Across the Caribbean and Latin America, rice is a popular staple food, possibly the most popular staple food. Food historian Cruz Miguel Ortiz Cuadra says that in Puerto Rico, rice is considered “indispensable for turning a serving of food into a true meal.” This Puerto Rican sentiment is shared with most of the wider region, where it is common to see rice occupying a prominent place on many mealtime plates. Another almost universal view held across the region is that rice should ideally be accompanied by a legume of some sort. Within this general consensus about rice and legumes, there is much disagreement and debate about the ideal rice and legume combination, and even the correct cooking methods. These discussions are often lively and interesting because they reveal how separate foodways from across the globe converged in the Caribbean, and how a seemingly simple concept in Caribbean cuisine actually has a complex history.
The Introduction of Rice to the Caribbean
The earliest Spanish explorers in the Caribbean brought with them the rice that they were familiar with; oryza sativa commonly known as Asian rice or indica rice. This was for rations during the journey and none was actually planted. The first rice to be cultivated in the Caribbean however, was oryza glaberrima or African rice, easily identifiable in the earliest accounts of rice in the Caribbean due to descriptions that note the characteristic red hull. The reason that African rice was the first species planted in the region was due to the fact that many early slaves originated in an area west of the Niger River delta known as the Rice Coast where this grass species was domesticated over three thousand years ago. Slave traders preferred to buy slaves from this area because of their agricultural expertise, but also because of how easy it was for them to stock up on the rice required to feed them for the journey across the Atlantic.
Rice was always central to the West African diet, and many West Indian myths tell of captive slaves hiding rice grains in their hair so that they could fend for themselves if they ever become free again. The histories of different maroon groups in South America suggests some truth to these stories and account for why rice remained an important food for Maroons in the Guianas. Over millennia of trial and error, the rice growers of West Africa had developed intercropping systems that maximized yields and minimized the risk of potential pests by planting several crops. An important element of those intercropping systems was a legume that has a center of origin that overlaps with African rice; vigna unguiculata, more commonly known as the cowpea. The most common cultivar of the cowpea is the black eyed pea, a historically important ingredient in the cuisine of the American south.
Black Eyed Peas and Rice
Hoppin’ John is a dish made with black eyed peas and rice, flavored with onions and pork and typically eaten on the first day of January since it is said to bring prosperity in the New Year. Jessica B. Harris says that “the pea with the small black dot is considered especially lucky by many cultures in West Africa” and that this view has persisted in the new world. John Egerton, the author of Southern Food says that these legumes have a “mystical and mythical power to bring good luck” and are commonly associated with money.
This dish is also popular on the Caribbean coast of Colombia where it is known as Arroz de Fríjol Cabecita Negra. It is uncertain how it became popular there, but it was likely introduced by slaves passing through Cartagena, which was once one of the largest slave ports in the new world. In Trinidad and Tobago, black eyes peas and rice is a New Year’s Day tradition even though many people eating this dish on this day are unaware of the reason behind it. This tradition likely persisted locally in folk memory, but it was also reinforced by the presence of slaves known as “Merikins” who bought their freedom by fighting for the British against the Americans during the war of 1812.
At the end of this war, these slaves were paid with plots of land in south Trinidad where they could live as free men. In recent years, a variety of red rice thought to be extinct was found growing in the land that was given to these slaves indicating that they brought their crops and cuilinary culture with them. David S. Shields, the chairman of the Carolina Gold Rice Foundation described the rice growing in the hills of south Trinidad as “the most historically significant African diaspora grain in the Western Hemisphere.” Shields and his foundation is partially responsible for bringing African rice back on the market as Carolina Gold Rice. They are also involved in promoting Sea Island Red Peas, a lesser known landrace of vigna unguiculata similar to the varietals used in the earliest recipes for black eyed peas and rice in America. In the south, these recipes were all passed on orally until Sarah Rutledge, the daughter of a prominent Charleston family included a recipe in her 1847 cookbook, The Carolina Housewife. While that is the first written recipe, it is impossible to ever know who actually invented Hoppin’ John. The dish is virtually identical to some versions of Thieboudienne and Jollof Rice and likely developed over a long period of time in West Africa before crossing the ocean and being creolized as Hoppin’ John and Carolina Red Rice.
Pigeon Peas and Rice
The cowpea was not the only legume brought to the New World from Africa. Cajanus cajan, better known as the pigeon pea, was also introduced along with lentils and chickpeas. The latter two influenced the cuisine of the region but they did not thrive as crops. Pigeon peas, on the other hand, became popular, and is arguably the most important introduced legume in the Caribbean.
It’s uncertain exactly how pigeon peas came to the Caribbean since the pea was well known in South East Asia and North East Africa. It might have come with slave ships or with the Portuguese and Spanish who used it as provisions on many of their vessels. In parts of the Caribbean, the name used for the pigeon pea bears some phonetic similarity to the original Bantu name. Examples of this include Gandule in Spanish, Guando in Portuguese, and Gungo in Jamaican English. The use of these names suggest that it was introduced by Bantu-speaking Africans living south of the Congo region, so it was likely slaves from that area that brought pigeon peas to the Caribbean. The popularity of this plant in the West Indies was due to its practicality; the plant was useful in multicropping systems, and the pea casing could be used as animal feed. In the eighteenth century, pigeon peas grew in popularity among subsistence farmers in the Caribbean and might have supplanted a local cultivar of the cowpea in culinary importance. Naturally, the pigeon pea can be found in several rice and legume dishes across the region.
Pelau is a one pot pigeon peas and rice dish from Trinidad and Tobago related to other one pot rice dishes like Paella from Spain, and Pulao from South India. What makes Pelau different from similar dishes is that sugar is first caramelized in the pot before other ingredients are added. These other ingredients might include items like pumpkin or poultry, both of which would have been present in the backyards of the enslaved. Rice and Gungo Peas from Jamaica on the other hand could be considered to be rice and pigeon peas cooked in coconut milk that is seasoned with items like allspice berries, scallion, and thyme. Arroz con Gandules from Puerto Rico is another variation of this dish that uses a base of olive oil and tomatoes sauteed into a spice blend called sofrito. Sofrito was possibly developed as a marinade that could be used to preserve meat, and often includes wild coriander, sweet pepper, and annatto. Bahamian Peas n’ Rice uses a similar sofrito as seasoning, but the finished dish is typically drier than the pigeon peas and rice made on the Hispanic islands while being more aromatic than versions from the rest of the English speaking Caribbean.
It is important to recognize here that even within a single island, there is often strong debate about the proper way to make pigeon peas and rice, and across the entire Caribbean it becomes impossible to get any consensus.
Red Beans and Rice
While Black Eyed Peas and Pigeon Peas were new to the Caribbean, they were not the first legumes known in the region. Phaseolus vulgaris, better known as the common bean, was domesticated in Mesoamerica over three thousand years ago, and it entered the Caribbean islands via South America. Along with maize and squash, it was an important crop for Native Americans on both continents, and all three were often planted together in a symbiotic pattern that benefited all crops. The bean plant would climb the corn stalk while it enriches the soil, and the pumpkin vines would out-compete problematic weeds at the base of the corn and help retain soil moisture.
Several varieties of the common bean range from light pink to deep burgundy and are commonly referred to as red beans. Red beans and rice is a quintessential part of Louisiana Creole cuisine and a popular dish along the Gulf Coast. The popularity of red beans and rice in New Orleans is often credited to refugees fleeing the Haitian revolution. They were certainly an influence, but it is worth noting that within the Mississippi watershed, there is a broad range of localized bean landraces that were red in color that would have made their way to the delta. Many of them are interestingly mottled, and several were eaten in the region even in the pre-Columbian period.
Despite the name, Jamaican Rice and Peas is made with red beans and not peas. It is cooked in a manner similar to the previously mentioned gungo peas and rice but it is far more popular in Jamaica than that dish. It is seen as an iconic element of Jamaican cuisine eaten as a side dish alongside jerk pork, curry goat, or stewed oxtail. The Haitian version, known as Diri Ak Pwa is made with a seasoning blend known as Epis that includes celery, cilantro, and vinegar. Another method of making red beans and rice is to stew the red beans separately and then pour it on top of cooked white rice. While this is most commonly associated with the Cajun cuisine and Creole cuisine of the United States, it is also a popular dish in Trinidad and Tobago.
Across the African diaspora, there seems to be a preference for red beans over black beans. While enjoying a red bean dish in Benin during the first episode of the Netflix series High on the Hog, Jessica B. Harris noted the unifying theme of the orange or red color across several dishes; “we could see it a little bit in the Charleston Red Rice, we can see it in Jambalaya.” The preference for red beans across the African diaspora indicates an inclination towards the red rice dishes like Jollof Rice and Thieboudienne that originated in Africa. A preference seen across the New World that has persisted across generations.
Other ethnic groups had a preference for different, often darker varieties of phaseolus vulgaris across their cuisine. This could be observed by the many variations of black beans and rice across Latin America.
Black Beans and Rice
Mesoamericans used beans of many different colors, but their recipes often called for cacao paste, or blackened dried chili peppers, known in Mexico as chile ancho. This resulted in dishes that had a dark, or even black color. This is possibly a reason why Latin America, and parts of the Caribbean with a strong Mestizo culture prefer black beans over red beans in their food.
One method of serving black beans and rice is to make Frijoles Negros by cooking the beans with cumin, tomato paste and other seasonings and then serving it alongside white rice or yellow rice. Very often this would be part of a larger meal with fried plantains, shredded pork or beef. Pabellón Criollo from Venezuela, or Casado from Costa Rica are examples of this. Casado is a Spanish term for a married man, and the dish may have got this name from diners asking for the meal that a married man might expect to get from his wife at home.
Another common way to cook black beans and rice is in one pot. In Central America, this is known as Gallo Pinto. This dish is popular in both Costa Rica, Nicaragua, and Panama and the name refers to the dish having the appearance of a speckled hen due to the look of the black beans mixed with white rice. The dish is similar across those countries, but Costa Ricans often use a condiment known as Lizano sauce when cooking theirs and in Nicaragua, red beans are sometimes used. In Cuba, this dish has also acquired a nickname; Moros y Cristianos. This name is supposedly a reference to the color of the black beans and white rice being similar to black Moors and White Christians respectively. This explanation is likely more complicated than that since Moro de Guandules is a term used for pigeon peas and rice in the Dominican Republic. Moro as a descriptive term for these dishes might initially have been a reference to Africa and Moorish cuisine. References to Africa feature across the names of several rice and legume dishes in the Caribbean. The last major rice and legume dish to be introduced however, came from India.
Split Peas and Rice
In India, dhal is a term used for several flat legumes, some of which are lentils while others are peas that have been split into two pieces. These peas were split to facilitate faster cooking times, and better absorption of water. Food writer Colleen Taylor Sen says that dhal “may be the closest India has to a national dish” due to how prevalent it has always been in the cuisine of the sub-continent. Dhal came to the Caribbean as a food supply for the Indian Indentured laborers who replaced the slaves in several parts of the West Indies. Ship logs indicate that rations for the Indians on their journey to the Caribbean included dhal, rice, onions, garlic, ghee, and turmeric; ingredients still used to make dhal and rice in Trinidad, Jamaica, and Guyana today. Several types of dhal were historically used in the Caribbean, including split urad bean, and split mung bean, but it has largely since settled on yellow dhal made from split pigeon peas. This dhal is used in a type of roti called a dhalpuri, as well as dishes like pholourie, and dhal and rice.
The dhal for dhal and rice is boiled, blended with a swizzle stick, and then cooked with cumin, turmeric, and garlic. It is possible to find dhal and rice in restaurants in the English speaking Caribbean, but it is rarely cooked in homes except in places with a significant East Indian population. It has not become as widely accepted as other Indian dishes like dhalpuri roti or curry goat and likely never will, since it has to compete with so many other Caribbean rice and legume dishes that are more well established. Another way of cooking dhal and rice in the Caribbean is a dish called kitchree or kitcharee, which is a type of dhal and rice cooked up with turmeric, onions, garlic, and cumin. The popularity of this dish in India was described by the Macedonian general Seleucus I Nicator over two thousand years ago. The Caribbean version is typically made with less dhal than in India, and often consumed with curried seafood and coconut chutney.
In Trinidad, there are two dhal and rice dishes that are uncommon enough that many Trinidadians have never sampled either. One is a countryside tradition of cooking dhal with callaloo ingredients in the same pot. The resulting dish is a hearty and nutritious soup known as dhalaloo. The other is a North Indian dish called rice and karhi. Karhi is a creamy gravy made with split peas flour. Fritters made with split peas flour are added to this gravy, and then the mixture is poured over white rice. The former is rare because it is generally made by outdoorsmen during the hunting season, and the latter is rare because it is only made at ceremonies like Hindu Weddings and not available at roti shops.
This article is simply a starting point since there seems to be no in-depth look at rice and legumes across the Caribbean. It also serves to show how a concept as seemingly straightforward as a Caribbean rice and legume dish is actually far more complex than it seems on the surface. Classifying rice and legume dishes across the Caribbean is further confounded by the fact that some variants also crossover into dishes generally considered to be “cooked up rice”. Additionally, places like Suriname have the culinary input of the Javanese who brought their own rice dishes, and the Maroons who have been growing and eating rice independently for centuries.