Jollof – The Rice that Binds
By Ozoz Sokoh
1. of a red, spiced rice dish loved in every city and town ‘South of the Sahara’ and along the coast of West Africa.
Synonyms: Djolof, Benachim (Gambia), Thieboudienne (Senegal)
2. to cook in a red, tomato-based sauce: ‘jollof beans’ – a one pot dish of beans cooked in a rich tomato sauce. West African-speak.
3. denoting a state of enjoyment: ‘see her, she’s jollofing’ (she’s enjoying herself and I’m not!). Nigerian-speak.
Synonyms: enjoyment, pleasure
Spelling Jollof rice with small letter J is an insult. Jollof rice is not just a food, it’s a feeling, sign of hope and a way of life.
— WEIRDO (@am_delly) April 3, 2014
And so we begin. From East to West, whose Jollof Rice is the best?
Some say Nigeria claims it as its own. Perhaps, that is the fruit of being the most populous nation in Africa.
Altogether, I find it a question of little consequence. I believe that each country has a unique offering and interpretation of the dish even though the basic ingredients remain the same: rice, tomato, onions, and spices.
There is some consensus that Jollof rice is an ancient gift from the Wolof, an ethnic group across Senegal, The Gambia and Mauritania. A gift that has its seeds sprinkled, like fine grain along the coast of West Africa.
The Wolof Empire was a medieval West African state that ruled parts of Senegal and the Gambia from approximately 1350 to 1890. By the end of the 15th century, the Wolof states of Jolof, Kayor, Baol and Walo had become united in a federation, with Jolof as the metropolitan power.
Thus, it isn’t hard to imagine a dish of this importance named after the ‘power’ – Jolof.
At that time, the region – from the Gambia River to Liberia was also known as the Grain or Rice coast because rice, millet and other grains were farmed grown along the banks of the Senegal River. Judith A. Carney, in her book ‘Black Rice, The African Origins of Rice Cultivation in the Americas’ writes of the Senegal River as being an established Portuguese trading port where goods and services were exchanged.
It is possible that this home-grown crop was combined with foreign food staples, like tomatoes from the New World to birth Jollof rice.
Whatever the origins, it is fair to say that Jollof rice is much loved and revered along the coast of West Africa. Its popularity off-line is assured…and online too it seems as these twitter hashtags seem to suggest – #JollofGang to #JollofIsLife, #Jollofies, #Jollofnation and #Teamjollof. Love of this dish is strong and with it the development of new, wise sayings, like:
This takes my mind back to the best Jollof rice I ever tasted, which was on the banks of Lake Tadane in the Amansuri Wetlands of Ghana, cooked by a Spaniard at the Café Puerto and surrounded by spectacular scenery – a silver stretch of water, green lily pads blooming with creamy lilies, and green trees, arched as gateways.
The Jollof rice arrived red and fragrant as could be. Contrary to the Nigerian Jollof which typically uses long-grain rice, this was made with Thai Jasmine – sweet and soft. It appeared stir-fried, as opposed to ‘stewed’ and I believe that Ghanaian ‘mother’ seasoning (of green chilies, fresh ginger and onions) was used.
Still, there is Gambian Benachin or benichi to try, which usually has dried or smoked shrimps/prawns. And Senegalese Thiéboudienne or Ceebu jën, often cooked with fish.
In Nigeria, Jollof Rice is ‘by grade’. There’s regular Jollof – cooked at home, on the stovetop or in the oven (especially in diaspora) – very nice but regular. Then there’s ‘Party jollof’, the real deal, rice cooked in a cast iron pot over firewood – orange, well-spiced and smoky.
Until a few months ago, I’d moaned about my inability to recreate the smoky flavours of party Jollof. Up till last December when I realised you could get the same effect from deliberate and controlled ‘burning’ of the rice. On the stovetop.
Because there is no better way to Jollof, than the Party way.
Nigerian ‘Party Jollof’, at home
6 medium-sized fresh tomatoes or a 400g tin of tomatoes
3 medium sized onions (2 roughly chopped; 1, thinly sliced)
½ or less of fresh chili (yellow is my favourite!), to taste
2 tablespoons of oil
1 tablespoon tomato puree
2 tablespoons curry powder
2 teaspoons dried thyme
500g long grain rice or basmati rice (about 6 teacups, rinsed and drained. I don’t use easy cook rice)
800ml water or stock (vegetable, chicken or meat)
2 tablespoons butter
Tip: If you intend to create the ‘smoky, party’ flavours, use a metal pan not a non-stick one
In a blender, process the tomatoes, the roughly onions and chili pepper (to taste), till smooth. This will take about 2 minutes of pulsing in a blender.
In a large metal, not non-stick pan, heat the oil and add the sliced onion; stir-fry for 1-2 minutes; add the tomato puree, curry, thyme and season lightly with salt and let cook for another couple of minutes.
You could add ½ a cup of raw, roughly grated carrots, and some lean minced meat to the stir fry. If it is not lean, pre-cook and decant some of the oil beforehand, then add.
Add the blended tomato mixture, stir and let simmer on medium heat for 10-12 minutes so the mix cooks and the raw taste of the tomatoes is gone.
Don’t over-season till you’ve added and tasted the stock, in the next step.
Add water or stock to the tomato sauce. Stir well, season to taste and add the rice. Stir again. Cover pan and bring to the boil.
When it comes up to the boil, add butter, stir again and turn down the heat – letting the rice steam for another 15-20 minutes, or till cooked (depending on how you like your rice). If rice is getting too dry, add some more stock or water, stir gently and leave to cook.
To make a coconut version, substitute half the water/stock with regular coconut milk
When it’s cooked…and herein lies the genius, my genius, turn the fire on high and let the rice cook….and smoke. You should smell it. Turn off the heat when you get persistent smokiness coming through, about 5 minutes.
And enjoy a glass of Chapman, while you’re at it.