Cousins: The Culinary Verzuz We All Deserve

Happy World Food Day! I love food. I love the taste of it; the sight of it; the preparation of it, and (when I could) the smell of it. I love how thousands of years of human history  – wars, migration, accidental discoveries and stingily guarded recipes – nest themselves on a plate before what is often mindless consumption. But above all, I love how food connects us.

A few weeks ago, Kardea Brown made Gullah Red Rice and shared the recipe on her IG page. Then came the visceral reactions in her comments.

“That is NOT red rice. That is Nigerian jollof rice! And that’s not how it’s prepared!”

“Who puts sugar in jollof??”

“That’s jullof rice.” (This particular spelling annoyed me up to my tits and set them on a hard edge. ‘Jullof’ is a little to close to ‘julor’, which means ‘thief’.)

Of course, there were a handful of people who shared her Gullah/Geechee heritage who could relate to a dish that many of them grew up with, and came to Kardea’s swift defense.

“The sugar is to cut the acidity of the tomatoes and the tomato paste.”

“This is GULLAH red rice. It’s NOT jollof.”

She said what she said!

I was intrigued and delighted by the passionate comments. On the surface, they may have appeared combative but as far as I was concerned, here again was evidence of our shared African heritage expressed through food. Like Africans on the continent, in the North American, Caribbean and European diaspora, our similarities in our favorite comfort foods are in the roots, and that’s what makes a dish like Gullah Red Rice, Jollof (of any variety) and Dirty Rice  – like us – “cousins”. 

I have not explored why Kardea refers to her audience as Cousins, though my instincts tell me that it’s for similar reasons as I lay out earlier. Either way, I appreciate her for this choice because it’s a much more openhearted greeting than they traditional “Hey guyzzz!” that has become the norm in digital entertainment.

But back to the food.

It’s amazing to see how similarly our food cultures have adapted and continue to draw inspiration from each other. Enslaved Africans from rice growing cultures on the Continent taught white plantation owners how to produce the crop, rendering their exploiters fabulously wealthy. Naturally, the Africans ate some of what they grew and therefore were able to preserve key aspects of their culinary heritage. This is especially so in cases where the enslaved were cut off from consistent contact from their captors on the many islands that dot the Southeastern Coast of the United States. It’s a well known fact that grits, collards, okra and black-eyed peas/beans are staples in both Southern and West African traditional cooking. But why not demonstrate this fun fact in a show? …Specifically as a Verzuz battle. Can you just imagine it?

Over the past year or more I’ve been on a mission to de-colonize my plate; which you might imagine is no simple process. However the job has been made easier with the unwitting assistance of some of my favorite chefs and home cooks of African descent. The cooking styles of Fafa Gilbert, Naa Oyoo Kumodzi, Kardea Brown, Tokunbo Koiki and Freda Muyambo are among my greatest influences at the moment. And as much as – or perhaps because – I love these women individually, I long to see them clash pots and pestles. It would be healing to all our souls.

There hasn’t been an episode of Verzuz yet that has featured Black women that hasn’t felt more like a warm, restorative hug than a skirmish. There’s storytelling, wine, candles, tea and what I’m sure is the delicate fragrance of Elizabeth Arden eau de toilette in the air. The only thing that could make such an event better is food! Fortunately, our trailblazing Aunties Gladys and Patti have already provided a blueprint and proven that the concept will work.

All we have to do is expand on it!

So now that we know who’s coming to the Cousins Verzuz, all that’s left to decide is what they should cook. If EYE were orchestrating the event, I would suggest (read: insist) on the following:

Naa Oyoo’s Fusion Shio Suya Chicken Ramen

Drawing inspiration from the East, this recipe is simple, flavorful and topped with veggies from Oyoo’s own back yard screams down home comfort. You can pick up a bowl at Oyoo’s flagship restaurant – Essie’s – if you’re ever in Accra.

Fafa Gilbert’s Cod Yassa

I love fish. And no one makes fish better than the Senegalese; expect Ewe women. If Fafa is making fish, I want to be no farther than 2 feet away from the stove with my plate!

Kardea Brown’s Shrimp and Grits

Slow cooked creamy grits, crispy bacon and fresh shrimp, nothing personifies the link between Africa and the Americas better than this dish. If I slap somebody eh?

Tokunbo Koiki’s Jollof Rice and Grilled Chicken
No really. It’s the BEST.

The Ghanaian contingent may disown me for this, but this is simply THE BEST jollof rice I’ve ever tasted. It’s a hill I’m ready to die on. Toks fed my family and me in 2019 when we were on a 356-hour layover in London. Flavored with nothing but Nigerian Excellence, nothing has come close to this taste.

Freda Muyambo’s Egusi Soup

Also known as agushie, this vegan friendly savory dinner/lunch time dish goes well with green or ripe plantain, banku, rice, pap and just about any starch imaginable.   

All that’s left to do after feasting your eyes on these dishes is to take a nap!

I realize that I know too little about Afro Caribbean and Lantinx cuisine, but from a cursory inspection it is obvious that many of their ingredients point to our Diaspora links as well. There is an ancient proverb from the Olde African Text which reads: “Plantain is the One Ring that binds us all.” But seriously, if you have any recommendations for chefs from the Latin community who ought to be included in this mashup, please drop their @!

Who are your personal pick for the Cousins Verzuz? What would they prepare? Discuss!