In my previous post, I described how, right from the onset of European explorations in the Caribbean islands and Mexican soil in the late 15th century, some African nationals, or their descendants in the Iberian peninsula, participated not only as slaves, but also as auxiliaries to Spanish and Portuguese explorers. By 1521, at the end of the Spanish conquest campaigns in Mexico, with a decimated native population due to war, as well as diseases brought from the Old World, such as small pox, imported labour was required, and African slaves became a part of the Spanish colonial live. Initially, these slaves were for the most part converted to Christianity, taught Spanish, and many were employed as household servants or apprentices. Later on, because the Spanish crown banned indigenous slavery as an institution, and due to increased demands to establish plantations and exploit natural resources, black slaves were brought directly from West Africa, particularly by Portuguese traders. By the 1580s, thousands of West Africans had been captured in Ghana, Gabon, Ivory Coast, Senegal, Gambia, Nigeria, Congo and Angola, and brought to the port of Veracruz in the Gulf of Mexico, later also to Acapulco on the Pacific Coast, and Campeche in the Yucatan peninsula.
These peoples, coming directly from West Africa, brought their traditions with them, and remained stoic for the most part, with just isolated revolts; some managed to escape and there are some surviving mulatto/black mestizo communities near the original ports of entry and in neighbouring states, such as Oaxaca. Many words that are considered deeply connected to Mexican traditions have African roots, for example, marimba – a type of xylophone; the word comes directly from the Bantu marimba or malimba, “many bars/drums”. African influences in Caribbean and Mexican music and dances are evident; in another post, I talked about the son jarocho, of which “La Bamba” is a famous example. And of course, last but not least, one of the greatest contributions of enslaved West Africans to the Americas: cultivation techniques and cuisine.
A couple of years ago, I shared a recipe from the Mexican state of Veracruz: “… possessing a rich cuisine with Spanish and Caribbean (African) influences … beans and rice with fried bananas (plantain) is a popular combination of flavours along the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico coasts, …” To conclude this month of Black History Month, here is a review of this humble dish introduced from West Africa, not pompous or elaborate, but which has served as an inspiration for iconic dishes in large regions of the American Continent, from the Southern United States’ “Hoppin’ John”, to Caribbean “Moros y Cristianos” (“Moors and Christians”), and black beans, white rice and fried plantain from the Mexican state of Veracruz, as shown at the top of this post.
Beans are legumes from the Fabaceae botanical family. The common bean (Phaseolus vulgaris), was first domesticated in two main centres in the American continent: the Andes mountains of Peru, and the Lerma-Santiago basin of Mexico. They extended throughout the rest of the continent, and later became ubiquitous around the world, with many varieties eaten both as immature pods (snap beans) and fresh or dry seeds (shelling beans). Cowpeas (Vigna unguiculata) of which black-eyed beans are a subspecies, are the original legumes used extensively in West African cuisine. In the photo below, a variety of common beans, harvested in my backyard last year, is shown on the left, next to store-bought black-eyed beans (on the right):
Seeing their similarities, it is not surprising that when West African nationals were first brought to the New World, they embraced native beans in their diet as a substitute for their cowpeas; black and red kidney beans are used extensively in West African cuisine nowadays.
Rice was cultivated in Africa since ancient times; between 1500 and 800 BC, Oryza glaberrima propagated from its original centre, the Niger River delta, and extended to Senegal. However, it never developed much farther; its cultivation has declined in favour of the Asian species (Oryza sativa), but remains a good source for the gene pool. Rice was grown in some areas of southern Iraq, brought from China, and with the rise of Islam, it moved north and west, introduced to the Iberian peninsula during Islamic (Moorish) rule, and from there, to Sicily and the rest of Europe. Spanish ships travelling to the New World included the grain as a staple, being more durable in dry form, and tastier once cooked, that the dreaded wheat biscuits, which often became hard and mouldy. Rice was one of the first Old World crops to be grown in the Americas, in the 1520s in Veracruz, while the Portuguese introduced it at around the same time to their colonies in Brazil. Recent scholarship supports that Africans brought to the Americas played a key role in the establishment of rice as a crop. In the Southern United States, slave labour from West Africa was highly appreciated, for their knowledge of rice culture.
FUN FACT: There is strong evidence that rice had been eaten most frequently in white form for a long time. Brown rice has a short shelf life, but once the bran and germ are removed and it has been polished, the white grains will keep well; Asian and South Asian farmers are known to keep reserves of white rice as an emergency supply in case of a bad crop, and there are references of dishes using rice that were described as white since Medieval times in Europe, such as mange blanche.
Plantain (Musa × paradisiaca) is a hybrid between the species Musa acuminata (A genome) and Musa balbisiana (B genome). The species is native to Papua New Guinea and has spread throughout the tropics, reaching Africa about 4,000 years ago, where it adapted, and it is considered well naturalized. Portuguese explorers brought plantain to Europe and later, to the Caribbean and South America, often used as a cheap source of food for the trans-Atlantic slave trade journeys from West Africa to the Americas. Fried plantains were already very familiar, and once in the Caribbean region, Eastern South America and Veracruz in Mexico, it was the last piece of the puzzle for the recreation and propagation of the famous beans and rice with fried plantain dish, which has morphed and adapted into many more traditional dishes in the Americas.
In some parts of South America and the Caribbean, plantains are cooked while still partially green, but in Mexico, plantain is more often cooked when ripe, producing a deliciously sweet flavour and crispy bite when fried.
Fried Plantain – Plátanos Machos Fritos
2 ripe plantains
2 tbsp vegetable oil
Trim both ends of the plantains, and remove peel:
Slice into rounds, diagonally for ovals, or as shown below, cut across in half, then slice each half lengthwise into four to five slices:
Warm up oil in a large frying pan over medium heat. Arrange plantain slices in a single layer in the pan, and allow to cook until golden brown (photo below left). Do not leave unattended since they may burn quickly; flip to brown the other side (photo below, right):
I was checking some recipes for West African beans, and I found a vegan version of Ghanaian Red Red Stew prepared with black-eyed beans. I found it very interesting because it uses tomatoes (Solanum lycopersicum), and dry peppers (Capsicum annuum), originally from the New World, so it is another example of the extensive exchange of ingredients and traditions around the World, in every direction, back and forth. Traditional recipes use smoked meat, crayfish and red palm oil; the vegan recipe called instead for smoked paprika, and a granulated red seaweed (dulse). I omitted the dulse, and also the red palm oil, since I could not find an environmentally sustainable source; I used a reduced amount of vegetable oil, and sweet paprika to preserve the sanguine colour, and add extra flavour. I found other recipes calling for herbs, so I chose a touch of thyme for my rendition, as well.
Ghanaian Style Black-Eyed Beans
2 cups dry black-eyed beans
4 cups water, or more, as needed
2 tbsp vegetable oil
½ tsp sweet paprika
¼ tsp smoked paprika
¼ tsp cayenne pepper
1 medium onion; peeled, chopped finely
1 clove garlic; peeled, chopped finely
1 tbsp fresh ginger; peeled, chopped finely
2 tomatoes; washed, stem spot removed, chopped finely
1 pinch dry thyme; crushed
2 green onions; washed, roots removed, sliced finely
Salt and black pepper, to taste
Cooked white rice
I got myself an Instant Pot Duo Crisp™ so I did not pre-soaked the beans; I simply removed damaged pieces and other impurities, then rinsed in water twice; I put the drained beans in the pot with the measured clean water, closed and used the pressure cooker option for 40 minutes. I waited 10 minutes, then released the pressure slowly and I got approximately four cups of perfectly tender black-eyed beans with one cup of liquid left over:
If cooking in a regular pot, add more water and cook for one to two hours, checking periodically, until beans are tender. Reserve beans and their liquid.
In a large pot, warm up oil over medium heat, then add the sweet paprika, smoked paprika and cayenne pepper (photo below, left). Stir and allow the spices to release their aroma for a few seconds, then add chopped onions; continue stirring and cooking until onions are translucent, then add garlic and ginger, stirring just for a few second, to avoid burning (photo below, right):
Add chopped tomatoes, stirring (photo below, left). Cook for about one minute, then add reserved beans with one cup of their liquid (photo below, right):
Incorporate all together with a spoon; season with salt and pepper to taste, and crush dry thyme with fingers and add to the pot (photo below, left). Cook for another few minutes, until it thickens, incorporate sliced green onions, stirring gently (photo below, right):
Serve hot with a scoop of cooked white rice (mine was steamed plain with a pinch of salt, but it may be boiled in coconut milk), and a few slices of fried plantain:
Mexican beans with African sides (photo below, left) or African dish with some Mexican ingredients (photo below, right)? It is worthwhile trying them both, for a taste of true fusion cuisine:
The origin is definitely in African dishes with beans (cowpeas) and rice served with fried plantain; these remained a staple amongst the peoples of West Africa brought to the Americas, and passed down to their descendants. Common beans and other native ingredients such as tomatoes and peppers (chiles) were incorporated, and ingredients and techniques have since travelled back and forth across continents.
Common beans were cultivated in the Americas with corn and squash, forming the strong agricultural and nutritional “three sisters”; with the influence of West African culture, the common bean has adopted its culinary sisters from the Old World: white rice and fried plantain.
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I am sharing my recipes at Thursday Favourite Things #479, with Bev @ Eclectic Red Barn, Pam @ An Artful Mom, Katherine @ Katherine’s Corner, Amber @ Follow the Yellow Brick Home, Theresa @ Shoestring Elegance and Linda @ Crafts a la Mode.