A rebuke to the legions of bad recipes in its name, this red rice comes out of the pot swirling with agreeable contrasts: cool bay, hot spice, warm tomato, light smoke. If you get lucky, it will have a fine, crisp bottom crust and the grains of rice on top will be plump, separate, and drunk with flavor. (The rice will be plump, separate, and drunk even if the crust doesn’t happen.) Minced mushrooms and a dash of vinegar stand in for the historically correct mushroom ketchup and represent a distinct improvement over the sweet tomato ketchup present in many recipes today.
A pilau, Savannah red rice stands as a defining dish of the Georgia Coast. Red rice is so rich in influence it is hard to know which version of this dish to consider and where to begin. As far back as the Inquisition, Sephardic Jews fleeing Spain and Portugal arrived in Savannah, bringing connections to Mediterranean foodways (especially when it came to rice) that have endured to this day. In their emphasis on vegetables, herbs, and spices, these rice dishes often reduced meat, fish, poultry, and game to condiment status—with magnificent results.
Given this history, we might expect to experience good—even great—red rice today. Yet red rice is more institutional than inspired. At its best, Savannah red rice is scintillating in its flavor dimensions. The inclusion of pork in this dish shows elements of colonial creolization, probably African or French. The addition of mushroom ketchup (a condiment), with its dark, woodsy, vinegar notes, comes from 18th-century Britain by way of colonial India.