The Gravy: In the Kitchen with Rapper Truth Universal

I was born in Trinidad and Tobago. I moved here with my parents, right into the Seventh Ward. My father worked on a cruise liner as a chef; they docked here and some of his friends encouraged him to see what was possible. He started working at the Marriott as a sous chef.

I grew up eating Trinidadian food, stuff like roti and curry, stewed chicken, baked beef, codfish and pelau. Like a brown rice [sic], a lot of rice dishes actually. We ate a lot of beans and rice; we had lentils and rice and red beans and rice, but not the way it’s traditionally prepared here. Along with that, we had a lot of soups: bean soups, lentil soups and split pea soups.

Truth Universal, New Orleans Rapper, photo by Elsa Hahne

New Orleans Rapper Truth Universal shares his red lentil soup recipe in The Gravy. Photo Elsa Hahne.

My father cooked at home, but my mother cooked more than my father did. My father’s the trained chef, but the best cooks I’ve ever known in my life are my mother and her mother, my grandmother. He couldn’t hold a candle to them, you know?

I just play around; I’m not comparing myself to them at all. Every time I go home to Trinidad, I sit at my grandmother’s feet and just soak stuff up — cooking techniques and methods, whatnot. She’s 92 now. I couldn’t compare myself to her and my mother. I have learned a lot from how they cook and try to emulate. As a matter of fact, my mother was just here — she lives in Atlanta now with my brother — and I told her I’m doing a lentil soup, and she said, ‘Is this a Caribbean thing, or something else?’ And I was like, ‘Well, it’s kind of like how I learned how to do a soup from you,’ but we never used red lentils, which is what I’m using today. I just took the method I learned from her and incorporated it with what I wanted it to taste like — like at Mediterranean restaurants, or whatnot. I kind of combined [sic]. So this is an amalgamation. Actually, this soup is missing a lot of what my mother would’ve put into it. The Caribbean way would be to put more starch, or what they call “provisions,” like yams, plantains and potatoes. Even meat. My mother would put pigtails and beef or pork. I don’t eat any meat anymore, so I don’t include that. I haven’t for 15-plus years, probably like 20 years.

Less is available when you’re a vegetarian. And we’re in the U.S. where the focal point is meat, as opposed to other places where it’s more like the starch and the grain are the staples, and you just accentuate the dishes with meat. I don’t even eat seafood. So I started cooking more when I became a vegetarian — out of necessity at first — but now I just love to cook. I do it as much as I can, as well as I can.

I try to cook pelau, which is a brown rice dish. Usually, you use sugar to caramelize the seasonings. Burning the sugar is what you do, and when you burn the sugar, it kind of looks like you’re making a roux. And that makes the whole dish dark brown. So I’ve kind of messed around with that. I need some more courses from my mother on making the roti. Roti is like a flat, uneven bread, kind of like a tortilla that you fill with a sauce or gravy — curry sauce, curried potatoes, chick peas, garbanzo beans. I try out jambalaya as well. Jambalaya would be more like a jollof rice, but that all depends. The main difference would be that there’s no tomato sauce in the pelau. But it’s still rice, still the one-pot cooking technique.

All my seasonings I put in from the beginning. My wife doesn’t like to put stuff in from the beginning; she likes to add stuff at the end. But I like to put everything in, so it can kind of dissolve almost. I think you get the full flavor that way. I’ll go ahead and add the lentils to the sauté. Watch the ones that clump. It’s so easy to do. If I get home and I have to make dinner, a lot of times I’ll just make a soup.

Cooking with other musicians is something I’ve always wanted to get more into. I have friends in other parts of the country — other artists — who like to challenge one another. They get together and have cook-offs. Intimate, you know? And I kind of want to introduce that here on some level. Also, I’ve been working on a cookbook with my own recipes. I lost my recipes in Katrina, but now I’ve started writing them down again.”

Truth Universal's red lentil soup. Photo Elsa Hahne

Truth Universal's red lentil soup. Photo by Elsa Hahne.

Recipe: Truth Universal’s Red Lentil Soup

4 tablespoons olive oil
1 onion (finely chopped)
2 stalks celery (finely chopped)
3-4 garlic cloves (finely chopped)
1 cup red lentils
6 cups water
1 large bay leaf
1 tablespoon ground cumin
1 tablespoon garlic powder
1 tablespoon dried parsley
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon cayenne
1 large carrot (peeled, diced)

Directions: Sauté onions, celery and garlic in olive oil until golden. Add lentils, water and all the dry seasonings (bay leaf, cumin, garlic powder, dried parsely, salt and cayenne). Bring to a boil, cover and simmer for 20 minutes. Add carrots and cook for 10 more minutes until carrots get soft. Turn the heat off and let the soup sit on the stove for about an hour before serving. This way, the carrots absorb more of the seasonings. Ideally, refrigerate over night and reheat the next day.

Truth Universal will host the GRASSROOTS! Hip-Hop Showcase at the Dragon’s Den on Saturday, September 1. He’s currently working on a new album, Invent the Future, which should be out by next spring at the latest.