Hugely popular throughout Western and Central Africa. Jollof rice is a vibrant red or orange dish that represents both celebration and competition. But several countries claim to have the best version of this dish. It’s causing friendly debate throughout West African communities at home and abroad. Here, I will look at the beginnings of this iconic dish. Comparing differences between Nigeria, Ghana and Senegal that are key players in the so-called ‘Jollof Wars’.
The word ‘Jollof’ comes from the Wolof people. An African ethnic group from north-western Senegal, the Gambia and south-western coastal Mauritania. The dish can therefore be traced back to the Senegambian region. It is thought to have spread through Portuguese colonialism in the 14th century. They introduced the tomatoes that make this dish recognisable. This spread has allowed regional variations of the dish to develop. Encouraging rivalry as to which is best, but also a sense of unity, celebrating Jollof in all its versions. Whilst ideal for parties due to its one-pot cooking method and delicious flavour, Jollof is popular across restaurants. Street vendors and home cooks are not left out. More recently, it is becoming popular on international food scenes in cities such as London and New York.
Ingredients for Preparation
Whilst everyone has their own take on it, Jollof is rice cooked in a blend of tomatoes, onions, peppers and hot chillies. Also with added meat or vegetable stock. Generously seasoned with warm spices and herbs such as ginger, thyme and garlic. Cooking in a large pot over a stovetop or open fire means a smokiness develops and big portions can be prepared. Regular stirring is needed for the rice to absorb all the liquid. Although a crispy layer on the bottom provides great texture and flavour. So what are the variations, country to country?
While these are the core ingredients for any Jollof, Nigeria’s take on the party dish starts with the rice used. Nigerians tend to use more robust, long-grain rice, which allows for good flavour absorption. This rice is quickly par-boiled (partially boiled), and then finishes cooked in the base sauce called obe ata. This sauce uses habanero (a fiery chilli pepper) or Scotch Bonnet chillies for a peppery kick, and bay leaves for added depth. Side dishes such as chicken and plantains are popular, as well as red onions mixed in with the rice at the end for an added sweetness and crunch. In Ghana, the rice that tends to be used is the fragrant basmati, giving the dish a somewhat sweeter flavour.
The rice is not usually par-boiled to prevent sogginess, and so Ghanaians will prepare the rice in the base stew, which often begins by frying the onions, tomatoes and tomato paste. Shito, a hot pepper sauce, is also often added in the preparation of Ghanaian Jollof. Popular side dishes include beef and chicken stews, as well as fried plantain. In Senegal, short-grain or broken rice is often used. Tamarind or lime gives the dish a sweet tang (sharp flavour) to be served with side dishes including fish, cabbage, cassava, carrot and aubergine.
Whilst the friendly Jollof Wars reveal regional differences between the preparation of this beloved dish, they also reveal the power of food to speak across borders. Communities across West and Central Africa are able to connect through the bold flavours and celebratory symbol of Jollof rice, which is being recognised more widely on the global stage today.