4 Recipes That Explore the Little-Known History of Rice

While some Americans are increasingly moving away from white rice toward wild and other variants, many dishes of the African Atlantic world still hark back to the traditional fluffy white grains. In Brazil leftover white rice is famously fried and served as rice balls or fritters, like Erminia Apolinario’s golden Bolinho de Arroz. West African cooks like Pierre Thiam often add broth, meat, and vegetables to their leftover rice, cooking it down into creamy Senegalese Mbahal.

Across the Caribbean, bean-and-rice dishes like Gregory Gourdet’s version of the Haitian classic Diri Kole ak Pwa are highly revered, and in the American South, rice turns up in memorable chicken-rich soups and stews. Lucky for us, Gullah chef Matthew Raiford has shared his renowned Nana’s Chicken and Rice Stew. These chefs are all experts in the rice-cooking traditions of their respective communities, and these flavorful recipes celebrate the prominence, history, and enduring versatility of a staple we all know and love.

Dr. Jessica B. Harris, Ph.D., is an acclaimed culinary historian and author of several books including ‘High on the Hog,’ now a Netflix series.

“Brazilians, we eat rice and beans every day. It’s a food that feeds the masses. I was raised on bolinho de arroz. When my Tia Zita would visit from Rio, she’d say, “Erminia, I made you a surprise rice ball. What do you think I put inside?” I loved to play that game with her. It’s a very popular snack because you can put whatever you have in your kitchen inside; it can be cheese, sausage, chicken, or fish. It’s also a bar food—as a tropical country, we drink a lot of beer!” —Erminia Apolinario, chef and caterer

Bolinho de Arroz With Molho Verde recipe

Bolinho de Arroz With Molho Verde

These crunchy, cheesy fried rice balls are the perfect snack for any time of day, and they come together in less than half an hour.

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“Senegal definitely breaks some records when it comes to rice. If there’s no rice on a given day, it’s like you haven’t eaten. Mbahal is a dish that oftentimes comes in between meals. Rice that’s already cooked is turned into a porridge by adding broth. Mbahal means ‘to boil’ in Wolof, so it’s a boil, really. The rice is boiled, the meat is boiled, whatever vegetables you have—anything can go into mbahal. It’s the dish that every single household has a recipe for.” —Pierre Thiam, chef-cofounder, Yolélé

Mbahal recipe


This creamy Senegalese rice and lamb dish combines peanuts, okra, and black-eyed peas to build beautiful West African flavors in a comforting one-pot meal.

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“In the Haitian community we joke that a meal isn’t complete without rice. There are so many different rice dishes in Haiti, and diri kole ak pwa is probably the most popular. It’s a dish that doesn’t see class—if you’re struggling financially, diri kole is something you can get on the table for your family, and even if you’re among the wealthy, it’s still on your table. Rice with beans has so many variations throughout the Caribbean, but the epis (green seasoning) creates this uniquely Haitian flavor profile, and a few tablespoons in your rice give it that distinction.” —Gregory Gourdet, chef-owner, Kann

Diri Kole ak Pwa recipe

Diri Kole ak Pwa

Epis, the punchy, peppery Haitian seasoning, gives this iconic dish its complex flavor profile.

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“I grew up eating rice with just about every meal possible. Someone said to me once, ‘Man, y’all so Geechee, y’all eat rice all the time!’ But Gullah Geechee food culture isn’t a monolith—people adapted to the areas they were in with the produce and foods that were available. If you had a large family, a stew could last for two or three days with one chicken, vegetables, and rice. When my nana would do it, it was really about stretching the meal for all of us, and doing the most with the food until it cannot be done anymore.” —Matthew Raiford, chef and author, Bress ’n’ Nyam

Nanas Chicken and Rice Stew recipe

Nana’s Chicken and Rice Stew

A hearty blend of chicken, rice, fresh herbs, and a grandmother’s love.

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