Since I’m on this journey of exploring ancestral foodways and food freedom, I wanted to start with a dish that best represented freedom to me. Insert calas. Calas are a lightly spiced rice fritter with strong roots in African cooking. While New Orleans claims the dish, calas were brought to the Crescent City by enslaved West Africans.
Many Black folks, particularly Black women, sold calas as a means to gain freedom. Pre-Louisiana Purchase, New Orleans was under Spanish rule at one point. During this era, two key slave regulations existed: enslaved people had the right to purchase their freedom and it was mandatory that they have Sundays and holidays off. While the system was cruel, it created an opportunity for Black folks, enslaved and free, to secure the money needed to gain financial capital.
Much of the commerce in New Orleans took place in the French Market. History books and folklore spoke of the calas women that roamed the market, carrying baskets above their tightly wrapped tignons and shouting, “Bel calas, tout chauds!”
As time went on, the number of calas merchants dwindled. What was once thousands of merchants in the 18th and 19th century, became one in the 1940s. The rice fritters were soon relegated to special occasions, such as communion and Mardi Gras in Afro-Creole homes. With the treat's quiet decline, beignets were becoming the reigning fried snack.
Fortunately, people have started to reach back for old recipes and calas are once again standing in the spotlight.
To me, it's so poignant that these little fritters were a tool for Black people to gain freedom. In the hoodoo tradition, the ingredients that make up calas symbolize so much of what these people were seeking: rice for protection and money, eggs for rebirth, sugar for love, nutmeg for luck and cinnamon for prosperity.
With so many powerful ingredients, it's no wonder that some folks were able to gain their chance at independence with calas. I like to think that these early kitchen conjurers spoke prayers into the batter during the wee hours, ensuring that their dreams of freedom would manifest.
So in keeping with the spirit of the Black women before me seeking freedom through food, I share my calas recipe with you.
1 ½ cups cooked white rice
1 cup all-purpose flour
2 tsp. baking powder
⅓ cup granulated sugar
¼ tsp. nutmeg
½ tsp. cinnamon
½ tsp. salt
1 tsp. vanilla extract
Prep Time: 30 minutes (15 mins. of rest time)
Cook Time: 15 minutes
Total Time: 45 minutes
Yield: 8-10 large calas
Special Equipment: Cast iron skillet or deep fryer + slotted spoon or mesh skimmer
If you’re not using leftover rice, boil a pot of rice that makes at least two cups and turn the rice out on a flat surface such as a large plate or a parchment paper-lined baking sheet. Let the rice cool for at least 15 minutes and then transfer to a bowl and place in the fridge until you’re ready to use it in the batter.
Pour enough oil into your frying vessel to fill it to a 2 ½- to 3-inch depth and bring it to a temperature between 350°F and 360°F over medium heat. Line a plate with paper towels or place a baking rack over a baking sheet. Set aside.
In a small bowl, combine flour, baking powder, sugar, spices and salt.
In a medium bowl, whisk three whole eggs with vanilla extract for 2-3 minutes until the egg mixture is fluffy and several bubbles are visible. The well-whisked eggs keep the batter light.
Now fold in your rice. Once that is well incorporated, add in your flour mixture. Your batter is now ready to chill out (covered) for 15 minutes in the fridge.
After the batter is finished chilling, I usually say a little prayer that my sweet puffs bring prosperity, joy and nourishment to those who eat them.
There are a few ways you can approach dropping in the batter. I’ve used an ice cream scoop before, but that tends to be a bit messy with a somewhat loose batter. My prefered method is using a large soup spoon (non-slotted) and dropping the batter into the hot oil. Work in batches of 4-5.
Pro tip: Try to get the batter as close to the oil as possible. Don’t be reckless like me and have the first cala give you an oil burn. *deep, heavy negro spiritual sigh*
This is the time when the calas emerge like the golden goddesses they are. They will float to the top and become golden brown. Flip them over halfway through to ensure that the other side gets browned as well.
When frying, the oil temperature can drop so you may need to adjust the heat to ensure the temperature of the oil stays the same while frying. Once they have finished cooking, use your slotted spoon or mesh skimmer to fish out the calas and drain them on a paper towel-lined plate or wire rack.
Gently dust them with powdered sugar and serve with your sweet syrup of choice. Cane syrup is traditional but you can also opt for molasses, honey, or agave syrup. I’m personally fond of honey.