Recipe: Jollof rice
By Anna Trapido, 18 August 2020
We are what we eat. Or at least, many of us think we are – which is why it is so confusing to find ‘our’ recipes on other people’s plated perceptions of self. While there are some (many?) clear cases of culinary cultural appropriation there are also other instances where, through no ‘fault’ of their own, two or more communities have ancient and authentic ties to the same recipe.
One might think that shared food favorites would make love not war. It is seldom so. Almost always, peoples with similar recipes fight over who did it first and/or does it best. Fools rush in where others fear to tread. Today I am that fool because there are some contentious gastronomic glories so delicious that they are worth risking wrath. Jollof rice is such a dish.
For those who are unfamiliar with the joy of Jollof, it is safe to say that it is a fragrant, spicy, tomato-infused, one-pot rice mélange with an orangey-red colour which is revered across the West African region. Regional recipes exist in Senegal, Ghana, Nigeria, Cameroon, Mali, Benin, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Togo and Ivory Coast. There are also ‘red rice’ recipes in Georgia and South Carolina, USA which are Jollof’s Trans-Atlantic culinary cousins.
Within each national version, there are local sub-recipes and personal idiosyncrasies. There are all sorts of variations which most commonly include differences in the rice, spices, oils, meats and/or fish used. None of the divergences described below are set in stone. All the Jollof rice recipes cooked above are mutually acknowledged as variations on a theme. Senegalese chefs commonly use a palm oil frying medium to accentuate the colour and crunch of a ‘cro-cro’ crust whereas Nigerians often use a more neutral-tasting canola oil and enjoy the smoky flavor that comes from cooking in cast iron pots over fire. Ghanaian’s tend to serve their Jollof with shito hot sauce whereas in the Cameroon Penja pepper liberally applied. Just because all the above variations are mutually recognized does not mean that they are equivalently valued. Seldom has one food form been the subject of so much smack talk. Almost every day sees new memes on the matter flooding Instagram and Twitter. See here for a typical example thereof. There is even a Star Wars-themed YouTube video showing a lightsaber fight between Ghanaian and Nigerian jollof.
Reviling Jamie Oliver’s ‘Jollof’ is the only issue over which West African partisans are prepared to combine forces. In 2014 the naked chef published a recipe labelled as Jollof rice which included cherry tomatoes, coriander and parsley. His interpretation induced indignation everywhere. Queue twitter storm, #jollofgate. After that regional rancor rules. In 2016 Accra-based international influencer Sister Deborah put out a musical ode to her country’s culinary claim in which she sang: ‘Ghana jollof, Ghana jollof, Ghana jollof – yummy! Nigerian jollof is just funny.’ And later: ‘Ghana jollof on fleek — yours isn’t.’ The music video showed Nigerian men converting to Sister’s superior style as she intoned: ‘I have d’ secret recipe no Maggi cube, when your Naija boy chases me don’t blame juju.’
The strange thing about the Ghana v Nigeria food fight is that they are probably both playing for second spot. From a linguistic perspective, the people of Senegal and Gambia have the strongest claim to Jollof which was most likely called Wolof at its origin. The Wolof empire and medieval state had cultural influence throughout West Africa and even today Wolof is the lingua franca of Senegal and parts of Gambia. To confuse matters further, Senegambians don’t call their version of Jollof ‘Jollof’ – in Wolof it is known as ceebu jën/ thiebou djenne/ benachin – but the use of the name outside of the area suggests that the core recipe was once recognized as having Wolof roots.
Want to try the regional variations in Gauteng? Hot Pot African Cuisine (336 Cork Ave, Ferndale, Johannesburg: 071 733 2431) does a delicious Nigerian-style Jollof. Whether you take a beef, chicken or vegetarian version, helpings are huge and sold R50 per portion. At the raucous Ghana Bar (83 Greef Street, Sunnyside, Pretoria. 073 9072590) their eponymous offering goes for R60 per portion. The much more sedate Amis Restaurant (331 Arcadia Street – corner Orient – opposite Guinea embassy) serves a Senegambian thiebou djenne and an Ivorian-style Jollof rice (both 100 per portion) at 331 Arcadia Street (corner Orient, opposite the Guinean embassy). Want Kosher Jollof? Yes there is such a thing. Head for Channah’s Deli and Shwarma Bar (Fairmount Centre, Bradfield Drive, Fairmount, Johannesburg. 011 057 7709) where Beth Din supervised, Beninoise-style Jollof goes for R70. Remember that the restaurant’s hours and days of business reflect the Kosher status of this venue. Open Sunday – Thursday 10am -9pm except Friday 10am -3pm. NB. Saturday closed.
Want to DIY? Obviously, any recipe for Jollof rice must be offered up with extreme caution but 22 August is World Jollof Rice Day. So, if there is ever a time to share a recipe this is it. The fantastic recipe below comes from Nigerian food blogger Yewande Komolafe. It is a meat-free version so sometimes I add either beef, chicken or seafood. With or without, it is deeply delicious. Happy Jollof Rice Day.
Yewande Komolafe’s jollof rice recipe
This recipe serves 4 – 6 people.
Jollof rice recipe ingredients
For the obe ata (tomato base)
- 1 400g can whole peeled tomatoes with their juices
- 1 medium red bell pepper, stemmed, seeded and roughly chopped
- ½ medium red onion, peeled and roughly chopped
- 4 garlic cloves, peeled
- 1 (2.5cm) piece fresh ginger, peeled and finely chopped
- 1 red habanero or scotch bonnet chili
- 2 tablespoons canola or other neutral oil
For the jollof rice
- ½ cup canola or other neutral oil
- 2 medium red onions, peeled, halved and thinly sliced
- 4 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
- 1 tablespoon tomato paste
- 1 teaspoon ground turmeric
- ¼ teaspoon smoked paprika (optional)
- 3 cups parboiled long-grain rice, basmati or jasmine rice
- 5 fresh thyme sprigs
- 1 fresh bay leaf
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 2 cups beef, chicken or vegetable stock
Prepare the obe ata: Working in batches if needed, combine all the obe ata ingredients except the canola oil in a blender and purée on high until smooth. The liquid from the can of tomatoes should suffice, but you can add up to 1/4 cup of water if necessary to get the purée going. (You should have about 3 cups of purée.)
Heat the 2 tablespoons canola oil in a medium saucepan over medium-high. Add the purée and bring to a simmer. Reduce heat to medium, cover and simmer until the sauce is slightly reduced by about a third of its original volume, 18 to 20 minutes. (makes 2 cups)
Prepare the rice: Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Heat the 1/2 cup canola oil in a large Dutch oven over medium until shimmering, about 1 minute. Add the onions and cook, stirring frequently, until softened, 6 to 8 minutes. Remove half the onions to a plate and set aside. Add the garlic and sauté until fragrant and translucent, about 2 minutes. Add the tomato paste, turmeric and smoked paprika, if using, and toast, stirring occasionally, until turmeric fragrant, tomato paste has deepened to a dark red color, about 2 minutes.
Stir in the obe ata sauce and bring to a simmer over medium heat. Stir in the rice, thyme and bay leaf, and season with salt and pepper. Stir in the stock and cover with a lid. Transfer the pot to the oven and cook until rice is just tender, 35 minutes.
Remove the pot from the oven and let sit, covered (no peeking) for 15 minutes. Uncover, fluff the rice with a fork and stir in the reserved sautéed onions. Adjust seasoning, if necessary, and discard the thyme sprigs and bay leaf. Serve warm.
West Africans like Champagne with everything but if you’re a little more conservative, try a dry rosé or a lighter red (served slightly chilled). You want to avoid anything overly alcoholic or tannic.
- Dr Anna Trapido was trained as an anthropologist at King’s College Cambridge and a chef at the Prue Leith College of Food and Wine. She has twice won the World Gourmand Cookbook Award. She has made a birthday cake for Will Smith, a Christmas cake for Nelson Mandela and cranberry scones for Michelle Obama. She is in favour of Champagne socialism and once swallowed a digital watch by mistake.
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