Calas are the beignet alternative you need to know
We’ve all found ourselves in the post-dinner situation of realizing we made too much rice. While heartier chicken soup, more textured vanilla pudding, or homemade fried rice are wonderful uses for excess cooked rice, consider making calas. Similar to beignets, calas are fried mounds of sweet batter covered with a blanket of powdered sugar. Only instead of one texture throughout, calas batter is permeated with starchy cooked rice. Dating back as far as the 18th century in the United States (and much earlier in parts of Western Africa), calas were often sold by Creole women in New Orleans’s French Quarter outside Catholic churches on Sundays.
“When you went to Catholic mass in the old days, you had to go on an empty stomach. You couldn’t have breakfast before you put the host in your mouth,” author and culinary historian Jessica B. Harris explains. Calas and coffee vendors would set up just outside the church, ready to feed churchgoers breakfast. “People were hungry when they came out of mass, so they would come out and have coffee and calas, and it became fairly social.”
Harris, who is an expert on the food and foodways of the African Diaspora, explains that the African women selling calas in New Orleans likely brought the dish from their native West Africa—which has its own rice-growing region in the area from southern Senegal all the way through Sierra Leone—when taken from their homes as slaves. “The Sierra Leone-Liberia area of the region is thought to be where calas may have originated,” says Harris. Although there are many tales that could have brought calas to New Orleans, Harris recalls a Liberian restaurant in California that served calas, and she was informed that the dish hails from Bong County, Liberia. “They were still called calas, it was the exact same thing,” says Harris. “It’s all part of the great fritter migration, if you will, from Western Africa to the Northern Hemisphere.”
Why are beignets so well-known and calas more obscure? Harris thinks it has to do with the popularity of Cafe du Monde, a New Orleans restaurant known for its beignets and long lines. “Quite simply, people known Cafe du Monde, they know the beignet,” says Harris. “It has become a part of culinary mythology of New Orleans… For many years, calas weren’t even sold in restaurants in New Orleans.”
Although now calas are a bit easier to find—partially thanks to Poppy Tooker, host of the “Louisiana Eats!” radio show and calas crusader. Says Harris: “Back in the 1990s-early 2000s [Tooker] actually started talking about calas and working to bring [the dish] out of obscurity…. [as] recipes became popular in mainstream cooking, calas began to be served around New Orleans, not just the traditional sweet version but also in savory versions.”
To make your own batch of calas, mix together ¾ cups all purpose flour, 1 teaspoon baking powder, ½ teaspoon kosher salt, 3 tablespoons granulated sugar, and ½ teaspoon allspice in a small bowl and set aside.
In another bowl, beat 2 eggs with ½ teaspoon vanilla extract. Pour the egg mixture into the flour mixture, mix well, then mix in 1 ½ cups cooked rice.
Pour about 3 or 4 inches worth of peanut, vegetable, or canola oil into a deep stock pot and drop a candy thermometer into the oil. When the thermometer reads 350ºF, drop rounded tablespoonfuls of calas batter into the hot oil. A tablespoon-sized cookie scoop will also get the job done.
After the calas cook for about 3 minutes, if they don’t flip on their own, use a slotted spoon to turn the calas, making sure to get an even deep golden brown color over each pastry.