You know about beignets, but have you heard of calas? Calas are a snack or dessert from New Orleans. They’re a simple yet scrumptious blend of leftover rice stirred into an sugary egg batter, then deep fried and topped with powdered sugar. The process is much like the quintessential beignet, but the history is much more dynamic.
It’s likely that calas came to New Orleans through slaves from the rice-growing parts of Africa, such as Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Ghana. Beginning with the French rule of the 1700s, slaves were usually given Sundays off each week. Calas vendors, the so-called “calas women,” began selling the fritter-like bites outside of the famous St. Louis Cathedral to the well-heeled white churchgoers while calling, “Belle Calas! Tout chauds!” — “Beautiful calas! Very hot!”
The Spanish took control of Louisiana in the 1790s, making it legal for slaves to buy the right to their freedom with cortacion. This meant that calas was often the currency by which the enslaved became free people of color. Approximately 1,400 New Orleans slaves purchased their freedom under Spanish rule, although it is unknown how many did so with profits from calas. Street vendors selling calas and other street food remained prevalent in the city until the early 20th century, but the tradition dwindled and just one calas vendor remained in 1940.
However, Poppy Tooker, of Slow Food New Orleans and Louisana Eats!, is on a crusade to bring back this historic and delicious dessert. She emphasizes, “It was with calas money that many slaves freed themselves…this is an important dish!” For many New Orleanians, calas can have the evocative power to recreate memories of another era, and are a cornerstone of culture and cuisine.
Poppy’s recipe is adapted below. Her calas are beyond delectable. A recipe that requires 5-6 cups of oil for frying? Sign us up!