Wednesday, June 15, 2022

Smoked Chicken with African Spice Rub

The creative process at Chef Bolek is rather unique, as this recipe demonstrates. I recently saw some really good friends were at Walt Disney World. They just noted that they were getting ready to go to Animal Kingdom, which happens to be probably my favorite park (although Epcot is probably a close second because of all of the international pavilions). Whenever we visited Animal Kingdom, we would usually end up at a restaurant at the Animal Kingdom lodge. That restaurant is Boma, which serves up a buffet of African foods that I would just gorge upon every time we went there. Thinking about my friends being there got me to thinking I should make something influenced by African flavors. That brought about this recipe and this blog post ... Smoked Chicken with African Spice Rub. 

As with any Chef Blog post, there is a larger question. That question revolves around the rub. What exactly is an "African Spice Rub" or, put differently, what makes the spice rub "African"? 

Let's start with what exactly is an African Spice rub? Many people would probably answer that question with Ras en Hanout, Harissa or Baharat. Those are African spice rubs, but they originate in northern Africa.  Others may answer the question with Berbere (which happens to be one of my all-time favorite spice rubs). That spicy rub comes from the Horn of Africa. Indeed, much of the talk around "African" spice rubs focuses on blends that come from those two regions. Don't get me wrong, they are African rubs. But there is a lot more of Africa than the Maghreb or the Horn.

It is that simple point that becomes the focus of my thoughts. What are some sub-Saharan spice rubs? Truth be told, I have already dabbled in at least one of those rubs, the iconic Suya. I have made a version of the rub from both Ghana and Nigeria. (The Rago Suya from Nigeria stands as perhaps my favorite kebab to make.)  The key to that spice mix is the use of peanuts, along with ginger and chiles.

There are no peanuts in this recipe. Instead, it draws from other spices that can be found across the continent. These spices include mustard, fennel seeds, fenugreek and, of course peppers. I decided to use this recipe on a chicken that was destined for the smoker.  However, while the recipe called for the temperature of the smoker to be somewhere between 225 and 250 degrees Fahrenheit, I decided to smoke it at a higher temperature - around 300 degrees. It cooked a lot faster, but I thought it would be a little more reminiscent of street food. (To be truly reminiscent, I should have probably just grilled it, but I went for something in-between smoking and grilling.)

In the end, this recipe was a success. The spice mix actually shined through the smoke, with the fennel seeds - along with the pepper - clearly making its presence felt. This recipe will have me spending more time trying to answer what makes a spice rub African. Until next time ...


Spice rub recipe adapted from Food Fidelity

Serves 2-4

Ingredients (for the spice rub):

  • 3 tablespoons smoked paprika (or regular paprika)
  • 2 tablespoons dark brown sugar
  • 1 tablespoon kosher salt
  • 1 tablespoon ground black pepper
  • 1/2 tablespoon ground mustard
  • 1/2 tablespoon fennel seeds
  • 1/2 tablespoon fenugreek
  • 1/2 teaspoon dried red pepper flakes

Ingredients (for the chicken):

  • 1 whole chicken (between 3-4 pounds), spatchcocked
  • 1/2 cup apple cider
  • 3-4 chunks of oak wood (soaked for 1 hour in advance)


1. Prepare the spice rub. If you are using ground spices, combine all of the ingredients together well. If you are using whole seeds, lightly toast the mustard, fennel and fenugreek seeds in a skillet over medium heat. Remove once you small the aroma. Place the seeds in a spice grinder and coarsely grind.  Add the ground spices to a bowl and mix with the remaining seasonings and sugar. 

2. Marinate the chicken. Apply the spice rub to all sides of the chicken, both on the skin and underneath it. Refrigerate the chicken for at least four hours or overnight.

3. Smoke the chicken. Prepare the smoker and get the temperature to at least 225 to 250 degrees Fahrenheit. Add the chicken and then the wood for smoking. Cook the chicken until it reaches an internal temperature of 165 degrees Fahrenheit in the thighs. Spray the chicken breasts with the apple cider every twenty minutes after the first hour of cooking. 


Tuesday, June 7, 2022

Ghanaian Crab Stew

"If you give me rice, I'll eat today. If you teach me how to grow rice, I will eat every day.

-- Mahatma Gandhi

Knowledge comes from learning and experience. If one would trace the origins of how to grow rice, that educational journey would take them most likely to Asia, where it is believed that rice cultivation first emerged between 13,500 to 8,000 years ago in the Yangtze basin of what is now China. However, rice cultivation emerged independently in other areas of the world. For example, rice cultivation emerged in western Africa approximately 3,500 to 3,000 years ago in what is known as the Niger River delta. 

Rice is an important staple food in many parts of Africa. It is grown in 40 of the 54 countries on the continent. From Roz 'me ammar served in Egypt to Geelrys served in South Africa, or from Thieboudienne served in Senegal to Wali ka kukaanga served in Kenya, rice can be found in countless dishes prepared in an equally countless number of ways. Underlying it all is one more basic fact: rice not only provides needed nourishment, it also provides income. After all, rice is the principal crop for more than 35 million small farmers across the continent.

Source: BBC
Yet, as you can probably guess, rice is not simply a chapter in the story of African cuisine, it plays a significant role in cuisines around the world, including the United States. In the U.S., there are really two stories about rice, each with their own perspective. The first story revolves around the native rice or wild rice, which served as a staple food for native Americans. The second story revolves around white rice. It is that story that I want to explore a little further in this post.

As I did my research, I struck by the following phrase: "Enterprising colonists were the first to cultivate rice in America." It is part of a story that supposedly started in 1685, when a slave ship from Madagascar unloaded a load of white rice (what would become known as Carolina Gold rice) at the port in Charleston, South Carolina. This story - which has been repeated multiple times on the internet - suggests that white people brought this rice (along with slaves) to the New World. 

Source: US Slave
The foregoing words do not necessarily tell the story. White rice is not native to the United States. It had to come from somewhere else. Contrary to the popular story, some scientists believe that the rice did not originate from eastern Africa.  Instead, the rice shares an overwhelming number of common molecular markers with rice from Ghana, which is located in western Africa. It is also located in a region where many slaves were taken and shipped to the New World. The region, which runs from present day Guinea-Bissau to at least Cote d'Ivoire, was known as the Rice Coast. It is also the region where at least 50,000 Africans were forcibly taken and shipped to the New World as slaves. More Africans were taken from areas that constitute the present day countries of Ghana and Benin.  These facts and suggest that rice may have come -- with the slaves -- to the shores of the Carolinas during the sixteenth century. 

To be sure, this research is ongoing and even it cannot be said with definitiveness. Nevertheless, it seems beyond debate that Africans played an important role in bringing rice to the New World. This recipe, which is from culinary historian and writer Michael Twitty, ties together the foodways of both the new and the old worlds. 

Mark Bittman penned a wonderful article about Twitty, which included this recipe for Ghanaian Crab Stew. Bittman describes the stew as, not only one of the simpler stews to make, but "a bright stew representing what one might find in a Cape Coast market." This is definitely one of the brighter and simpler stews to make. And, it is also one of the more delicious stews that I have made in a long time. 


Recipe by Michael Twitty, available at Bittman Project

Serves 4

Ingredients (for the Stew)

  • 1 medium yellow onion or 6 scallions, green and white parts, minced
  • 1 habanero pepper, seeded and minced
  • 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 2 medium tomatoes, peeled and chopped
  • 1 green or red bell pepper, seeded and diced
  • 1 pound cooked blue crab meat
  • 2 teaspoons minced ginger or ginger paste
  • 2 teaspoons minced garlic or garlic paste
  • 1/2 teaspoon of Kitchen Pepper (click here for recipe)
  • 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 3/4 cup of vegetable, chicken or beef stock
  • Parsley, chopped, for garnish
  • 4 cups cooked, long-grain rice, for serving
1. Sauté the vegetables.  In a medium bowl, mix the onion and habanero.  Heat the oil in a large Dutch oven over medium high heat, add the onion and peppers, and cook for 5-7 minutes, until soft.  Add the tomatoes and bell pepper to the pan.  Sauté, stirring frequently, until the tomatoes begin to soften and break down, about 10 minutes. 

2. Cook the crab.  Flake the crab meat into the pan and add the ginger, garlic, kitchen pepper, salt and stock.  Stir, turn the heat down low and simmer, uncovered, for about 15 minutes, stirring occasionally.  

3.  Finish the dish. Remove the stew from the heat. Garnish the stew with chopped parsley and serve with rice. 


Wednesday, June 1, 2022

In Search of Orange Gold: Part 5 - To the Kitchen

Over the course of this blog post series, I have undertaken a long journey that began long before there was an Old Bay seasoning, the State of Maryland, and even the United States. The journey began with the first nations and later the colonists, who introduced certain spices into the area. They used those ingredients, such as allspice and mace, to add flavor to recipes, especially ones involving the local seafood. Fast forward a century or so, and the story changes as a German immigrant and his spice grinder reach the city of Baltimore. That immigrant, Gustav Brunn, opened his spice business near a popular seafood market and eventually created the blend that would become Old Bay. I even focused on the ingredients in the Old Bay mix, pouring through books and searching the Internet to learn about each and every ingredient. I have reached the point where I must put down the books, close the research tabs on my browser, and actually go to the kitchen to apply what I have learned. In other words, it is time to actually try to make Old Bay seasoning ... from scratch.

The real stuff ...

This effort faces two hurdles, one created by Gustav Brunn and another created by myself. As to the first hurdle, as you may recall from the previous post in this series, Brunn created the Old Bay seasoning using 18 different herbs and spices. Only 15 of those ingredients have been identified with any degree of certainty. Those ingredients are: (1) allspice, (2) black pepper, (3) cloves, (4) mace, (5) mustard, (6) nutmeg, (7) paprika, (8) celery seeds, (9) salt, (10) celery salt, (11) bay leaves, (12) crushed red pepper, (13) white pepper, (14) cardamom and (15) cinnamon.

That leaves 3 mystery ingredients. In many ways, I think that is  exactly what Brunn intended. The spice business was surely competitive, with many proprietary blends and mixes. If one could come up with a popular mix, there was money to be made selling it at the markets, both to other sellers and customers. Of course, success also garners attention, especially from potential competitors. Brunn did not want others copying -- or worse, improving (if that could be done) -- his spice mix.  For that reason, he chose ingredients that people would not think of when it came to a seafood spice blend. He also held his recipe close, not ensuring that not all of its ingredients would become public knowledge. 

... up close.

Needless to say, I wanted to see if I could figure out the three remaining mystery ingredients. I pulled out my copy of The Flavor Bible. I created a chart with all fifteen ingredients on one side. I then began looking for the most compatible herbs and spices with each of those ingredients. A list of candidates began to emerge, and, it soon grew to be almost as large as the original 15 ingredients. In the end, my rudimentary analysis produced 14 possible herbs or spices that could complement the ingredients of Old Bay. These ingredients include anise, caraway, chervil, coriander, cumin, fennel seeds, garlic, ginger, oregano, rosemary, sage, star anise, thyme, and turmeric. 

Some of these candidates are easily disqualified. For example, turmeric was out because it turns everything into a golden yellow color. I could also rule out anise, fennel seeds, and cumin because both spices have rather unique aromatic and taste elements that usually stand out, even when mixed with other ingredients. Rosemary and sage also have a lot of volume and would be readily noticeable, even when blended together with other herbs and spices. And, there were some, like caraway and chervil, that matched only a couple of the ingredients that we already know are in Old Bay. Based on the foregoing observations, I was able to narrow the field down by more than half. 

The remaining contenders were coriander, garlic, ginger, oregano, thyme and star anise. Of these six, the top three ingredients -- meaning the three that had the strongest matches with what was already in the Old Bay blend -- were coriander, ginger and garlic. (Cumin was tied with garlic in third overall, but, as noted above, the strong aroma and taste of cumin would be noticeable, even if small amounts are used.) Each of these ingredients makes sense in its own way. Coriander has a nutty or citrusy smell, which would work with the other ingredients. Ginger seems like an ingredient that Brunn would choose because it is something that one would not necessarily think to use in a spice blend that goes on top of blue crabs. And, garlic is, well, garlic. 

Gustav Brunn's spice grinder. 
One last challenge, Brunn owned and operated a spice company. When he created Old Bay, he most likely started with whole spices, using the spice grinder that he brought with him after escaping Nazi Germany. It seems only proper that in trying to recreate Old Bay that I would use as many whole spices as possible. 

Adjustments need to be made when one goes from using ground spices to whole spices. According to Epicurious, a teaspoon of larger spices such as allspice, cumin, fennel or juniper berries will provide approximately 3/4s of a teaspoon of ground spice. Smaller spices, such as celery seed, usually provide about 1 teaspoon of ground spice for 1 teaspoon of whole spice. Still other spices - such as cardamom and coriander - have a one teaspoon of whole spices equaling 1/2 teaspoon of ground spice.  In sum, I need to figure out the proportions spice by spice. I undertook this task for each of the spices that I had in whole form. Even though I used whole spices, I have left the measurements as they should be for ground spices. I have noted the whole spices that I used with an asterisk (*).

In the end,  I prepared what I thought could be reminiscent of the Old Bay seasoning. Once I finished mixing the ingredients, I immediately noticed that I did not have the right color. I don't know how Gustav Brunn (or McCormick Foods) gets that bright orange color, but I could not recreate it in my kitchen. (The only thing I could think of - which I know is not possible - is to mix a little turmeric which the paprika hoping that the yellow and red would produce an orange color.) 

As for the taste, I think I came much closer to the real thing. The large amount of salt, along with celery salt, helped in that regard. However, I noticed more bay leaf in my mix than in the traditional Old Bay. This stronger sense of bay leaf may be because I did not grind the leaves finely enough or it may be that five leaves are too much. The next time I try to make my own Old Bay-style seasoning I will probably make some adjustments in that regard. As for the three ingredients that I added (coriander, ginger, and garlic), none of those really shone through. The reason lies with the amount used, which I kept at 1/8 of a teaspoon.

The final verdict is that, for my first effort, this was a fairly decent attempt to recreate an Old Bay-style spice mix with 18 ingredients. I will continue my work (when I have the time) to refine this recipe further.


Recipe adapted from The Daring Gourmet


  1.      1/8 teaspoon ground allspice*
  2.      1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper*
  3.      1/16 teaspoon ground cloves*
  4.      1/8 teaspoon ground mace
  5.      1 teaspoon ground dry mustard*
  6.      1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg
  7.      2 teaspoons sweet paprika
  8.      1 tablespoon celery seed
  9.      3/4 tablespoon salt
  10.      3/4 tablespoon celery salt
  11.      5 bay leaves
  12.      1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes*
  13.      1/2 teaspoon freshly ground white pepper
  14.      1/8 teaspoon ground cardamom
  15.      1/8 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  16.      1/8 teaspoon ground ginger
  17.      1/8 teaspoon ground coriander*
  18.      1/8 teaspoon garlic powder


Combine all of the spices together. Store in an airtight container.

*    *    *

Now that I have attempted to make an Old Bay style seasoning, it would seem that my search has come to an end. That may not necessarily be the case. Who knows? There may be a second series where I explore the use of Old Bay as an ingredient in making dishes (as opposed to simply dumping it on crabs). Only time will tell. Until then ...