Jollof Rice - Pulsating West Africa By Eben van Tonder 23 October 2022 Lagos, Nigeria
Precious, the young lady whose recipe I feature for Jollof Rice.
I have been passionate about traditional African cuisine for some time. In West Africa, cooking is a big thing and they have old and well-established culinary traditions. One such epic dish is Jollof rice. The internet is replete with information about its historical origin. I share the tradition as reported by BBC Travel. My favourite recipe I get from a young lady, Precious, who works with me in Lagos. I like her version for several reasons. She is in her early 20s and she reflects the future of Nigerian cuisine which is not refined in top city restaurants but in the homes of the ordinary Nigerian.
I asked her to write her recipe down which she in turn got from her mom. At first, after I typed it out I corrected the new “20-something” WhatsApp text messaging style of spelling. I was almost done with it when I realised my mistake. Language and spelling, like cooking, is not a fixed and static thing and is subject to interpretations and re-interpretation mixed in with the creativity of young people. I decided to retain her spelling and grammar as it represents innovation and the inevitable progression of old concepts which is key to language, grammar and food innovations. Her writing/ grammar style and her Jollof recipe reflect the same spirit! It is based on tradition but is highly pragmatic, and adapted for today.
BBC Travel gives the history of this loved West African dish as follows. “The origins of Jollof rice can be traced to the 1300s in the ancient Wolof Empire (also called the Jolof Empire), which spanned parts of today’s Senegal, The Gambia and Mauritania. Rice farming flourished in this region, and Jollof began life as a dish called thieboudienne, prepared with rice, fish, shellfish and vegetables. As the empire grew, the Wolof people dispersed across the region and settled in different parts of West Africa, taking their sumptuous rice dish with them.”
Regional differences exist and as one can expect, it seems as if every family have their particular twists to the basic recipe. Patti Sloley, writing for the BBC says that “her Ghanaian mother would stew the rice with the sauce and meat in a one-pot dish, which is, of course, her favoured preparation. Nigerians and Liberians sometimes use palm oil instead of vegetable oil to give a richer depth of flavour, especially when cooking with smoked and dried fish. In Nigeria and Cameroon, red peppers are often blended with the base ingredients of onions, tomatoes and chilli to add vibrancy and a subtle sweetness. These two nations also like to add smoked paprika to give Jollof a smoky flavour, similar to cooking over an open wood fire. A Gambian friend boasts of adding smoked snails to her Jollof, a traditional ingredient in The Gambia and Senegal.”
“One main difference is the type of rice used. Ghanaians use aromatic basmati rice, which gives it extra flavour, while Nigerians use long grain rice, believing that it is best for absorbing flavour.”
The Appeal of Jollof
Of all the descriptions on Jollof Rica available, I like the one given by Hakeem Adam writing for Culture Trip, the best. He writes, “For those who aren’t familiar with Jollof rice and are wondering how a rice dish can pack so much punch, the secret is in how it soaks up so much flavour. You would not imagine that boiling plain rice in the same pot as peppers, tomatoes, spices and meats would create such soft, yet crisp tomato-stained grains, with so much sweetness locked inside them. Another advantage that Jollof rice has over other Ghanaian dishes is that it can be enjoyed with a healthy range of other condiments such as salads, avocado and deep-fried plantains.”
“In Accra, Jollof rice is very popular and can be found in most restaurants and at some street food stalls. It tends to be spicy as it is served with Shito (a pepper-based sauce), but don’t let that dissuade you from enjoying the dish. When it comes to plating up time, remember that no matter where your Jollof is from, you can still appreciate it for its superb taste and polarising magic.”
The recipe that Precious left on my desk read as follows. "Blend ur fresh pepper and onions together. Set it aside. Wash ur rice. Set it aside. Chop some onions. Put ur pot on the fire. Then add some oil. Let it heat. The chopped onions - fry it fragrant. Add ur tin tomato's and the blended pepper and onions - fry it until the oil separates from the ingredients. Then u can add in Maggie cube, thyme, curry, bay leaves. Fry it just little. Then add ur salt. Put a little water to mix the ingredients and u can add ur rice. Adding the rice before the water help u better to regulate amount of water. The water goes in after."
She bought the right ingredients and neatly placed that around the recipe.
I was recently told about the quest for recognition of Nigerian dancers who develop dance moves which are “exported around the globe” and make their way all the way to American movies but who ultimately do not get the credit for their innovations. I don’t want to dwell on the merits of the struggle right now. My point is that West Africa is a striking land filled with innovation and progression. Jollof Rice and all its varieties are an example of this! It is a pulsating land!