyard Grapefruit Tree

It’s hard to believe, but grapefruit didn’t even exist until the 18th century.

Some time in the 1700s on the island of Barbados, someone crossed a sweet orange and a pumelo, the largest of the citrus, and what locals termed “forbidden fruit” was born. The word “grapefruit” originated later in Jamaica, and was given because the large golden fruits grow in clusters, like grapes.

The grapefruit itself was first documented in 1750. In 1809 Spanish nobleman Don Phillipe planted the first grapefruit in Florida. Later, in 1823, the French Count Odet planted a grove on the west shore of Tampa, in a town now known as Safety Harbor.

By 1885, Odet was shipping grapefruit to New York and Philadelphia, creating a whirlwind of interest and launching the beginning of the commercial grapefruit industry.

Today, 40% of grapefruit in the U.S. is consumed as juice and 60% is eaten fresh. And Florida is the world’s leading grapefruit producer. But since the one lone tree towering over my roofline produces enough to feed an army brigade, it’s safe to say that grapefruit grows pretty well in Louisiana, too.

Cutting the Cost of Vanilla

Dried Vanilla Beans

Dried Vanilla Beans

Planning ahead for holiday baking, I recently did an inventory of one of the most important and pricey flavorings in my pantry — vanilla.

A familiar bottle of vanilla extract.

A familiar bottle of vanilla extract.

Vanilla was first grown in the highlands of Mexico, where 15th-century Aztecs called the mature seed pod the “black flower.” After the French discovered Mexican vanilla, they started plantings in the Comoros Islands, Reunion and Madagascar. Today, Indonesia and Madagascar produce 80% of the world’s vanilla.

Vanilla is a tropical orchid that grows on a vine. The main cultivars are Bourbon vanilla (from the Indian Ocean region), Mexican vanilla, Tahitian vanilla and West Indian vanilla. Vanilla beans and extract cost so much because harvesting and preparation are extremely labor intensive. For this reason, saffron is the only spice more expensive than vanilla.

A Jar of Homemade Vanilla Extract

A Jar of Homemade Vanilla Extract

Because it seems like I use it by the gallon, I’ve learned to brew my own from pods I buy in bulk. To make a pint of homemade vanilla, just slit three vanilla beans all the way down, place in a clean glass pint jar and cover with a distilled spirit such as vodka or rum. Let the covered jar sit for a month and, voila, you have vanilla extract!

And guess what? I just found a jar I’d started brewing a few months ago and had forgotten about. Now, on to baking those Thanksgiving cake and pies — and I won’t have to scrimp on expensive vanilla.

Irish Stew and Irish Sacrifices

Irish Stew (and, yes, we eat it over rice, even though it contains potatoes)

Irish Stew (and, yes, we eat it over rice, even though it contains potatoes)

One of my Cajun father’s favorite meals was Irish stew. My mom cobbled her version together with the typical beef, carrots, onions and potatoes, and thickened it with roux.

Aside from a dynamite stew, the Irish made rich contributions to Louisiana culture. But, as with African slaves, their beginnings here were extremely trying.

Fleeing British tyranny, the Irish began arriving in Catholic-friendly New Orleans at the end of the 18th century, and came in droves beginning in 1820, when they were forced out of their home country by famine. Although many were successful and bought property and businesses, the majority of Irish immigrants were uneducated and ended up doing menial labor.


New Basin Canal, New Orleans, 1915

In 1830, the city’s American leaders decided to compete with rival French merchants and dig a shipping canal from Lake Pontchartrain to the American sector. Since slaves were considered too valuable to do such treacherous, and possibly fatal work, digging jobs for what was to be called the New Basin Canal went to Irish immigrants.

Desperate for money, workers dug on the canal even when deathly sick. So by the time the canal was completed, an estimated 8,000-30,000 Irish had perished on the job. Many bodies were buried, or just left, right where they’d fallen.

In 1990, the Irish Cultural Society of New Orleans erected a Celtic cross at the end of New Orleans’s West End Boulevard in honor of the fallen workers. So here’s to the Irish of New Orleans, not only for their delicious stew, but also for their unimaginable sacrifices.


Olives Make Their Way to the New World

Olive Jar at Magnolia Mound Plantation, Baton Rouge, Louisiana

Olive Oil Jar at Magnolia Mound Plantation, Baton Rouge, Louisiana

From the size of the jar in this photo, it’s pretty easy to deduce that olive oil was an important commodity for the French who first settled in Louisiana.

Begun in 5000 BC, olive cultivation spread from Crete to Israel to Italy and eventually to southern France. Around the Mediterranean region, olive oil was considered sacred, and was used in medicine and religious ceremonies.

Remarkably, olive trees can live from 300-400 years. This member of the family Oleaceae thrives in harsh conditions, with Italian folk wisdom claiming they do best with sun, stone, drought, silence and solitude.

Olive trees certainly weren’t a natural fit for Louisiana’s soggy climate, but Franciscan missionaries did establish groves in California in the late 18th century. Today, olive trees are common in that state’s wine country, and producers are churning out some fairly impressive oils.

Roselle, The Tea Hibiscus

Roselle buds ready to be picked. I'll dry the calyx, outer part, and use a handful to make tea.

Roselle buds ready to be picked. I’ll dry the calyx, outer part, and use a handful to make tea.

I was first introduced to roselle by my Herb Society buddy Melinda Winans, who gave me a few seedlings that promptly rocketed into tall bushes festooned with large maroon-colored buds. The calyx, the bright red outer part of the bud, can be dried and steeped into a tart, refreshing tea that, for eons, has been consumed around the world.

Roselle (Hibiscus sabdariffa) is native to the Old World Tropics. This relative of the garden hibiscus is extremely popular in places like Thailand, Senegal, Sudan, Jamaica, Mexico, and South America. There, both hot and iced roselle teas are common, while some folks even eat the leaves and roots.

Iced Roselle Tea

Iced Roselle Tea

Research shows that a dried calyx is very high in vitamin C, and many devotees swear it lowers cholesterol, is good for the heart, and is a diuretic. In Southeast Asia, roselle is even known as the “Oriental Beauty Fruit,” because it supposedly keeps your complexion looking dewey-young.

Hmmm. I have a few dried calyces in the cupboard. I think it’s time to brew up a cup of roselle tea.

It’s Persimmon Time!

These early beauties came from the Baton Rouge Red Stick Farmers Market.

These early beauties came from the Baton Rouge Red Stick Farmers Market.

A delicious right of fall in Louisiana is the “turning of the persimmons,” which miraculously happens every year beginning in October, when this fruit (that’s technically a berry) changes from a leaf green color to pumpkin orange.

Persimmons are native to China, where they’ve been cultivated over 2,000 years.

Louisiana does have native varieties, but gardeners tend to have better luck with orientals like Hana Fugu and Fugu, which are 7-10 times larger and have less seeds. Japanese varieties made their way to the U.S. in the 1800s, and grow well in the South and California.

Although persimmons are great baked in quick breads and cookies, I prefer them raw, and snatch up as many as I can during the season.

The Vanishing Farmer

Rodney LeJeune with one of his oversized melons.

Rodney LeJeune with one of his oversized melons.

Until the day he left us for that big rice field in the sky, my dad was devoted to farming, a dwindling American occupation.

Daddy’s father, his father’s father, and everyone all the way back to the 1700s, when the first LeJeune set foot in the South, was a farmer. None ever owned slaves or lived in a fancy house. On the contrary, they’d pack large families into frame homes and, from sunup to dusk, quietly work with neighbors and relatives in the fields. Some of the time they even made a middle-class living, and this was achieved mostly by planting rice.

My brother is now in charge of the plowing, planting, fertilizing, harvesting, and overall worrying. But in light of agricultural trends, I often wonder, how many more generations will ride those combines?

When our nation was young, cultivating crops was, well, just about what everyone did. In 1790, for instance, 90 percent of the American workforce was a farmer. But cities and factories gradually started attracting farm folk, and by 1840, the number of farmers was down to 69 percent.

Then came the Civil War, and in the South the sharecropping system replaced the old slave plantation system. And even though opportunities to work the land and the number of farms increased, the magnetism of cities caused the number of farmers to fall to 53 percent.

The 1890s saw increases in land cultivation and agricultural output, along with tremendous immigration (including my German relatives, who were — ta-dah! — farmers). Even so, mechanization was taking the place of muscle, and by the year 1900, farmers made up only 38 percent of the working population.


Harvesting rice on the Otto Zaunbrecher farm, Crowley, Louisiana. (Photo by Kristine Zaunbrecher Schippers)

In the 1940s, many Southern farmers migrated to war-related jobs in cities, and by 1950, the number of American farmers was down to 12.2 percent. In 1970, that number was only 4.6 percent, and today less than 2 percent of us farm.

Advanced technology, including better machinery, healthier animals and seed stock, and state-of-the-art research and development have all dramatically increased farm production, and now, more than ever, less hands can do more. And I suppose it’s a good thing that we’re increasingly leaving the old homestead to go to college and work in cities.

But, guess what? We all have to eat!  And no matter how sophisticated America becomes, we’ll always need farmers. So here’s to daddy’s memory, to all his tobacco-chewing buddies still here, and to the youngsters who have dirt in their blood. Your way of life may be less prevalent, but don’t ever forget, you’re extremely important and appreciated.

“Voices of Dawn,” the Street Vendors of New Orleans

New Orleans Calas Lady (Century Magazine, 1886)

New Orleans Calas Lady (Century Magazine, 1886)

In New Orleans, street peddlers were common well into the 1900s. And apparently they were all loud.

Newspaperman and cookbook author Lafcadio Hearn left writings about the “vocal advertisements” sung by the “Italians, Negroes, Frenchmen, and Spaniards,” who wandered the city’s streets with the first glow of the sun. And never mind that a home’s residents might still be in bed — vendors didn’t think twice about poking their heads into open windows and crying out their wares.

The chicken guy would scream “Chick-EN, Madamma, Chick-EN!” There were also sellers of “Lem-ONS–fine Lem–ONS!,” “Ap-PULLS!,” “Straw-BARE-eries!,” “Black-Brees!,” “Fresh figs!,” and “Ochre-A.”

Just imagine the bellow from the Creole cream cheese peddler, who walked with a strap around his neck, which tied to a rack that held cups of his fresh, silky handiwork. Then there were oyster peddlers, who blew on conch shells all hours of the day. That commotion was so loud,  it once actually prompted a resident to write a letter of complaint to the local newspaper editor.

Of them all, the purveyor remembered most nostalgically is the calas lady, or the Belle Cala woman, who was a welcome sight at breakfast time. With her head wrapped in a turban and her apron starched stiff, she carried on her head a basket of hot calas (fried rice fritters). She often became a trusted family friend, and every morning would call in a firm, yet soft musical tone “Belle cala tout chaud, Madam, belle cala tout chaud.” (Pretty rice fritters, all hot madam, pretty rice fritters, all hot.)

The end of the street vendor came with the beginning of the grocery store and the automobile. And although the convenience of the modern supermarket can’t be beat, it sure is fun to imagine the fern-laced French Quarter alive with walking food merchants. And it would be especially neat listening to their lyrical chants, no matter how loud or boisterous.

Southern Foodways Alliance Does it Up Right in Napa

Pitmasters Nick Pihakis, Daniel Patterson, Rodney scott, Samuel Jones, Drew Robinson, Nicolas Pihakis, Jamey Whetstone (owner, Whetstone Winery), Christopher Kostow, and Stephen Barber.

Pitmasters Nick Pihakis, Daniel Patterson, Rodney Scott, Samuel Jones, Drew Robinson, Nicolas Pihakis, Jamey Whetstone (owner, Whetstone Winery), Christopher Kostow, and Stephen Barber.

When I signed up to attend the Southern Foodways Alliance Potlikker dinner in Napa Valley, I didn’t know what to expect. Northern California has certainly become one of America’s premier dining regions – but barbecue?

The event was held August 18 on the lush grounds surrounding the 19th-century French-style chateau of Whetstone Winery. Before dinner, thirsty guests imbibed on outstanding wines provided by Whetstone. But, to my surprise, the handcrafted beer chilled in washtubs was “imported” from Tennessee.

And when it was time to eat, all doubts about unfamiliar barbecue were dispelled, as pitmasters from South Carolina, Tennessee, and Alabama dished up some of the best pulled pork and ribs I’d ever eaten.

These guys had actually pulled their gigantic pits all the way to California, just for the event. And as it turns out, most of them also compete in the New Orleans annual “Hogs for a Cause” charity cookoff.  Proceeds from this event go to families with children who have cancer.  Hogs for a Cause is near and dear to my family, since my stepson Trey competes every year and especially since his two-year-old daughter Margaux is recovering from the disease.

Hard at work at the barbecue pits.

Hard at work at the barbecue pits.

It was also fun in Napa connecting with Potlikker’s organizers from the Southern Foodways Alliance (SFA). SFA documents, studies, and celebrates the diverse food cultures of the changing American South. The group sets a common table where black and white, rich and poor — all who gather — may consider our history and our future in a spirit of reconciliation.

A member-supported non-profit, based at the University of Mississippi’s Center for the Study of Southern Culture, SFA stages symposia, produces documentary films, collects oral histories, sponsors scholarship, mentors students, and publishes great writing. Donations from generous individuals, foundations, and companies fund their good work.

I’ve been a member of SFA for many years and consider their work and research important to the understanding of Southern food. And I now also know they know how to throw a good party.