Abuela’s Chicken and Rice: Afro-Latina Chef Is Cooking Up Her Childhood Suppers in Bushwick

Rachel Baron

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Catherine Sow doesn’t just cook chicken and rice – she’s made of it. Sow, who grew up “stupidly poor” in the South Bronx, remembers sitting in a one-bedroom apartment with her siblings, cousins, aunts, and uncles, eating chicken and rice for lunch and chicken and rice for dinner, nearly every day. It was poverty food, but it was “so good,” said Sow. The dish, a version of arroz con pollo, is available to feed 10 hungry patrons every Sunday at Bushwick’s Sunrise/Sunset, where Sow works as a cook.

Sow’s grandmother Helen, whom she called “abuela,” would buy 20 pounds of a non-brand white rice, which she’d make last for months.

“My grandmother used to say ‘you could make a dollar out of 15 cents,’” she said.

In those days, her grandmother Helen woke her up at 3 or 4 a.m. “Abuela would pull me into the kitchen and make me watch this Spanish soap opera, Sabado Gigante,” said Sow, laughing.

Catherine Sow at Sunrise/Sunset.

They’d cook chicken and rice. Helen would tell her stories.

The youngest of all her cousins and siblings, Sow was the only one Helen forced to cook. “She was like ‘you’re gonna learn how to do this, you’re gonna be a good cook for yourself,’” Sow said. Though she begrudged it as a chore at times, it was her relationship with Helen that made it bearable. The two were even similar in looks. A dark-skinned Afro-Latina with mixed Dominican, Puerto Rican, and Haitian background, Sow felt a sense of solidarity with the even darker-skinned Helen.

“Everyone is lighter in my family,” Sow said. “My grandmother was the darkest one. I know this is weird, but I always felt that connection with her. That we could be Latins that are dark.”

When Helen passed away, Sow said, “I always said to myself, I’m always gonna keep that tradition alive within myself.”

The warmth of sharing a hearty meal, even one born from scarcity, has stuck with Sow into her late 30s. Though she no longer lives in the “bare, raw Bronx” of her childhood, she still cooks the same meal for her 13-year-old son, Adam, whom she raised as a single parent.

She’s tweaked it a bit to suit her and her son’s dietary needs, and she hastens the process by using a pressure cooker, something her family could never afford growing up. She also adds balsamic vinegar, as well as her homemade honey mustard. I asked her if it’s better now, or just different. “It’s better,” she said. “100 percent better.” However, it’s still the same pot of staple ingredients, stretched into a pot of savory abundance to last multiple meals in a row.

Dubbed “Cat’s Chicken and Rice” by Sunrise/Sunset’s owner Weston Smith, the dish is something Sow whipped up for her own dinners in the bar’s kitchen. She served a plate of it one day to an exhausted Smith, who had just finished a wine event at the bar.

“It was really special,” said Smith, who asked Sow if she’d be willing to make it on Sundays to serve to guests. This past Sunday marked the dish’s 7th week.

Though the Latinx community in Bushwick is spread across many nationalities, “rice and chicken is definitely a staple across the board,” said Sow. “I wanted to make it here and have them feel comfortable coming in here.”

For the dish, chicken quarters are sautéed with Sow’s “sazon,” her own custom spice blend mixed with the Goya seasoning mix of the same name, as well as adobo, tomato paste, carrots, onions, and russet potatoes. The rice gets sautéed with kidney beans and more sazon. The dish is a pile of true nourishment, all buttery potatoes, soft meat, and tender rice. Sliced avocado, a fatty green iceberg amongst all the starch and protein, provides a spoonful of creamy coolness to offset the feather tickle of heat from the sauce. It comes with a mouse-sized ramekin of sautéed maduros, sweet plantains, something Sow has always eaten alongside.

Chicken and rice by Catherince Sow at Sunrise/Sunset.

The rice, Sow made sure to tell me, is jasmine. Not a traditional element of Latinx cuisines, jasmine rice nonetheless found its way into Latinx communities when Goya began selling their own version. Sow prefers it to conventional long-grain white rice, which she could never get to taste the way her abuela’s did, and it takes well to her seasonings.

So far, “every plate comes back with not one grain of rice,” Sow said. I send my plate back empty, save for a few bones and a smear of sauce. “You have no idea what this does for me,” she said.

The dish is available for $10 a plate on Sundays from 6 p.m. – 11 p.m, or until it sells out. Though Sow only makes 10 portions a week, she and Smith hope to eventually up the amount as the demand grows.

All photos courtesy of author. 

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