“Belle Calas! Tout Chauds, Madam!”
Ms. Mattie, waved her hands dramatically, giving me her best interpretation of how the Calas women would walk the streets of New Orleans with baskets perched on their heads. While I tried my hardest to roll the cold rice into balls, unsuccessfully.
“Mo guaranti vous ye bons!”
She continued bellowing -loudly at that- telling of the street vendors in brightly colored tignons near old St. Louis Cathedral selling calas and potato cakes.
Calas are creole rice fritters, old rice mixed in an egg batter and fried, then showered with powdered sugar. Originally made with rice and yeast concocted the night before of boiled potatoes, cornmeal, flour and baking soda, then left to ferment in the night air. Highly addictive gustatory delights, with a storied past that’s as deeply fused in the history of New Orleans as Marie Laveau. A past that helped some enslaved African Americans obtain their freedom.
Calas were also consumed in other parts of Louisiana and the American south where mixtures of cow peas and other legumes were sometimes used in place of rice. Like the Saraka rice fritters of Sea Islands in South Carolina and Acaraje sold on the streets of Salvador Bahia in Brazil, Calas origins trace back to Ghana and other parts of West Africa. These rice fritters are very much a part of the culinary African diaspora and were a vital piece in the advancement of many African Americans in New Orleans.
Before the Louisiana purchase, while under Spanish rule, the practice of coartación allowed the enslaved of New Orleans to purchase their freedom. Many took to the streets, chanting advertisements for “gaignin calas”. Crisp around the edges with luscious centers, these little fritters were, for many enslaved, the key to earning money for these purchases.
The ticket to freedom bubbling in hot grease.
According to African American Culinary Historian Jessica Harris, “Not all Calas vendors were enslaved. And the ones who were, often sold them for their mistresses. If they were lucky, they were allowed to keep a portion of the money, or perhaps have it go towards their freedom.”
Even after the Louisiana Purchase, which put an end to coartaion, New Orleans still remained home to many freed slaves who made their living selling calas and other street foods up until the 1940’s when only one remained. However, they were preserved in a lot of African American families, eaten on Mardi Gras, on the morning of a child’s first communion and on one Thursday afternoon at Ms. Matties dining room table.
Over the past decade, Calas have reappeared on more restaurant menus thanks to a few trying to preserve the tradition. The Old Coffee Pot on St. Peters Street serves them with grits.. I love this place, but they do move a little slow. I’ve had a savory calas in Charleston with hominy and red pepper aioli. Some with red beans and rice favoring a more savory side of life.
I’ve kept this more in line with tradition, honing in on the old ways of mixing in a little cornmeal, with crumbs of stale cornbread. My Mardi Gras fare always includes a hot basket of Calas. As homage to my ancestors, those who came before me, moving oceans, paving paths, making a way for me to be born into a life of freedom.
Deep Fryer or 12in skillet| Frying Thermometer| Slotted Spoon
Prep Time 30mins (with 15 mins rest time) Cook Time 15 mins Yields 18-20 golfball size calas
1 cup cold, cooked rice
½ cup crumbled day old cornbread
2 tablespoons baking powder
½ teaspoon cinnamon
¼ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
2 tablespoons granulated sugar
2 tablespoons heavy whipping cream
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Powdered Sugar for garnish
Peanut Oil for frying
Pour enough oil into the pot or deep fryer to fill it 2 1/2 to 3-inch depth and bringing the oil to 350.
While the oil heats up:
In a large bowl combine the rice, cornbread crumbs, baking powder, cinnamon, nutmeg, and sugar. In a separate bowl, lightly whisk the egg with the cream and vanilla. Fold the egg mixture into the rice mixture. Once ingredients are incorporated, all the mixture to rest for about 20 minutes in the refrigerator. Meanwhile, heat your peanut oil to 350. Roll the rice mixture into small balls. Adding a little flour to your hands will help with the sticking. Or you could drop a spoonful into the hot grease at a time (this will give you odd shaped calas but will still be just as good and less messy).
Working in batches of about 4 -5 calas at a time, fry each one until the rise to the surface and turn golden brown. You want to make sure to maintain the temperature of the oil while frying. If the oil cools too quickly from the cold ingredients is will not fry the calas properly. Remove them from the oil using a slotted spoon. Place on a wire rack over a baking sheet to allow the excess grease to drain from each fritter. This will keep the exterior crisp.
Dust with powdered sugar and serve while hot.. “Tout Chauds”