The Simple Art of Rice is chef JJ Johnson’s love letter to a kitchen essential, full of rich history and exquisite yet unfussy recipes. The James Beard Award winner summed it up best in the book’s introduction: “Rice is a simple grain with a complex history, a staple that not only nourishes but also connects people to community, cultural tradition, and the land.” He chatted with us about the culinary experiences that informed his newest cookbook—and shared recipes for three Southern dishes, calas (rice fritters), collard greens and rice soup, and veggie limpin’ Susan.
How did you come to know so much about the history and traditions of the dishes you write about—and Afro-Asian-American cooking in general?
I’ve traveled the world and cooked in Ghana, Israel, Singapore, and India. I’ve just dug really deep down into rice, starting with a mentor, Glen Roberts from Anson Mills, and then just doing my own research and meeting rice farmers. Over the last ten years of doing deep research, [I’ve focused on] understanding how rice moves and shakes, where it’s gone, how it’s impacted culture, why it’s a cash crop, and why it’s really loved everywhere around the world.
What was your vision for the aesthetic of the book?
Danica [Novgorodoff] is the illustrator and also a writer, and I feel like sometimes in cookbooks people need more than just pictures because they need a little bit of guidance, and Danica did a great job of showing what your pot should look like, or how the finger trick works. A photo just wouldn’t have done it for these moments of storytelling through pictures. The illustrations really bring the book together.
Beatriz da Costa is a brilliant photographer, and I think in this book she brought me out of my comfort zone and I brought her out of her comfort zone. We were able to shoot some really beautiful pictures [showing] what the dish will actually look like; it’s not plated so precisely. It’s also very difficult shooting rice on a consistent basis. It all looks the same, has the same color contrast…so the team did a really great job, from props to styling to photography to illustrations to putting it all together, and I’m very thankful for it.
Tell us a little about you. What was your favorite home-cooked meal growing up?
I’ll break it down because there were a lot of people cooking in my family. The home-cooked meal I loved from my mother was her barbecue chicken; from my Aunt Lisa, her clams oreganata; from my Uncle Donald it was his crab cakes; and from my grandmother, I loved her asopao, which is a Puerto Rican soupy rice dish.
What would you say is the key to a memorable meal?
The Simple Art of Rice shows people that rice is easy. I know for a lot of people it’s hard, but they just haven’t had this book yet to help them. I think nostalgia is what makes food impeccable, and rice is nostalgic. It brings you to a place, it brings you somewhere you might be missing—wherever it might be. All of us have grown up on rice and have that one rice dish or rice grain we love, and that’s what really makes you sink down in your seat when you’re eating.
Tell us about the three recipes you shared with us.
Calas have been around for years. It’s a fritter stuffed with rice that’s dusted with cinnamon and powdered sugar. If you’re looking for that brunch twist, calas are the way to go.
Who doesn’t love collard greens and soup? People are typically eating rice and collard greens on the plate anyway, but this is a great way to put it together in one place, and it’s a truly delicious soup.
When you see okra, it automatically points back to West Africa, so there’s a connectivity within the food, and I’m giving you my take [on the Limpin’ Susan]. I hope people try it; I hope people love it. It’s really packed with a lot of flavors, and I’m adding those spices to it because you don’t get that bacon fat running deep through the rice, and I wanted everybody not to miss that.