Vodou is a religion that fascinates me. Unlike the possession of the cheerleader in “Jennifer’s Body”, the spirits that Vodou practitioners commune with are very different.
Those spirits are known as Lwa, and are believed to be spirits of the dead who have been elevated to a saintly level, acting as emissaries and intermediaries for God. Followers of Vodou, called Vodouisants, often call upon the Lwas for help and offer them food in exchange.
Thus enters another one of my favorite cookbooks, Feeding the Lwas: A Vodou Cookbook by Amy Sumida. Amy explains the relationship this way. “It is a symbiotic relationship; they need our help to stay strong and we need their help with the troubles that life brings. They still possess the personalities they had when they were alive and with those personalities come likes and dislikes. When we serve the Lwa, and it is service not worship, we give them their favorite foods, wear their favorite colors, observe their sacred days through Vodou ceremonies, etc. The Lwa, in turn, serve us. They bring us material blessings, physical well being, protection, abundance, etc. Without us the Lwa would not exist, and without them we would cease to exist as well.”
The fascinating thing she points out is that different Lwas have different tastes. So finding the right meal to prepare and serve to a Lwa, depending on whose help you seek, is very important. You not only want to find their favorite dish, but you certainly do not want to offend them.
It turns out that there is at least one dish that they can all agree on: Red Beans and Rice. How could they not? It is simple yet hearty, easy to make, and a familiar staple dish for everyone.
Serves: 6 to 8
Makes: About 6 cups of beans and 3 cups of rice
To soak the beans
1 lb dried red kidney beans
Water to cover the beans
To cook the beans
2 cups of chicken stock (or one 14 oz can chicken broth/stock
7 cups water
1 ham hock (optional, but SO worth it)
To cook the fixins’
3 Tbsp vegetable oil
1 large onion, diced (about 2 cups)
1 bell pepper, chopped (about 1 cup)
4 ribs celery, chopped (about 1 cup)
3 to 6 garlic cloves, minced
1 1/4 cups fully cooked sausage, chopped
2 tsp salt, divided
3/4 tsp ground black pepper, divided
1 tsp paprika
1/2 tsp cayenne pepper
To cook the rice
3 Tbsp butter
1 1/2 cups long-grain white rice
1 bay leaf
1/2 tsp dried thyme
3 cups water
pinch of salt and pepper
- Large stock pot with a lid
- Large saucepan with a lid
- Put the red beans into your pot and then add enough water to cover the beans by about two inches. Bring this to boiling and boil for about 3 minutes.
- Remove the pot from the heat and cover with a lid. Let the beans soak for at least an hour.
- Drain the beans and rinse with clean water. Return beans to the pot and add the chicken stock and water. If you have a ham hock, add that, too. Bring this to a boil, then simmer at medium-low heat for another hour.
- Drain the beans, but this time save 2 cups of the cooking liquid. Set the beans aside in your colander/strainer. If you added a ham hock, take the meat off the bone (assuming it didn’t just fall off the bone) and keep that with the beans, but discard the bone.
- To your pot, add the oil and bring your heat up to medium-high. Add the Cajun Holy Trinity, aka the chopped onion, bell pepper, and celery. Sauté until onions turn transparent, about 5 minutes.
- Add the garlic and sausage, reducing the heat to medium, and cook for another 10 minutes.
- Bring the beans (and ham) back into the mix, as well as the reserved cooking stock. Add the salt and spices. Simmer over low heat until the liquid thickens up, about 15 minutes. Remove from heat and allow the beans, veggies, and meat to just get to know each other really well.
- In a large saucepan, melt the butter over medium heat. Then add the rice, bay leaf, and thyme and cook for about 3 to 5 minutes. This gives the rice a hearty, nutty flavor that you and the Lwas will love, I guarantee, ma chère!
- Add the water, salt and pepper to the rice, and bring just to boiling over high heat. Cover with a lid and reduce heat to low and simmer until the water is absorbed, about 20 to 25 minutes.
- Remove the rice from the heat and keep it covered for about 10 minutes.
- Regarding serving, I have seen beans on rice, rice on beans, and even beans and rice side by side. Does it matter? Probably not. Just serve the Lwa first. It’s only polite.
When preparing this recipe, do not skimp or cheat on the ingredients. You are feeding the spirits here. Best to make this from scratch. In fact, cooking is part of the communion. Think of it like an offering on the fire, with the smells, smoke, and ash rising to the heavens. This is why the kitchen and hearth are so vital to the home.
You can use what you have on hand, of course. Canned chicken broth is fine, naturally. Not everyone makes their own broth. Dry beans on the other hand are not that hard to cook and are much cheaper and healthier when cooked at home rather than dumped from a can.
As my wife is allergic to garlic, the only substitution we made was to skip the garlic altogether. I’m sure our Lwas know how she reacts and would not want her to be sick over an offering. Instead, we did use some of our homemade chicken stock and a ham hock to make up for it.
To make this as a Vodouisant from New Orleans would, I would suggest Andouille sausage. However, since Voudou is a migratory religion, I’m sure any sausage will work fine.
This dish is meant to be shared. However much you provide as a portion for yourself, that is how much you should offer to the Lwa.
Red beans and rice is more than a staple, it is a home-cooked meal, made with hearth and heart. It is a meal unto itself, but makes a fine side dish as well.