Sunday, February 27, 2011

West Africa and the Origin of Mexican Rice Cultivation and Rice Gastronomy

From the sixteenth century, African rice crossed the Middle Passage of slavery to the Americas, not merely as food in ship cargoes but also as an indigenous knowledge system known to [West Africans].
Judith Carney (Black Rice 43)

Four reliable sources document the presence of rice in New Spain (the colonial name for Mexico) soon after the arrival of the Spanish colonizers in the sixteenth century. The first, while solely concerned with the first three grains of wheat to be planted in the Continent, indirectly mentions a “sack of rice” and “a small amount of rice” (Alegría 84) from the port of Veracruz brought to Hernán Cortés in Coyoacán, Mexico City c. 1522. The second informs, “Mexico […] received its first lot of rice seed around 1522 in a cargo mixed with wheat” (Chang 139). The third states that Champotón, a Spanish sugar mill in Campeche, in the Yucatan Peninsula, exported rice among other goods in 1559 “twenty years after its establishment” (Redondo 358). The fourth, in medieval Spanish, asserts that in 1579 in Santa María de la Victoria, Tabasco, “se a senbrado el arroz e millo e se da muy bien […]” (rice and millet have been planted and have adapted well). (Colección 368).
Incompatible with the evidence above stated and gathered here are the two main widely accepted versions regarding the post-Colombian arrival of rice to Mexico. The first account states, “the cultivation of rice [was] introduced by the Arabs into Europe and by the Spaniards into America” (Humboldt 458). The other story reports that rice came into Mexico from the Philippines via the Manila-Acapulco Galleon.
The present work reveals that, among others, rice, rice cultivation, and a major part of rice gastronomy, arrived in Mexico in the sixteenth century from the Senegal-Gambia region of West Africa as cultural capital of the West African Ancestors who were brought to Mexico at the time. The reconstruction of a plausible history of the successful transplantation of rice to Mexico in the first half of the sixteenth century provides agency to Senegalese-Gambian women and men in the building of Mexican national crops, gastronomy and identity. The historical reconstruction provides a clearer view of the agricultural advancement of West Africa at the time of contact with the Portuguese in the fifteenth century. This major feat of the West African Diaspora to Mexico has been obscured given the Eurocentric aesthetics that have dominated the discourse on nation. The present work de-myth-ifies, in part, the European paternalistic readings of history that permeate Mexican official history, and beyond. It contributes to the diversification of the understanding of the African cultural capitals, among others, involved in the construction of Mexico and its so-called popular cultures from the sixteenth century onward. In addition, the historical reconstruction of this work allows the reconnection of the history of the Americas beyond European contrived borders.
To support the premise that West African millenary agricultural knowledge was crucial for the successful transplanting of rice to sixteenth century Mexico, the present multidisciplinary study offers first a historical summary of rice in Africa and Asia. Following, the European and West African histories of rice-crop systems are reconstructed. Thirdly, contesting the official history of rice in Mexico, the emergence of rice as a crop-system in the sixteenth century southeast Gulf of Mexico (Veracruz, Tabasco and Campeche) is hypothesized in light of the African Diaspora to Mexico, and particularly to the Veracruz-Tabasco-Campeche region. Finally, working retrospectively with various Mexican popular culture texts or “popular culture sites” (food, cooling beverages, etc.), the regional history of rice in Mexico is reconstructed to include its West African parentage.
Rice belongs to the grass family and the genus Oryza (tribe Oryeae): “ The genus Oryza includes 20 wild species and two cultivated species. The wild species are widely distributed in the humid tropics and subtropics of Africa, Asia, Central and South America and Australia” (Chang 133). The two cultivated species are, the African Oryza glaberrima (red rice) and Oryza sativa native to Asia. Asian rice is the most common. With the advent of successful mechanized milling toward the end of the eighteenth century, the Asian variety gained prominence due to its sturdiness. African rice has to be milled by knowledgeable hands with mortar and pestle to obtain the desired whole grains (Carney, Black 125). Until recently, it was believed that African rice did not develop beyond the Niger Delta.
Noting that there are some molecular links missing in the evolutionary pathway of glaberrima, a 2005 study of the potential benefits of trait combinations of both species proposes, “It is believed that both the cultivated species may have evolved from an unknown common ancestor following a sequence from wild perennial to wild annual to cultivated annual ancestors” (Sarla 956). N. Sarla and B.P. Mallikarjuna Swamy explain, “The hypothesis of parallel lines of evolution of the two cultivated species has been confirmed by cytological studies;” and further elucidate, “Major portions of chromosomes of O. glaberrima could not be distinguished from those of O. sativa (956). It is well established that African Oryza glaberrima was cultivated in the Niger delta by Proto-Manding people since c. 1500 B.C.” (956).
Tracking African rice history, Judith Carney, the dean of Black rice in the Americas, states, “The techniques of rice production were vested in the knowledge carried by many African peoples to the Americas, particularly those enslaved from Senegal to the Ivory Coast which is home to the indigenous West African rice, Oriza glaberrima (“From Hands…” 1). Carney reveals further:
Enslaved West Africans brought an indigenous knowledge system that would establish rice as a subsistence and plantation crop over a broad region from South Carolina to tropical South America. With them, rice arrived in the Americas in the holds of slave ships, crossing over the ocean grave of the Middle Passage as provisions for its survivors. The cultivation, processing, and preparation of rice reveal a profound knowledge system brought to the Americas by those enslaved from West African rice-growing societies. (“Out of…” 204)
According to Carney, “Rice cultivation accompanied the forced settlement of African slaves to the western Atlantic throughout the early modern period;” and regarding Mexico notices, “In another prominent wetland area of the Americas—near Tabasco along Mexico’s Gulf Coast—a Spanish land grantee noted as early as 1579 the cultivation of rice ” (“Out of…” 219). The colonial source where Carney’s information originates is a 16th century Spanish report regarding Yucatan. In the sixteenth century, the Province of Tabasco was part of Yucatan. Said colonial source notes the planting of rice and millet in the sixteenth century and refers to natives and “negros” (Blacks) who use tobacco as medicine (Colección 368).
West Africans (Wolof, Fulani, Tukulor, Baga and Mandingo) represented 29 percent of the African population in Mexico by 1549 (Diouf 47). Wolof, Mandingo, Tukolor, and Fulani, among others, entered Mexico before 1580, classified as Cape Verde Blacks (Aguirre 106-123). In 1528, Africans accompanied Francisco de Montejo in his attempts to conquer Yucatan (Aguirre 19-20). The Maya repelled him. By 1530, Montejo had made a base in Tabasco just below Campeche. Montejo sought to “pacify” Yucatan from there. Champoton, Campeche was founded five years later in 1539. By 1559, rice was being exported from Campeche (Redondo 358).
As in other places of the Americas, African rice most likely arrived in Mexico in the holds of the ships that brought the West Africans above mentioned. To feed their human cargo, the Portuguese slave ships of the sixteenth century would load rice, “Rice proved so abundant along the West African coast that by 1480 Portuguese ships were purchasing the cereal for provisions, often from female traders” (Carney, “From Hands…” 12). Probable as well is that part of the gastronomy (foodstuffs and know-how) that precedes present “Mexican” rice, mole sauce, and aguas frescas [jamaica (roselle) and tamarindo (dakar)] originated in West Africa.
According to the Consejo Mexicano del Arroz (Mexican Rice Council),
toward 800 B.C.E., Asian rice acclimatized in the Near East and southern Europe. The Moors introduced it to Spain when they conquered it around the year 700 of our era. Later on, rice was propagated in Italy in the mid 15th century, in France, and after the epoch of the Great Discoveries, was implanted in all continents. (Arroz).
From this account, one is left to deduce that rice came to Mexico via Spain. This would at first appear logical; particularly where the current Spanish national dish is “Paella,” a rice–based dish connected to the Moors, flamenco dance, and the soulful singing style cante-hondo. What has been obscured is that the Moors, who introduced rice and rice cultivation to the Iberian Peninsula in the tenth century, were Muslim and part of the immense empire of Islam. The Spanish considered rice a pagan cereal unfit for Christian consumption until the nineteenth century. In 1943, Lois Olsen and Helen L. Eddy expose:
Two hundred years ago the “Kitab al-Felahah” or “Book of Agriculture” of Ibn-al-Awam was rediscovered in the Royal Spanish Library of San Lorenzo del Escorial and hailed as the greatest of all medieval treatises on agriculture. For hundreds of years this work had been completely lost to the Spanish farmers for whom it had been written in the latter half of the twelfth century of our era. Other European countries had never heard of Ibn-al-Awam. The earlier Roman agricultural writings, including those of Spanish born Columella, had been preserved in monastery libraries, but Ibn-al-Awam was a Moor. As long as the conflict between the Moors and the Christians remained fresh in their memories, church and state alike condemned everything Moorish, even their agricultural achievements. (100)
Ibn-al-Awam’s Book of Agriculture was translated from Arabic to Castillian Spanish in 1802 by José Antonio Banqueri (Awam). Until 1802 (or the 19th century), rice and rice agriculture were unknown to most Spaniards. Janet Mendel informs:
By the time of Valencia’s Reconquest in 1238, rice plantations were fairly widespread where water was abundant. After the expulsion of the Moors, with their irrigation know-how, rice growing went into decline and at times was even banned because it was believed to be a cause of the dread[ed] disease malaria. By the end of the 19th century, after the bans were lifted, rice cultivation picked-up. (120)
The Moors introduced rice and rice agriculture, among many other food and ornamental plants, to Europe in the 10th century (Van Sertima 10). It should be mentioned: “following the Moorish conquest of several Mediterranean islands as well as Spain beginning in 711, agricultural slavery spread to the Iberian Peninsula” (Lipski 14). African “Black slaves supplied by the Saharan trade were of course to be found in Iberia many centuries before the Portuguese discoveries; but the Valencian records first record a ‘natural of Gujneua’ (native of Guinea) in 1457” (Hair 129 n.4)
The Spanish did not adopt rice consumption and rice cultivation until the early nineteenth century. Modern “Spanish” paella, the current Spanish national dish par excellence did not emerge until the middle of the nineteenth century (Paella). Interestingly, the amazing similarity of paella and Wolof rice can be explained through the presence of thousands of enslaved Wolof people in Valencia between 1482-1516 (Hair 120). Ian I. Smart noted in 1996, “The dish enjoyed throughout West Africa and known as ‘Wolof rice’ is particularly dear to natives of The Gambia, some of whom consider it a national dish […] It is however, indistinguishable from the plato típico par excellence of Spain, namely, paella” (64).
According to the “Historia de la Paella,” (History of Paella) “Paella emerges in the rural zones of Valencia between the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries […,] the rice cultivation zone near the lake of the Albufera, with near certainty, may be said to be the exact place of origin of the dish.” This acquires special meaning in the light of the West African Wolof presence in Valencia in the fifteenth century; and the rice gastronomy and rice-cultivation that followed in the Americas, including Mexico, where the West African presence, among others, has been documented as influential as well.
To drive the point, one may look closer at the history of the planting of wheat in New Spain. The three grains of wheat planted by the freed African Juan Garrido were found in a sack of rice (Alegría 84); yet, wheat has received most of the attention and ink. Justo L. del Río Moreno and Lorenzo E. López y Sebastián have documented “the scant number of accredited farmers” in sixteenth century Mexico (34); and that wheat and meat were the most common food of the Spanish diet (35). The Spaniards, who arrived in Mexico in 1519, were Catholic wheat eaters; the First Nations people had maize. Rice in sixteenth century Mexico was for Africans. The history of rice, rice cultivation and gastronomy in Mexico, where Wolof, Fulani, Baga, and Tukolor, among other Africans, were present in sixteenth century Mexico will reveal, inter alia, the Mexican patterns of Africanization.
The patterns of Mexican Africanization can be delineated with the support of other African gastronomical practices and foodstuffs present such as the cooling beverages dakhar (tamarind) and bissap (roselle, grosella or jamaica) consumed today in Senegal as well as Mexico. In Mexico, the trilogy of national aguas frescas (cooling beverages) are: horchata, tamarindo and jamaica. In addition, just as in other places of the African Diaspora, Mexicans produce and enjoy candied fruits, roasted coconut cakes, peanut or other nut patties, fritters, stews thickened with nuts, meat “used sparingly and mainly for seasoning” (Harris 173).
The almost four-century-long period of the transatlantic slave trade was marked by a second trade in foodstuffs necessary for the enslaved Africans to survive their arduous and unspeakable journey. This survival was of prime importance to the traders, who were more sagacious about West African cultures and habits than many thought. James A. Rawley, in The Transatlantic Slave Trade, presents his observations, noting that captives from the Bight of Benin were accustomed to jams, while those from Windward and Gold Coasts were accustomed to rice. The newly enslave Africans were said to have ‘a good stomach for beans’” (Harris 173).
Thus, the story that the Spanish brought rice cultivation from the Iberian Peninsula is de-myth-ified. The Moors brought rice and rice cultivation to the Iberian Peninsula in the tenth century, but such a “Muslim” knowledge was not discovered by the Christian Spanish until the nineteenth century. The sixteenth century Spaniards who arrived to Mexico were interested in two European grains: wheat and barley.
The second most accepted story of the arrival of rice in Mexico and its current uses is articulated in the following quote of a 2001 thesis of the Escuela Superior de Turismo (Superior School of Tourism) of the Instituto Nacional Politécnico (National Polytechnic Institute):
Rice is a grain from Eastern Asia brought to Mexico from the Philippines at the start of the colonial period. Traditionally, in Mexico, rice is browned in oil or lard with onions, garlic and salt before boiling. There are various ways to prepare rice such as: white; red; black; yellow; Puebla style; jardinière; and tumbada (Veracruz style) rice. Rice is used also to accompany different stews, roasts, mole-sauces, and adobo-sauces. The proper cooking point, texture, and consistency is a true controversy among different families and regions. In Southeast Mexico, rice is made mainly white to accompany the main dish of the meal. In Mexico City and other parts of Central Mexico rice is usually cooked red [with tomatoes] and is served as a dry soup after the sopa aguada (broth-y soup), and before the main dish. It is common to add a fried egg to it, slices of banana and even mole sauce.
In other places of Mexico, rice is part of the main dish as rice with chicken or pork. In Oaxaca, rice flavored with chepil dry leaves is common. Rice is eaten also with minced chicken innards, oregano, chili and parsley; it is a rice dish for special occasions. Another festive rice is Party Stewed Rice: red rice with pieces of pork ribs, Serrano peppers, parsley, peas and oregano. White rice is eaten in Veracruz with slices of fried plantain; it is typical in all of the Sotavento region. (Frías 60-61)

The theory of the arrival of the first rice in Mexico from the Philippines falls short where the Philippines-Acapulco original contact did not occur until 1565 where rice cultivation in Tabasco is reported a quarter of a century earlier. Because navigation charts for the route had to be made, the first ship with Asian cargo did not arrive to Acapulco until 1573 when “one of the greatest commercial exchanges of the epoch” started (Galeón 93). The Philippines-Acapulco-Philippines trade lasted 242 years until 1815:
Manila was the center of a commercial route that brought products from China, Japan, the Pacific Islands, and even India. The typical cargo of the Manila Galleon or the Nao of China was: cloves, cinnamon, pepper, silk, velvet, satins, taffetas, rope, copra, Chinese ceramic, delicate gold works and precious stones, carved wood, amber, flour, swords, etc.; in exchange the Chinese asked for silver from New Spain, which they needed urgently for their commercial activities. (Galeón 93)
Indubitably, Asian rice was present in the Philippines and was used to feed the sailors in the Manila-Acapulco trade route. Unquestionable too is that Asians and others began entering Mexico through that route in the late sixteenth century. Gonzalo Aguirre Beltrán has recorded, “Acapulco, a small village, located in the mountainous coasts of the [Mexican] South Seas […] regularly received the visit of the China Galleon with goods and slaves from the Philippine islands” (49). The enslaved were not natives of the Philippines as explained by Aguirre,
From the time that Fernando de Magallanes reached the Philippines archipelago for the first time in 16 March 1521, until López de Legaspi conquered it for the Spanish crown in 1565, numerous expeditions were formed to reach the Spice Islands. The Spanish, once established in Manila, followed the norms established in Mexico for the treatment of the natives; this means that the natives were exploited in encomiendas and repartimientos but not sold as slaves. There were prohibitions passed in this respect […] a few Indians from the Philippines were taken enslaved to New Spain. (49)
Manila had been the center of Eastern Trade long before the Europeans’ arrival, and people and slaves from all over Asia and Indonesia concurred in Manila yearly; “When López de Legaspi took Manila from the Zulu Moors he acquired the slave trade rights” (Aguirre 50). Toward the end of the 16th century, a Spanish galleon destined for New Spain began to leave Manila loaded with slaves and merchandise. The ship unloaded its products in Acapulco and returned to Manila with silver from the Mexican mines. Mexican silver was greatly appreciated by the sangleyes, the name given at the time to Chinese merchants.
The Spanish preferred not to live in Acapulco. Due to its inhospitable climate and environs, mainly Africans and their offspring populated colonial Acapulco from mid sixteenth century onward. Aguirre mentions that Philippine slaves were sent to New Spain by López de Legaspi. They received their freedom in the seventeenth century and founded a borough in Acapulco, “They called themselves Philippino Indians, but among them there were many mulattoes. This allows one to suppose that they were not exclusively natives of the archipelago, but from many other places of the Orient” (Aguirre 50). Most of the enslaved that arrived in Acapulco from Philippines “came under individual contracts” (Aguirre 50). An unknown number of enslaved East Africans entered Mexico via Acapulco classified as “chinos,” or people whose bloodline was nevertheless perceived as tainted by inferior (Non-European) blood, especially African.
In 1745, Spanish crown census maker Joseph Antonio de Villaseñor y Sánchez noted in his report, “There are no Indians in [Acapulco…], there are only four hundred families of chinos, mulattoes and blacks” (171). “Chinos” in this context is short for “cochinos” (pigs), people who are perceived as Afro-descendants and therefore carriers of Black “tainted” blood. In Mexico during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the name “chino” referred to the offspring of Black and Indian, “mulatto and chino were synonyms” (Aguirre 179).
Within the Mexican rice cultivation and gastronomy context, the above recounting of the history of the Asia-Mexico trade is of fundamental importance as well to help disentangle the confusion created by the misinterpretation and mistranslation of the term “chino” which did not mean “Chinese.” The “chinos” recorded in most Spanish colonial documents, as mentioned, are the offspring of people of the Original Nations and Africans. Thus, the version that rice was first brought to Mexico from Asia is not substantiated.
The Spanish lacked a cultural interest in rice; but they understood that rice was a cultural staple of West Africans. Rice agriculture and consumption in Mexico is recorded alongside Africans decades before the onset of the Acapulco-Philippines trade. Moreover, beyond rice cultivation, Mexican rice gastronomy reveals patterns of cooking and consumption similar to those found in Valencia and the Americas where West Africans, from the African Rice Coast, were present.
Logic dictates that West Africans were among the sixteenth century Africans taken (by the Spaniards) over the land from Veracruz to colonize and settle Acapulco. The likelihood that African rice came with them to Acapulco and the region must be contemplated. A call is made to academicians from all disciplines to engage in the serious and systematic study of Mexico’s kinships with the various nations of Africa. A few grains of Oryza glaberrima excavated by anthropologists from 16th century Mexican sites would provide further clues and directions toward recovering our African memory.
The cultural impact of West Africa in Mexico is yet to be officially recognized. Most of the African contributions and influences, as is the case of rice cultivation and gastronomy, have been wrongly assigned European, Asian, Hindu or when nothing else works “Arab” origins, (The Moor legacies are whitened with the name “Arab.” The Black Berbers called Moors (Van Sertima 4) were Arabic-speaking people; whereas the Arabs were a small minority of Islam). Consider this:
six basic preparation techniques that can arguably be extended to much of West Africa and are assumed to have been known to West Africans before Columbus. They are: boiling in water; steaming in leaves; frying in deep oil; toasting beside the fire (this can also be described as grilling); roasting in the fire; and baking in ashes” to this one can add “seven culinary tendencies that traveled from West Africa to the Americas and are emblematic of African-inspired cooking in the hemisphere. They are: the preparation of composed rice dishes; the creation of various types of fritters; the use of smoked ingredients for flavoring; the use of okra as a thickener; the abundant use of leafy green vegetables and the consumption of the ‘pot lickker;’ the abundant use of peppery and spicy hot sauces and condiments; and the use of nuts, beans (such as peanuts, which are beans not nuts), and seeds as thickeners. (Harris 172-3)
An important portion of the above can easily be detected in Mexican gastronomy and may be attributed, in part, to the pre-Columbian Mexican Indigenous origins. The point to underline is that current popular Mexican and West African palates possess amazing similarities in the ways that rice is prepared and enjoyed. Many West African and Mexican dishes and table sauces are red hot. This reveals cultural texts from both sides of the Atlantic with a series of incontestable affinities.
Let us compare for instance Jollof rice and Arroz a la mexicana; both are national cultural texts with characteristics that reveal deep-rooted affiliations. Jollof rice is one of the most popular dishes in West Africa; the common ingredients are: lean beef or chicken; salt and ground white pepper; vegetable oil for frying; stock or (water with crushed stock cubes); finely chopped onions; peeled and finely chopped garlic; finely chopped chilies (hot peppers); blanched, peeled and blended or mashed tomatoes; and tomato paste, assorted chopped vegetables, e.g. carrots, green beans, mushrooms and capsicums (sweet or bell peppers); long-grain rice; lettuce, parsley or fresh coriander (cilantro) and hard-boiled eggs to garnish. The cooking directions are:
Heat oil in fry pan and fry the meat or chicken pieces until brown. Remove meat from oil and add to the stock in a large, heavy-based saucepan. Simmer on low heat until meat begins to soften, and then remove from heat. Drain excess oil from fry pan leaving enough oil to fry onions, garlic and chilies (hot peppers) until golden. Add tomatoes, tomato paste, half the combined vegetables and stock from the meat mixture. Stir well, adjust seasoning and simmer on low heat for 5-7 minutes. Add this vegetable sauce to the meat mixture in the saucepan and simmer gently. Finally, stir in the uncooked, long-grain rice. Arrange the remaining vegetables on top of the rice and continue to simmer until the rice absorbs all the stock, softens and cooks, and the meat is tender. Serve hot, garnished with chopped lettuce, parsley or fresh coriander (cilantro) and hard-boiled eggs. (Hafner)
Arroz a la mexicana (or red rice) is one of the most popular ways to prepare and enjoy rice in Mexico and southwest United States that has a large “Hispanic” population. The common ingredients are: ripe tomatoes; chicken broth, olive oil; chopped onion; finely diced carrots; minced garlic; medium-grain rice; salt; bay leaf (some recipes use cumin and cilantro); serrano chile; and fresh or frozen peas. Mexican rice is served as a sopa seca (dry soup) before the main dish, or to accompany chicken, fish, beef or other stews. The cooking directions are:
Cut the tomatoes in half, and remove the seeds. Add the tomatoes and 2 cups of broth to a blender and puree. Strain into a bowl and reserve the liquid. Add enough extra broth to make 4 cups of liquid. In a large saucepan, heat the oil over medium-high heat. Add the onion and carrots and saute for 4 minutes until the onion is translucent. Add the garlic and saute for 1 minute. Stir in the rice and cook until slightly toasted, about 3 minutes. Add the tomato broth mixture, stir and bring to boil. Add the salt, bay leaf, and the serrano chile. Reduce the heat, cover and simmer until the rice is tender, about 20 minutes. Remove the pan from heat. Scatter the peas over the top of the rice, cover, and let the rice stand 5 minutes. Fluff the rice with a fork, transfer to a serving bowl and serve. For a deeper colored rice, stir in 2 tablespoons of tomato paste when adding the salt, bay leaf and serrano chile. (Foolproof)
Arroz a la tumbada (Veracruz style rice) is another popular Mexican rice dish related to Jollof rice. The ingredients and preparation of Arroz a la tumbada follow:
vegetable oil; washed and dried medium grain rice; peeled and chopped onion; peeled and minced garlic cloves; roasted, seeded, peeled and liquefied Roma tomatoes; fish stock; 1-in. pieces of raw fish fillets; shelled and de-veined raw shrimp; octopus chopped and cooked; soft-shell crabs; scrubbed clams; and chopped parsley. Arroz a la tumbada is normally prepared as follows:
In a clay cazuela or heavy-bottomed pot, heat the […] oil. Add the rice, onion and garlic and cook, stirring frequently, until the rice is just turning golden. Add the liquefied tomatoes and cook until they are nearly absorbed by the rice. Add the fish stock, fish fillets, shrimp, octopus, crabs and clams. Bring to a boil, lower heat, cover tightly and simmer until the liquid is absorbed. Remove lid, sprinkle with chopped parsley, bring the cazuela to the table and serve from it. (Arroz)
Paella a la mexicana is another foundational cultural text performed in the corridor Veracruz-Mexico City. With some variations, its main ingredients include: rice, saffron, olive oil, chicken and chicken stock, pork, bacon, chorizo sausages, clams, shrimp, crabs, fish stock, artichokes, green beans, peas, carrots, olives, pimentos, onions, and garlic. Alavarado, Tlacotalpan, Mandinga, El Conchal, Boca del Río, are a few of the Port of Veracruz meccas of Paella a la mexicana. In Mexico City, one can find the best paella performed throughout the city. If this dish was a musical piece, it would be possible to detect the African rhythms that through its appearance, consistency, aroma, flavor, and others communicate a story (just like the Son musical complex in Latin America and Rhythm Blues in USA do) as one of the most creative and beautiful responses to the African-Mexican experience, unique among its sister cultures, but yet an African offspring.
Particularly in the Bajio, Central and Southern Mexico, South Pacific and Gulf regions rice is served as part of the main meal of the day. Comidas corridas (set menu) in Mexico City include a sopa aguada (liquid soup), a dry soup (rice or pasta), a stew, beans, and agua fresca (cold drinks made of: rice, tamarind, roselle, watermelon, pineapple, cantaloupe, etc.). Rice may be added to Caldos (broth-y beef, chicken, lamb or fish soups). In most Mexican recipes, rice is browned in vegetable or animal fat and then a sofrito (a mixture of lightly fried onions and garlic, usually with tomatoes and other vegetables, used as a base for soups and stews) is added before the animal or vegetable broth that will be absorbed to flavor the rice. Rice is also served as a dessert (arroz con leche), or as a cold drink (horchata). As a dessert, rice is cooked in milk with cinnamon, raisins and sugar (with some variations). As a drink, rice is cooked with milk, water and cinnamon. Once cooked is pureed and strained. Sugar, milk and water are added to taste.
The direct connections of rice gastronomy between Mexico and West Africa are unavoidable. As discussed earlier, rice did not become part of the Spanish diet until the nineteenth century. First Nations people did not know rice, onions, garlic, cilantro, cumin, carrots, peas and frying. The First Nations may not have known of chickens either. Rice however, was a staple in the diet of a large portion of the West Africans brought from the Senegal-Gambia-Guinea (African Rice Coast) region to New Spain in the sixteenth century. The West Africans knew onions, garlic, chicken, cilantro, carrots, peas, and the making of sofrito. West Africans have adopted from the Americas peanuts, tomatoes, corn, cacao, chilies, avocados, corn, and pineapples, among others.
During the post-Columbian exchange (a two-way avenue) other West African traditions arrived in Mexico (and other places of the Americas) during the colonial period and became part of the current Mexican national gastronomy, and gastronomies of other American nations where the African influence has been studied and accepted. The popular comidas corridas (set menu) mentioned above are traditionally accompanied by one of the national trilogy of aguas frescas (cold drinks): horchata de arroz (rice sweet drink), jamaica (roselle), or tamarindo (tamarind). The following histories of roselle and tamarind may complement and be parallel to the history of African rice in Mexico:
The Cambridge World History of Food reports that roselle is,
Probably a native of West Africa (it is a close relative of okra), roselle (Hisbiscus sabdariffa) is also called “rozelle,” “Indian sorrel,” “red sorrel,” “Jamaican sorrel,” and just plain “sorrel.” The young shoots and leaves of the plant are eaten raw or as a cooked vegetable, and the flowers {actually the calyx), which constitute the main reason for the cultivation of roselle, are used to make beverages, jellies, sauces, preserves and chutneys. Roselle was introduced in Brazil in the seventeenth century but may have reached the West Indies even earlier—both of these introductions occurring via the slave trade. (1844-5)
Regarding tamarind, the same source dubiously states:
The tamarind, a basic ingredient in Worcestershire sauce, has a Latin name (Tamrindus indica) that certainly suggests an Indian origin, but East Africa also claims the plant. Its name, which comes from the Arabic, tamar-bindi, means “Indian date.” The tamarind has been cultivated since ancient times in India, where it retains a place in formal Hindu ceremonies. It must have reached Europe sometime before the Spaniards moved into the Americas, because they carried the plant to the West Indies and Mexico. (1865)
The California Rare Fruit Growers inform, “The tamarind is a native to tropical Africa and grows wild throughout the Sudan [region]. It was introduced into India so long ago, it has been reported as indigenous there also. […] Sometime during the sixteenth century it was introduced into America and today is widely grown in Mexico.” The Encyclopedia of Fruits and Nuts reports, “Other theories suggest tamarind originated in various locations in Africa including Madagascar and Central and East African countries” (400).
“N’dakar” in Wolof, a language of the Niger-Congo family spoken in Senegal, Mali and Gambia currently, means “tamarind tree.” The connections between the origin of the tree and fruit and its specific usage as a cooling beverage in Mexico and West Africa, and not in Spain, should not be dismissed; particularly where tamarind drink and roselle drink are two of the three national cooling drinks of Mexico. The third one is horchata de arroz (rice drink). Thus, the relationships between West Africans in Mexico in the sixteenth century and rice, roselle and tamarind gastronomical usages in Mexican national gastronomy may be viewed in conjunction with other Mexican foodstuffs and food practices as having profound West African roots.
Under the light of the foregoing, the conspicuous similarities between Mexican “Mole Poblano” and Senegalese Mafe (a type of mole served and eaten in an ample bed of rice) need to be studied. The author of the present work learned of Mafe for the first time during his visit to Dakar in December 2010. West African rice, rice cultivation and rice gastronomy arrived in the sixteenth century to Mexico along with the Wolof, Fulani, Tukolor, Baga, and other West Africans brought to New Spain at the onset of the Spanish colonial period. This is also supported by the four sources cited in the first paragraph of this study where rice cultivation is reported in 1539. Although mostly enslaved, these Africans did not come void of cultural knowledge and empty handed as has been narrated in the official histories of Mexico, and elsewhere.

(Please see after the bibliography pictures of food items referred to in this essay).
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Senegalese Mafe with white rice.

Wolof rice with Chicken


Jollof rice with veggies

Wolof rice AKA “Benachin”

Bissap Drink (Jamaica in Mexico)


Dakhar drink (Tamarindo in Mexico)

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