Friday, May 24, 2013

Off the Beaten Track: Calas—The Tale of a Rice Donut

Buffy Andrews began cooking as a young girl at her grandmother’s side in New Orleans. Buffy’s grandmother showed her how to make recipes that are handed down for generations along with all the tips and tricks for preparing them. While Buffy has taken cooking classes along the way, she has found that the foods she grew up eating are still her biggest source of inspiration. More tasty tales and recipes can be found in her upcoming book, The Creole Table; Contemporary New Orleans Gluten-Free, Dairy-Free Cuisine.

Calas were, some believe, the precursor to the modern beignet donut you can get in the French Quarter of New Orleans today. The word “calas” hails from the West African word nupe kara, which translates as “fried cake.” Calas are soft, sweet rice donuts covered in powdered sugar and best served warm.

Historically, Creole slaves sold them on the streets of the French Quarter in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The story of the cala illustrates what a unique and beautiful melting pot of culture New Orleans is at its roots. New Orleans has brought the world Creole cuisine, jazz music, and a unique city unlike any other.

As a native New Orleanian, I always felt, in my heart, there was something special about the city of New Orleans. The Cala story begins to illustrate the subtle uniqueness that makes up New Orleans. The cala has all but fallen into obscurity, though it can still be found in a few of the old French Quarter restaurants as well as in the homes of some New Orleanians. The beignet has replaced it in popularity over the last 100 years or so but, at one time, it graced the tables where the beignet now resides.

The French Quarter
The cala, for me, is a story of hope and transformation. What moves me about the story of the cala is how a simple food like a rice donut was able to change the lives of some slaves.

I know it seems strange but, yes, slaves. To give a bit of background, there were laws that slave-owners had to adhere to.

The two local laws that are key to this story are:

1. Slaves were given Sundays off.
2. If a slave came up to their owner and asked to buy their freedom, the slave owner had to oblige.

These two rules set up the poetic beauty of such a simple food. If a slave was industrious enough, he or she could work on Sundays for herself making and selling calas. She could save her money and buy her freedom. So it was common back then to hear Creole girls carrying baskets full of hot donuts shouting Calas! Tout chaud! (“Hot calas!”) in the streets.

I love the thought of slaves being able to buy their freedom by making and selling calas. It makes my heart sing.

Growing up on the same rustic streets where calas were once sold, I can imagine a Creole girl walking the streets of the French Quarter selling her freshly made calas with the dream of buying her freedom.
So never underestimate the power of food, no matter how small. It can transform lives in so many ways...

A number of New Orleanian families have a wonderful tradition of serving calas. Typically, these families are descended from Creole slaves and have maintained this tradition of making and eating calas for many generations. And what an outsider, not from New Orleans, might miss at first glance is the true melting pot that is uniquely New Orleans. Many of the families that have a cala tradition are white but, as they look back along their family history, they probably have ancestors who were slaves.

So this is how I see New Orleans: we are all the same, joined together with a passion for food, music and a love for a city that most people can’t understand. New Orleans is a city that defies explanation; it must be experienced.

I have added here a recipe for calas. I have adapted the recipe printed in the Times-Picayune to make it gluten-free.


1/2 cup warm water
1 tbsp granulated sugar
1 pkg active dry yeast
3/4 cup cooked white rice
2 large eggs, beaten slightly
3/4 cup all-purpose gluten-free flour
1 pinch Kosher salt
1/4 tsp vanilla extract
1/8 tsp freshly grated nutmeg or cinnamon
Optional peanut oil for frying
Powdered sugar for a heavy dusting

Directions:  The day before you make your calas, combine the water and sugar in a small bowl. Add the yeast and let stand until foamy, about 10 minutes. Add the rice and stir well. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap, and leave at room temperature overnight. This step will really give your calas a distinctive flavor; think sourdough.

The next day, stir the rice mixture and kind of mash the rice against the side of the bowl with a wooden spoon. Don’t go too crazy though, as you’ll want a bit of texture in the finished product.

Add the remaining ingredients to the rice mixture, and mix well with a wooden spoon. The mixture should be a fairly loose batter, a little thicker than pancake batter. Cover and let rise in a warm place for 1 hour.  This step will make your calas as light as air when fried!

Heat 3 inches of peanut oil in a large saucepan that’s been heated to 365 degrees. Drop spoonfuls of the batter into the hot oil. Fry until golden brown, turning once. Serve with lots and lots of powdered sugar sprinkled over them, like beignets, or else drizzle with cane syrup. Recipe makes about 6 good-sized calas.

I do hope you enjoy the calas as much as I do.


  1. Now I want calas for breakfast. Thanks for sharing this wonderful story with us, Buffy! We look forward to hearing more about your book when it is out!

  2. I can't wait to try these. Thanks for sharing the history and the recipe. Very enlightening!

  3. When I was in New Orleans, I tried beignets but I wish I'd known about these treats at the time. I love food with a history. Very nice post!

  4. Like, Heidi, I had beignets in New Orleans. I've never heard of calas before this post. I'm going to try the recipe.

  5. I learned something, thank you! The history of food is often so interesting or surprising! Also it's interesting how many cousins beignets and calas have. In my native Holland we have "oliebollen" - literally "oil balls" which are scoops of eggless beignet batter dropped into hot oil and fried and then covered with loads of powdered sugar.

  6. Hi Kelly, Who is the artist of the courtyard painting? Thanks!

  7. Hi Heather,

    I actually do not know who the artist is, sorry! Best of luck to you in finding it!