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What is Gullah Geechee food and how do you make it?

What is Gullah Geechee food and how do you make it?
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This article was produced by National Geographic Traveller (UK).

The Gullah Geechee are direct descendants of the first Black people forcibly transported from Africa to the US, who arrived in southeastern port cities such as Charleston, South Carolina. Several isolated communities survive today in coastal cities stretching from Florida to North Carolina, including Georgia’s Sea Islands.

Known for taking immense pride in their distinct customs, heritage and African-Creole dialect, Gullah Geechee communities are similarly proud of their cuisine, which is the basis for much of what’s considered Southern food today. If you’ve ever had shrimp and grits or Hoppin’ John, you’ve had Gullah Geechee food.

Theirs is a grain-based cuisine, with rice playing a starring role — Gullah Geechee people brought rice farming and cultivation with them, having lived along the West African ‘rice coast’ from Senegal to Sierra Leone and beyond. Seasonal local grains such as benne seed and millet also appear frequently in Gullah Geechee recipes, along with stewed leafy greens and other slow-braised vegetables, like okra, corn and tomatoes. These ingredients show up in hearty, savoury Southern meals like Country Captain, essentially a thick chicken curry dish with rice. Seafood is also a staple of the Gullah Geechee diet, with shrimp, crab, oysters and fish being essential components of many recipes. 

Matthew Raiford is a descendant of coastal Georgia’s Freshwater Gullah Geechee, and a farmer who tends Gilliard Farms, an expanse of land bought in 1874 by Jupiter Gilliard, his formerly enslaved great-great-great-grandfather. He’s also a 2018 James Beard semifinalist for Best Chef Southeast, and the author of Bress ‘n’ Nyam: Gullah Geechee Recipes from a Sixth-Generation Farmer. In the book, and at Gilliard Farms, he pays homage to the food and foodways that sustained his family, believing Gullah Geechee cuisine represents not only the foundation of US food, but also its future.

“Today is the beginning of reclaiming the past and one of the major foundations of American cuisine,” he says. “As for tomorrow, we continue to be stewards of the land and plant the seeds that shall grow strong roots.”

Matthew Raiford is an author and farmer who quite literally wrote the book on Gullah Geechee food.

Calypso pork loin with mango papaya sauce

This is a dish full of unexpected flavours, like the spicy-smoky-sweet sensation of calypso seasoning, which has a hint of citrus and some heat from the dried chillies. You may find you need to make a few substitutions, as some of the ingredients can be hard to find in the UK. If you can’t find fish peppers, try replacing them with jalapeños for a milder heat or with cayenne for a more intense heat. 

Culantro, a herb most often used in Caribbean and South American dishes, has strong, citrussy notes — you can substitute it with flat-leaf parsley if needed. The amounts given here will leave you with some leftover calypso seasoning, tomato jam and smokin’ hot ‘n’ sweet sauce: the former can be kept in an airtight container in a cool, dry place for up to six months, and the latter two can each be stored in airtight containers in the fridge for up to two weeks. 

Serves: 8 Takes: 1 hr 30 mins plus resting 

Ingredients

1.4kg pork loin
1 tbsp coarse salt
1 tbsp coconut oil
1 mango, roughly chopped 
1 papaya, roughly chopped

For the calypso seasoning

¼ cup dried onion 
2 tbsp holy basil (or lemon balm or basil)
1 tbsp oregano
1 tbsp minced fresh ginger
1 tbsp ground cinnamon
2 tsp pink Himalayan salt
1 tsp crushed red pepper flakes
1 tsp ground allspice
1 tsp honey granules (or brown sugar)
¼ tsp freshly ground black pepper

For the tomato jam 

1.4kg beefsteak tomatoes, diced
2 tsp olive oil
4 garlic cloves, minced
2 shallots, roughly chopped
240ml apple cider vinegar
2 tsp Dijon mustard
1 tbsp vindaloo curry paste
340g honey
½ tsp crushed red pepper flakes

For the smokin’ hot ’n’ sweet sauce 

4 medium tomatoes, roughly chopped 
4 African fish peppers, stems and seeds removed
1 large onion, roughly chopped
1 bunch culantro 
2 tbsp smoked paprika
2 tbsp steak seasoning
½ tsp cayenne pepper
6 garlic cloves 
1 tbsp beef or mushroom broth
60ml olive oil

Method

1. To make the calypso seasoning, put all the ingredients in a food processor or spice grinder and pulse for 15 seconds, then set aside. 

2. For the tomato jam, tip the tomatoes into a food processor and puree. Pour the olive oil into a large, heavy-bottomed pot and set over a medium-high heat. Sauté the garlic and shallots until caramelised, around 7-10 mins. Add the vinegar, mustard, curry paste, honey and red pepper flakes, stirring until just combined. Incorporate the tomato puree and allow the jam to start to bubble. Turn down the heat by half to reach a simmer and allow the jam to cook for 30 mins, stirring frequently, until it thickens. 

3. Remove the jam from the heat. Taste and adjust the seasoning with salt and cracked black pepper, then leave to cool to room temperature. 

4. To make the smokin’ hot ’n’ sweet sauce, put all the ingredients except the olive oil in a food processor, cover and pulse for around 30 seconds. Pour the olive oil through the opening while the processor is on high for 2 mins until the sauce is well combined. Set aside. 

5. Take the pork loin out of the fridge and set aside to rest for 30 mins.

6. Heat oven to 190C fan. Mix the salt and 2 tbsp of the calypso seasoning in a large bowl (reserving the rest for use in other recipes), then evenly coat the pork loin on all sides with the mix. 

7. Melt the coconut oil in an ovenproof sauté pan set over a medium-high heat, then place the pork loin in the pan and sear it on all sides. Put the pan in the oven and cook for 30 mins, or until a thermometer inserted into the pork reads 66C.  Set aside to rest for 10 mins. 

8. Meanwhile, place the mango and papaya in the bowl of a food processor, along with 1 cup of the tomato jam and ¼ cup of the hot ‘n’ sweet sauce (reserving the remainder for uses in other recipes). Whizz for 1 min until pureed, then pour into a small saucepan and heat just to a simmer. Slice the pork and spoon the sauce over it.

Taken from Bress ’n’ Nyam: Gullah Geechee Recipes from a Sixth-Generation Farmer, by Matthew Raiford with Amy Paige (Countryman Press).

Published in Issue 20 (summer 2023) of Food by National Geographic Traveller (UK).

To subscribe to National Geographic Traveller (UK) magazine click here. (Available in select countries only).







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