In honor of Black History Month, I wanted to explore the food traditions of the Gullah people and how they impact Southern food traditions.
Gullah refers to a culture of black Americans who live along the coast in the Lowcountry and Sea Islands from North Carolina to Florida. They are also known as Gullah Geechee, because the language they speak is Geechee. One theory is that the word “Gullah” came from Angola, a country in West Africa where people were known for an agricultural skill that Southern plantation owners desired for growing rice.
In the 1700s, slave owners hand-picked people from a West African region known as the Rice Coast to utilize their skills and vast knowledge of growing rice. The Gullah expertise of growing rice in hot, humid conditions made it possible for the rice crops to flourish. Due to the isolation along the coast and barrier islands combined with their strong community skills, the Gullah people preserved more of the African cultures than any other group of black Americans, including linguistic and cultural heritage along with delicious food customs.
Rice is the basic grain of Gullah, although they also use other grains such as sorghum, millet and benne seeds. It is theorized that Carolina Gold rice, which is an heirloom variety of rice from the Carolinas, may indeed be a grain brought over from West Africa. The Gullah people also brought other foods from Africa that we now consider staples in Southern cuisine: peanuts, okra, yams, peas, hot peppers, sesame seeds and watermelon.
An original farm-to-table cuisine, Gullah cooking was based on fresh, seasonal foods and slow cooking. Gullah is known for one-pot meals — simmering root veggies slowly all day while working in the fields and adding in other veggies and spices along with fresh seafood or meat and served over rice or millet. The tastes were described as simple and delicious, with their own unique flavors.
Some traditional Gullah food and dishes are red rice and fresh shrimp sauteed with onion and garlic along with “perloo” or “pirlo,” which is a versatile rice dish combined with seafood, turkey or pork and is similar to a jambalaya. All kinds of seafood are a staple of the Gullah food culture. One Gullah dish includes an oyster stew thickened with ground benne seeds.
Okra soup, aka gumbo, is another staple for the Gullah people and can be vegetarian or made with seafood or meat and includes lots of seasonal veggies. Unlike the Creole version that is roux-based, Gullah gumbo is traditionally tomato and/or onion- based. There is also soup bunch, a traditional winter veggie soup made with root vegetables such as turnips, rutabaga, hot peppers, garlic, ginger and onion along with collard greens and red or green cabbage. For dessert, Gullah offers “monkey bread,” which is a sweet bread made with coconut and molasses.
Southern coastal classic dishes such as shrimp and grits, Frogmore stew (made with shrimp, corn, potato and sausage) and Hoppin’ John (the black-eyed- pea-and-rice dish to eat on New Year’s for good luck) all originate from Gullah cuisine.
Aspects of Gullah cuisine that are different from other traditional soul food — according to B.J. Dennis, a Charleston chef specializing in Gullah cuisine — are vegetables such as greens and lima beans that are cooked to their ultimate flavor and texture and are not mushy.
In honor of Black History Month (or anytime), pay homage and include a traditional Gullah meal or dish.
Gullah Gumbo Recipe
4 tablespoon butter
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 onion, diced
1 red pepper, diced
1 clove garlic, minced
1 lb. peeled white shrimp
2 tablespoon finely chopped flat leaf parsley
1 sprig fresh thyme (have extra to garnish the dish with a few sprigs when served)
1 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon black pepper ½ teaspoon smoked paprika
½ teaspoon red chili flakes
28 oz. canned tomatoes with juice
2 cups fresh young okra, chopped
2 cups cooked rice
In a large skillet, melt the butter and olive oil.
Add the onion, red pepper, garlic and okra and cook until okra is browned.
Add the thyme, parsley, salt, black pepper, smoked paprika and chili flakes.
Add the tomatoes and simmer for 5 minutes.
Add the shrimp and cook until translucent, about 5 minutes.
Ladle into bowls over ¼ cup of warm rice in each.
» Mediterranean — Instead of butter use 1-2 tablespoons olive oil to sauté veggies.
» Vegan — Saute the veggies in veggie broth and substitute cooked cow peas (another traditional Gullah food) or garbanzo beans for the shrimp. Add legumes with the tomatoes. Serve over brown or wild rice.