Calas, calas! Belles calas! Touts chaude, madame.
Such went the cry of the calas street vendors in New Orleans. It means: calas, calas, beautiful calas, very hot.
If you haven’t heard of these fritters prepared with leftover rice, you’re not alone. When New Orleans chef, cookbook author and Slow Food New Orleans leader, Poppy Tooker, recently asked a roomful of people at Lola’s on Harrison in Hollywood if they knew what a beignet was, most of the hands in the room went up. When she asked the same about the calas only three people raised their hands. And I’ll confess I wasn’t one of them.
Tooker was speaking at a Slow Food Glades to Coast brunch where she demonstrated her calas recipe and told the story of a dish that arrived to New Orleans “in the minds and hearts of the enslaved people of Africa” and later nearly disappeared.
“The calas vendors were around the streets of New Orleans till about World War II,” she said. “They probably disappeared in World War II because of food rationing and after the war they didn’t come back. After the World War, if you were to know about the calas you had to have it as a tradition in your family.”
The calas weren’t a tradition in Tooker’s family. She learned how to make it from chef Leon Soniat in the 80s when she was running a cooking school in New Orleans. After what she describes as a life-changing moment, she set out to “save the cala.” Tooker prepared the dish for the first-ever Swamp Festival at the Audubon Zoo and after her first customer took a bite, he came back with tears in his eyes.
“He said to me, ‘lady my momma used to make these for me all the time when I was a little boy and I had forgotten about them until just now. Could you please tell me, how did you this?’”
Tooker must have told this story hundreds of times for you’re bound to stumble upon it over and over again in articles about the cala. But that’s part of what she has set out to do. Eat it to save it, she says. And so on that day in late March, we did – along with a delicious seven-course brunch by Lola’s on Harrison chef Michael Wagner.
Poppy Tooker’s Calas Recipe
2 cups cooked rice
6 tablespoons flour
3 heaping tablespoons sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
Dash of nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon vanilla
Vegetable oil (for deep-frying)
In a bowl, combine rice, flour, sugar, baking powder, salt, and nutmeg; mix well. Add eggs and vanilla and mix well.
Heat vegetable oil for deep-frying to 360 degrees. Carefully drop rice mixture by spoonfuls into hot oil and fry until brown.
Remove from oil with a slotted spoon and drain on paper towels.
Sprinkle with confectioners’ sugar. Serve hot.