Three Tales of Festive Rice

By Anna Mindess | Photos by Scott Peterson

 

Chef Oumar Diouf puts the finishing touches on his jollof rice, a dish enjoyed across West Africa, where he says there is a sort of “Jollof War” between Ghana, Nigeria, and Senegal over whose is the best. He maintains that his native Senegal’s version is more authentic with a better mix of spices.

 

Every day, more than three billion people around the globe eat rice as part of their daily meals. While many enjoy and even revere a plain bowl of rice, celebratory gatherings may call for something special. We found three East Bay cooks with fascinating stories that reveal ways they’ve carried forward family food traditions brought from other parts of the world, and we asked how they might make rice for a festive meal this season.

OUMAR DIOUF

Born in a small town in Senegal, Oumar Diouf found his love of cooking early. He was 13 when his father passed away, and he was concerned for his mother, who worked long hours at her clothing design and tailoring business to support six children. On a typical day, she would rise early for the two-mile walk to get the day’s provisions—they had no refrigerator—and come home to cook a pot of jollof rice with fish before walking to work. She also walked home to feed her kids the midday meal. Diouf realized he could ease his mother’s load by taking charge of the cooking, even though doing what was considered “women’s work” got him bullied at school. Learning to cook from his mother meant he was able to bring lunch to her workplace as well as prepare food for his siblings. Even as he attended college and law school in Senegal, he remained interested in cooking. But his other love was soccer.

 

 

In his early 20s while playing soccer on Senegal’s national team, Diouf was discovered by a scout from Argentina and was thrilled to travel to South America and send money back home to his family. When a broken leg and ankle halted his soccer career a year and a half later, Diouf, who had taught himself Spanish and enrolled in a Buenos Aires culinary school, happily transitioned to his second love. He opened his first little restaurant in Buenos Aires, making Argentinian empanadas with African seasonings, which 35 homesick Senegalese immigrants enjoyed for lunch every day. “People need to find their roots through food,” says Diouf.

Later, while traveling in Brazil, Diouf recognized even more of the tastes of home in the local cuisine. It was a legacy of the 300 years during which enslaved Africans made their marks in Brazilian kitchens, just as they had in the United States. He moved to Brazil to study this African influence in Brazilian dishes, and after finding a job at a hotel, worked his way up from dishwasher to chef. Then he started a catering business in Florianópolis, a city in Brazil’s South Region.

After cooking for the USA Men’s Basketball team at the 2016 Olympics in Brazil, Diouf got an opportunity to move to California. Ever resourceful, he started a catering business, attracting his first customers while working as an Uber driver. (He handed out business cards to every rider he picked up.) Today, he celebrates Afro-Brazilian fusion at the Damel (1312 Broadway), his Oakland restaurant and food trucks, named with a Wolof word that means ruler or king. He serves vibrant street food–style dishes like those found in Senegal, Argentina, and Brazil. His version of his mother’s jollof rice is always on the menu.

“In Senegal, 98% of people eat jollof rice every day for lunch, usually with fish. For a party, we would make it with lamb,” he says.

 

 

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Oumar Diouf’s Festive Jollof Rice


  • Author: Oumar Diouf
  • Yield: Serves 4 1x

Description

Following Senegalese culinary tradition, Oumar Diouf uses broken rice, a grain that’s deliberately broken during production. He says it turns out fluffier and absorbs more flavors in cooking. Broken rice is also found in cuisines across Southeast Asia, so any 99 Ranch or smaller shop selling Thai or Vietnamese ingredients should have it. Plain basmati or jasmine rice will work, too.


Ingredients

Units Scale
  • 2 cups broken rice (see headnote), soaked in water for at least 15 minutes
  • 4 cups vegetable broth or water
  • 1 pound lamb (leg or shoulder), cut into small chunks
  • 6 cloves garlic, peeled and finely chopped, divided into 3 parts
  • Extra virgin olive oil
  • 1/2 cup chopped shallot, divided
  • 2 tablespoons tomato paste, divided
  • 1 habanero pepper (left whole)
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1 large white onion, diced
  • 1 red pepper, chopped
  • 1/2 green pepper, chopped
  • 2 teaspoons white vinegar
  • Salt, black pepper, and crushed red pepper to taste
  • 2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
  • Garnishes (optional): Sliced hard boiled eggs, cocktail onions, sliced scallions, pitted black olives, chopped parsley, sliced green and red peppers, or other colorful elements

Instructions

Partly pre-cook the soaked rice by steaming it in a sieve over the simmering vegetable broth or water, covered, for 10–15 minutes. (When rice is finished steaming, leave liquid simmering for use throughout dish preparation.) Alternately, cook soaked and drained rice in a glass bowl in the microwave. Cook for 2 minutes, then stir and add 3 tablespoons water, then steam in microwave for another 2 minutes.

Marinate lamb in a large pot with salt, pepper, and ⅓ of the chopped garlic for 10 minutes. Without adding any oil, turn on the heat under the pot, cover, and let the lamb steam in its own liquid until dry, 7–10 minutes.

Add 2–3 tablespoons olive oil to the saucepan with the lamb and brown the meat, about 5 minutes. Turn down the heat to medium and add ¼ cup chopped shallot and 1 tablespoon tomato paste. Cook, stirring, until tomato paste darkens, about 5 minutes.

Add 1 cup of the simmering water or broth to the lamb mixture along with the habanero, ⅓ of the chopped garlic, and the remaining ¼ cup chopped shallot. Cook for 5 minutes, remove habanero, and let cook for 10 minutes more, partly covered, until meat is tender. Add bay leaf, salt to taste, and another cup of the simmering water or broth along with the pre-steamed rice. Mix, cover, and cook on low heat for 30 minutes, adding more broth or water as needed.

For the sauce: In a medium bowl, combine diced onion, chopped red and green peppers, remaining chopped garlic, vinegar, ground black pepper, crushed red pepper flakes, remaining bay leaf, and Dijon mustard. Stir and let marinate for 10 minutes.

Heat 1 tablespoon oil in a skillet over high heat. Add chopped onion and red pepper mixture and make an open space in the center for the remaining 1 tablespoon tomato paste. Cook for 3–4 minutes, then stir tomato paste into the onion mixture along with any remaining simmering broth and cook on low heat for 15 minutes.

To serve: Pile lamb and rice on a serving plate, pour sauce over top, and decorate with the optional garnishes

  • Category: entree

Keywords: Festive Jollof Rice, Senegalese culinary tradition, broken rice

 

 

LISA LI

Years after Lisa Li moved to the United States for graduate school, she taught herself to cook by watching the Food Channel, especially Julia Child, Iron Chef, and Yan Can Cook. Li grew up in Guangzhou, China, during the Cultural Revolution. When she was young, her father was exiled to the countryside, while she, her mother, grandmother, and brother were relocated to a tiny one-room flat. Li remembers how they lived on rations after the Cultural Revolution had decimated the nation’s food supply. “We ate mostly stale rice and watery soups,” she says.

As the Cultural Revolution disintegrated, Li’s father was able to return home. “He was a great cook and made Hakka dishes like stuffed tofu and soup with chicken and mushrooms,” she says. But rather than encouraging her to learn how to cook, Li’s parents wanted their daughter to focus on school, and in 1980, she won a coveted spot in a local college in Guangzhou, where she majored in Western literature and polished her English skills. In 1986, she was chosen to interpret for then Vice President Bush and his wife, Barbara, at a business dinner in Guangzhou.

 

After soaking the dried scallops for her rice dish, Lisa Li steams half of them in wine and fries the rest to sprinkle over the finished dish.

 

Li received a scholarship to attend graduate school in Spokane, Washington, where she fell in love with pizza and ice cream even as she missed her Chinese fruits and vegetables. On special occasions, she and a few other Chinese students would drive four hours to Seattle for a real Chinese meal of roast duck, wonton noodles, porridge with seafood, and thousand-year-old eggs.

Li has held a series of jobs in the Bay Area. She served as a trilingual interviewer on Chinese language television and helped train immigrants to become bartenders and chefs. She has worked for AAA since 1999, spending the last 11 years as an insurance specialist in Oakland. Amid the recent spike in anti-Asian violence, she volunteers weekly with the Chinatown Blue Angels as they walk the streets of Oakland Chinatown helping to ensure the safety of residents and visitors.

Li calls herself “a curious person,” so if there is a dish in a restaurant that she particularly likes, she might ask to speak to the chef to learn how the dish is made, as she did with the delicate fried rice with dried scallops shared here. “This is a special dish I make for entertaining. Also, my kids love it, and that’s important. The dried scallops are a luxury ingredient, not something we eat every day.”

 

 

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Lisa Li’s Dried Scallop & Egg White Fried Rice


  • Author: Lisa Li
  • Yield: Serves 4 1x

Description

Lisa Li shops in Oakland Chinatown. She finds dried scallops at A&B Seafoods, 800 Franklin Street or Chung Chou City, 388 9th Street, suite 110-111. She gets choy sum (a Chinese green) at LG Supermarket, 325 10th Street, Oakland.


Ingredients

Units Scale
  • 6 large (about 50 grams) dried scallops (see headnote)
  • Oil for frying
  • 2 teaspoons Chinese rice cooking wine (or other white cooking wine)
  • 3/4 cup (250 grams) jasmine rice
  • 1 1/2 cups water or chicken broth
  • 1 large egg yolk
  • 2 tablespoons peanut oil, divided
  • 3 large egg whites, whipped with a fork
  • 8 1-inch-long stalks (about 100 grams) choy sum, chopped into thin coins, 1/2 centimeter wide (In spring, you could substitute asparagus stalks.)
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons sea salt
  • 3 scallions (green part only), thinly sliced
  • 1 teaspoon ground white pepper
  • 1 tablespoon Three Crabs (or other) fish sauce

Instructions

Allow dried scallops to soak in a bowl of cold water for 2½ hours. Then tear them into thin shreds, blot dry with a paper towel, and divide into two piles.

Heat 1 tablespoon oil in a wok or a large deep frying pan over medium heat, and fry half of shredded scallops for about 3 minutes until golden-brown and crisp. Pour scallop shreds and hot oil through a mesh strainer and set aside.

Steam remaining scallops with the cooking wine for 15 minutes either in a parchment-lined vegetable steamer or in a bowl on a steamer stand in a covered wok or pan. It’s important that the liquid not come into direct contact with the scallop shreds.

Cook rice in water or chicken broth in a rice cooker or covered saucepan. The liquid should only barely cover the rice so that the resulting texture is dry, not wet. When done, spread out rice in a wide dish to cool down. When cool, using a large flat spoon, gently fold the egg yolk into the rice, until it evenly covers the rice and has a uniform yellow color.

Heat 1 tablespoon peanut oil in a wok or large pan over medium heat. Gently stir fry the egg whites for about a minute until they are fluffy, like soft scrambled eggs without the yolk. Remove from pan and set aside.

With leftover oil in wok on high heat, spread rice evenly around pan, then push rice to the sides of the pan, leaving a space in the center. Put steamed scallop shreds in the center, followed by coins of choy sum, then mix the three ingredients together. Sprinkle with salt. Cook about 5 minutes until the grains of rice separate. Gently mix in egg whites and scallions. Finish with ground white pepper and fish sauce, and top with fried scallop shreds.

  • Category: Entree

Keywords: Lisa Li's Dried Scallop and Egg White Fried Rice

 

 

SHAYEE KHANAKA

In early summer, a ladder and fruit picker beside the cherry tree in front of Shayee Khanaka’s Berkeley home are a signal to neighbors that they are welcome to share in the ripening bounty. In her backyard, a grapevine arbor shades an outdoor dining table, where friends and family often gather. Garden beds around the house host herbs and vegetables that Khanaka uses to recreate the Kurdish dishes she remembers from her homeland.

Khanaka was born in Kirkuk, a disputed city in Iraq claimed by Kurds, Turkmens, and Iraqi Arabs. “We had a 17th century house in a field the size of a city block,” she says. “We were self-sufficient. We had cows and sheep. My mom would milk the cows and make yogurt. My aunt had a vegetable garden with two trellises for grapes: small black grapes and larger green grapes [sultanas], whose leaves we used for dolmas. In the middle of summer, we had all kinds of squash. We would carve out the centers of zucchini, tomatoes, eggplants, and onions and stuff them.”

 

 

 

This idyllic life took a dramatic turn when Khanaka turned 15. “In 1974, civil war was breaking out, and we had to leave everything,” she says. “We left before the actual war started because my father was anticipating it.” Earlier tried in absentia for being a Kurdish intellectual, Khanaka’s father went into hiding in a small mountainside village near the Iranian border. His family (Khanaka with her seven siblings and mother) joined him for breaks in winter and summertime until the winter break in 1974. “We pretended that we were going for a few days, with just a couple of changes of clothes,” she says. “That was a smart thing. But it was the last time I lived in Kirkuk.”

The family escaped to Iran, then to Baghdad, and finally to Europe and the United States. When she was 22, Khanaka found herself in Livermore, California.

“My biggest culture shock was seeing that the library was open to anyone,” she says. “It was crowded with people; someone was reading a story to a group of children. You could go in and just read whatever you wanted, and I thought, ‘oh my god, this is what freedom feels like.’”

Two years later, she came to Berkeley, where she began studying at community college. Already fluent in Arabic, Persian, and English (besides her native Kurdish), Khanaka had also picked up French, German, and a little Turkish along the way. This facility, along with an interest in linguistics, eventually led her into the head librarian position for UC Berkeley Library’s Middle Eastern collections. Now retired, she often assists members of the local Kurdish community by interpreting and translating articles.

Khanaka remembers rice as an important regional crop before cheaper imports from America changed the market, but bulgur wheat was more of a daily staple. “While rice is often part of Kurdish meals,” says Khanaka, “the perde pilaw [pilaf] would be made for a wedding or a feast.” Perde means curtain, which refers to how this rice dish is enveloped in bread. “It’s usually served with a sauce of stewed dried apricots and another stew.” ♦

Shayee Khanaka has a large collection of Kurdish necklaces made from cloves, the spice that figures most prominently in this perde pilaw.

 

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Shayee Khanaka’s Perde Pilaw with Lamb and Dried Apricot Sauce


  • Author: Shayee Khanaka
  • Yield: serves 6-8 1x

Description

In Kurdistan, Khanaka’s family had a specific pot for this pilaw, which they lined with dough*, stuffed with the rice mixture, covered, and lowered into a bed of coals with more hot coals heaped on the lid. At home in Berkeley, Shayee recreates the entire dish on her stovetop, encasing it in flour tortillas instead of the dough.

Shayee always serves this dish with a lamb and dried apricot sauce on the side, and with all burners running, the meal takes her an hour to prepare. During recipe testing, we found we needed two hours, but it was worth every enjoyable minute spent.


Ingredients

Units Scale

For the spice mix

  • 5 teaspoons ground cloves
  • 2 teaspoons ground cardamom
  • 2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
  • 1 teaspoon ground nutmeg

For use throughout

  • Cooking oil
  • Salt and pepper
  • Lemon juice

For the rice

  • 2 cups basmati rice (rinsed and soaked for at least an hour)
  • 2 cups peeled and cubed red potatoes
  • 1/2 cup golden raisins
  • 1/2 cup blanched almonds (whole or slivered)
  • 2/3 cup dried tart cherries (such as Montmorency)

For the meatballs

  • 12 ounces ground lamb (can use beef or chicken)
  • 1/4 cup chopped onions
  • 1/2 tablespoon tomato paste
  • 1/2 tablespoon pomegranate molasses

For the lamb and dried apricot sauce

  • 1 pound lamb stew meat
  • 1/4 cup chopped onion
  • 1/2 tablespoon spice mix
  • 1 1/2 cups dried apricots

For assembly

  • 1 package flour tortillas
  • 1/4 cup butter or ghee

Instructions

For the spice mix: Combine the spices in a small bowl and set beside the stove to use throughout cooking.

For the rice mixture: Bring 2 tablespoons water and 2 tablespoons oil to a simmer in a large pan. Sprinkle potato cubes with ½ teaspoon spice mix and ½ teaspoon salt. Add to simmering water along with 1 tablespoon lemon juice. After 5 minutes, cover and turn heat to medium low. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the potatoes are fork tender, about 15 minutes. Empty cooked potatoes into a large bowl and set aside.

Bring ½ tablespoon water and ½ tablespoon oil to a simmer in a small pan. Add a pinch of spice mix along with raisins. Sauté for 5–10 minutes until raisins have plumped up. Add to the bowl of potatoes.

Add a splash of oil to the small pan along with a pinch of spice mix. Add almonds and fry for 2 minutes. Add to the bowl of potatoes.

Add ½ tablespoon oil to the small pan along with a splash of water and the dried cherries. Add a pinch of spice mix and stir over high heat for 5–10 minutes until cherries plump up and change color. Add to the bowl of potatoes.

To make the meatballs: Combine ground lamb with chopped onions, tomato paste, pomegranate molasses, ½ teaspoon spice mix, ¼ teaspoon salt, and ¼ teaspoon pepper. Mix with your hands and form into 1-inch balls. Heat ¼ cup oil in a large pan and fry the meatballs until they are cooked through and browned, about 10 minutes. Add to the bowl of potatoes.

To parboil the rice: Fill a large pot with 4 cups water plus 1 tablespoon oil, ½ teaspoon salt, and 1 tablespoon lemon juice. Bring to a boil as you start preparing the lamb and dried apricot sauce.

For the lamb and dried apricot sauce: Heat 1 tablespoon oil in a medium skillet. Add and sear lamb stew meat with the chopped onion. Stir in ½ tablespoon spice mix and sauté for 1–2 minutes. Add enough water to cover the meat by 1–2 inches. Cover and simmer for about 30 minutes until tender. Check occasionally, adding more water as needed. Add dried apricots plus enough water to cover fruit and meat by 1–2 inches. Cover pan and cook another 30 minutes, adding more water as needed.

When the rice water has come to a boil, drain the soaked rice and add to the boiling water. Cook (uncovered) for 10–15 minutes. (The water will not be completely absorbed.) Drain rice through a large sieve or colander, reserving ½ cup cooking water. Run cold water over the draining rice to cool it.

Oil the bottom and sides of a large pot with a tight-fitting lid. Drape 2–3 tortillas to cover the bottom and sides of the pot. Spread a layer of rice over the tortillas and add about ⅓ of the potato mixture, gently mixing it into the rice. Sprinkle with some spice mix. Repeat these steps two more times, ending with rice on top.

Place the reserved ½ cup of rice cooking water in the small pan, add butter and heat to melt, then pour over the layered rice. Cover rice with tortillas and cover the pot with a tight-fitting lid.

Turn heat to medium high until steam comes up through the rice. Turn the heat down to medium-low for 10–15 minutes until rice is done. [Our test kitchen preferred completing this step in the oven at 350° for 30 minutes instead of on the stovetop.]

Remove the pot lid and place a large serving platter over the pot. Invert to unmold the dish. Serve with the lamb and dried apricot sauce.

Notes

Interested in the traditional dough for Pilaw Perde? See the recipe below, which we enjoyed making in the Edible East Bay test kitchen.

  • Category: enree

Keywords: Perde Pilaw with Lamb and Dried Apricot Sauce rice pilaf

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Dough for Perde Pilaw


  • Author: Shayee Khanaka
  • Yield: 1 pastry 1x

Description

The traditional pot used for this dough-encased rice pilaf is a deep tapered cone shape. A cast-iron Dutch oven or other large oven-safe pot will work, as will a Bundt mold, which produces a very decorative dish.


Ingredients

Units Scale
  • Whole blanched almonds
  • 2eggs
  • 4tablespoonsyogurt
  • 1/2cupolive oil
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 23 cups all-purpose flour

Instructions

Preheat oven to 400°.

Grease pot (or mold) with butter. Place the almonds around the bottom of the greased mold in a decorative pattern and chill the mold in the refrigerator. Mix eggs, yogurt, olive oil, and salt. Sprinkle in the flour while stirring, adding as much as is needed to get a soft dough that is no longer sticky.

Empty dough onto a lightly floured board and knead lightly. Divide into two uneven pieces (one about twice the size of the other). Roll out the larger piece to ⅛-inch thick and then carefully roll it into a cylinder around the rolling pin. Gently unroll the dough from the rolling pin over the prepared pot or mold and let it drop down inside the mold, gently pressing it into place over the almonds so the dough lines the bottom and sides. Press and stretch it so it comes to the lip of the pot or mold.

Pour the rice mixture inside the dough lining. Roll out the smaller piece of dough to ⅛-inch thick, roll it onto the rolling pin as before, and unroll it to cover the rice, pinching the edges closed to encase the rice mixture.

Bake in the preheated oven for about 30 minutes until dough is golden brown and rice is fully cooked. (It’s OK to poke a hole in the dough to test the rice.}

Allow the perde pilaw to cool for about 10 minutes, then invert onto a serving dish and present it at your special-occasion table.

 

Keywords: dough for perde pilaw

 

Anna Mindess writes on food, culture, and travel for numerous publications with a recent focus on immigrant-run food businesses. She received the 2018 Association of Food Journalists award for Best Food Essay for her story about Berkeley’s refugee-run 1951 Coffee Company. Anna also works as an American Sign Language interpreter. Follow her on Instagram @annamindess and find her stories at annamindess.contently.com.

Photographer/filmmaker Scott Peterson presents a range of his work at scottpetersonproductions.com.