I know. I know. If you’re reading this title and already wanting to kill me, I understand. The battle between Nigeria and Ghana over the “ownership” of jollof rice is FIERCE. But hear me out on why I decided to make it as my Nigerian dish.
I know more Nigerians than Ghanaians, and of course they all wanted me to make jollof when they heard about my project. I wasn’t sure I wanted to get into the debate, and I’m still not here to claim that jollof is only from one place or another. But I’m a sucker for rice and spice, so I just had to give this dish a shot. I researched for hours and hours, and was having such a hard time coming to a consensus about a recipe, let alone an origin. But the differences I discovered basically amounted to Ghanaian jollof using meat as a flavoring, whereas Nigerian jollof is made separately from the meat that accompanies it. I’m vegetarian, so I wasn’t serving this with meat anyways, so using it as a base was out of the question. This, and this alone, caused me to attach Nigeria to my jollof post (well, that and the fact that my Ghanaian Peanut Stew was bomb and so I didn’t feel that bad, I love the dishes from both countries).
As I said, I looked at a lot of recipes to figure out how to make this dish. No single one was alike. The proportions were different in all of them. So I figured out what the common themes were, picked out the main common ingredients, and played with amounts until I found something I liked. I really loved the end result, and hope you will too! The aromatics that go into this…unlike anything else I’ve ever made. My house smelled delicious, a mix of ginger and garlic and curry, but definitely not Indian or Chinese or any other cuisine I’ve had before. No, jollof is its own entity, to be respected and adored.
Though the ingredient list for this is long, it’s not a recipe to be feared. Just a quick chop, blitz, sauté, and simmer will get you to the end result. Start by blending together the sauce ingredients. Sauté some onions, peppers, and other vegetables like carrots, peas, or greens, then add the sauce and the rice and let it all simmer together until the rice is cooked. Though this sounds simple enough, the history of jollof rice is anything but.
No one is quite sure where jollof rice originated, which is part of why there is such a heated debate over who can claim the most authentic iteration. But Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, writing for NPR, has found a clue. “Jollof” likely comes from “Wolof,” which happens to be the language spoken in Senegal. Senegal and Gambia have a national dish of meat and rice (called “thiebou dieun”), but it hardly bears any resemblance to what we know as jollof rice. So how the dish evolved it uncertain, but its relationship to Wolof is assumed. Regardless of where it originated, the friendly online debate rages among members of the West African diaspora as to who can claim it.
Whether you parboil the rice or throw it in with everything else, use the meat as a flavoring or add it last, use an assortment of vegetables or keep it to the basics, everyone can agree: this dish is delicious. When I tasted it, the blend of spices and aromatics washed over me like a tidal wave. The garlic, the ginger, the onion, the heat from the habanero… it all combined to create a sensation that I have never felt before. It’s the kind of dish that no matter how it burns your mouth, you can’t help but eat more. I served mine with a side of collard greens, braised in stock. The simplicity of it helped cut through some of the acidity from the tomato-heavy rice, and was the perfect companion. Quist-Arcton writes that jollof rice is a celebration dish, popular at holidays and weddings. I say make today a celebration, and warm yourself up from the inside out with a heaping plate of spicy joy.
So what do you think? Where does jollof rice come from? Who does it belong to? Does it matter? I believe that knowing the history of food is important, especially when it helps form a cultural identity. I also believe that sharing food traditions is a delicious way to spread knowledge and appreciation of a culture. Let me know your thoughts below, and stay tuned for another Gent Goes Global post soon. Until then, here’s to good drinking, great eating, and even better living.
- 1 yellow onion
- 1 habanero or Scotch bonnet pepper
- 1 head garlic
- 2 in. piece of ginger
- 1 14.5 oz can roasted diced tomatoes
- 1 red onion (sliced)
- 3 red bell peppers (2 quartered, 1 diced)
- 3 Tbsp canola oil
- 2 Tbsp tomato paste
- 1 tsp curry powder
- 1 tsp dried thyme
- salt and pepper, to taste
- 2 1/2 cups white rice
- 1/2-1 cup water
- Start by blending the yellow onion, two quartered red bell peppers, habanero or Scotch bonnet pepper, garlic, ginger, and can of tomatoes together to form a sauce. Set aside.
- Heat the oil in a wide skillet over medium-high heat. Add the sliced red onion and remaining diced red bell pepper and sauté until the onions turn translucent, about 10 minutes. Add the tomato paste and fry for 3-5 minutes more, making sure it doesn't burn.
- Add the sauce and turn the heat to medium. Add the spices, salt, and pepper. Let it simmer and thicken for about 5 minutes. Add the rice and the water (enough to cover the rice; start with 1/2 cup and move it up if you need more depending on how much your sauce has reduced). Cover the pan with a tight-fitting lid and let the rice steam for 30 minutes. Uncover, fluff the rice with a fork, and serve warm with a side of meat or collard greens. Enjoy!