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The Saucy Rice Dish So Beloved in West Africa, It Has its Own Holiday

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Someday I’ll have my dream of a New Nigerian Kitchen pop-up restaurant around the world. It’ll be an ode to rice with the deepest, smokiest of flavors; it’ll be my celebration of Jollof Rice and the joys of firewood accomplished on the stove top.

But before I get there: August 22nd and World Jollof Rice Day.

Classic Nigerian Jollof Rice
Classic Nigerian Jollof Rice

The most popular rice dish in Nigeria and all along the West African coast, Jollof Rice is spiced, red long-grain rice in a rich sauce of reduced tomatoes, onions, peppers, and chiles and seasoned with curry powder, dried thyme, and bay leaves. It’s a flavorful dish with iconic and national and regional significance status.

The first World Jollof Rice Day was celebrated on the August 22, 2015 across Nigeria and other parts of the world. While the dish's origins are unsure, that has not tempered excitement for the day and all things Jollof. (Jollof also means Enjoyment—as in, "Wow, see Jollof," meaning “You’re having a good time” or “You’re enjoying yourself.”)

I was thirty-six, living in Port Harcourt, a city on the southern coast of Nigeria, and obsessed with my culinary heritage when I cooked the perfect pot of Jollof Rice (and one I can recreate now). It was a milestone. Three dozen years of eating and cooking Jollof—some hits and some misses—and finally, I happened upon the secrets of the perfect pot of orange-red “sauced” rice:

  • Know your rice and parboil it accordingly
  • Cook your tomato sauce down, blunting its raw edges
  • Most importantly, don’t take your rice for a swim in a liquid ocean—let it paddle in the lake of sauce

See, I grew up eating Jollof cooked with long-grain rice, never giving much thought to its history or dominance across most of West Africa. As far as I was concerned, it was Nigerian in a way that needed no explanation: It was Sunday Rice and “Travel” Rice and most of all, it was Party Rice.

Photo by Erin Alderson

Now, if you don’t know what Party Rice means, you might think it ordinary, but you would be missing out on its heady, smoky flavor, very much associated with Party cooking, where women (aunties, cousins, neighbors) set up large pots of bubbling tomato sauce and rice and stirred with wooden paddles; I thought them full of super powers to wield the utensils and stand in the face of smoke and firewood.

The rice would take on layers of sweet and spice and smoke, spurred on not just by burning wood but also by socarrat a.k.a. bottom pot—the caramelized rice that forms on the base of the pan. The Catalans adore it (paella), as do Persians (tahdig), as do we Nigerians—the Maillard reaction pushed to the very edge of caramel and smoke. Some don’t tamper with the crust, letting its flavors rise through the rice, while others stir the burnt bits into the rice, creating a wild pattern of orange, black, soft and crunch.

For many years, I didn’t do either because I didn’t even know how to create the burn. I would learn, at age thirty-six, that you don’t have to toil over an open fire: You could do it on the stovetop if you liked. All that mattered was the pot you cooked it in and that would be stainless steel, not non-stick.

Nigerians and Ghanaians have longstanding feuds, and the question of who invented Jollof Rice, and whose is king or queen, is known as #Jollofwars. The first time I had “non-Nigerian” Jollof—and one of the tastiest Jollofs I’ve ever had—was in Ghana, and it was cooked by a Spaniard. After a long canoe ride in the Amansuri wetlands in the country’s western region, we headed to Cafe Puerto, a delightful Spanish establishment. Two countries west of Nigeria, I wasn’t prepared to be served Jollof that I would recognize (red and fragrant) and not recognize (different rice, different seasoning) at the same time.

Between the #Jollofwars and #Jollofgate—the controversy sparked by British chef Jamie Oliver’s version of the dish—I began to dig into Jollof’s history. While Nigeria and Ghana may lay claim, it is probable that Senegal and its Ancient Jolof Empire is the cradle. From the mid-fourteenth to mid-sixteenth century, the Jolof Empire ruled over parts of modern-day Senegal and Gambia; at the same time, the region was known as the Grain or Rice Coast due to the high cultivation of rice, millet, and other grains on the banks of the Senegal River. In her book Black Rice, The African Origins of Rice Cultivation in the Americas, Judith A. Carney explains that the Senegal River was established as a Portuguese trading post where tomatoes, spices, and other “foreign” produce and goods would have been available.

The Coconut Cookie That Takes Me Back to Childhood in Nigeria
The Coconut Cookie That Takes Me Back to Childhood in Nigeria

Oral tradition calls Penda Mbaye, a woman from Saint-Louis, Senegal, the birth mother of Thieboudienne, precursor dish to Jollof rice. Penda, a cook at the colonial governor’s residence, lived near the Senegal River delta and Portuguese trading post. Apparently, she substituted rice for barley during a shortage, creating a flavorful combination of fish and vegetables with tomatoes. Eventually Thieb became a favored dish across Senegal and was elevated to national dish status.

So how did it spread around West Africa? Through nineteenth-century Trans-Saharan trade? James McCann postulates in his book Stirring the Pot that Jollof rice spread by way of the Djula people, tradesmen from the historic Mali Empire who traversed borders and countries.

I imagine a tall, grey-haired Djula gent, cooking up a dish to share with Nigerian traders, limited by language, saying "Jolof, Jolof" to describe the symphony of tomato sauce and rice. Simplistic maybe, but possible. Interesting, too, are the similarities of “red rice” dishes from the American South: Jambalaya to Arroz Rojo, Mexican red rice.

Tomato Rice

Tomato Rice by Merrill Stubbs

Brown Rice Jambalaya-ish

Brown Rice Jambalaya-ish by healthierkitchen

But today, 22nd of August, we celebrate Jollof Rice, as Nigerian as the flag. Woven into the very fabric of our lives, it graces our tables at Christmas and on Sunday afternoons. It is the preserve of lunch boxes, wedding tables, funerals, and everything in between. In Americanah, a novel by Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Jollof Rice appears three times in various contexts of relationships and homecomings. In Without a Silver Spoon, the author Eddie Iroh gives lessons on cooking Jollof Rice in the voice of the protagonist, Ure, a young boy living with a teacher. Reading this popular school text made me smile:

I washed the rice twice as he had instructed, a second time in hot water… I put in the beef, onion, tomatoes and other ingredients a little too early! I also made the mistake of using a spoon to turn and stir the rice before it was properly done. This had caused the water to dry quickly and the rice at the bottom of the pot to turn into black coal without the rest being properly done.

I understand this scene so well, encountered many times in my thirty-six years, when I didn’t know how to make bottom pot account for much. Now I know better. I rinse my long grain rice (Uncle Ben's was really popular in Nigeria in the ‘80s but Carolina and similar varieties work well too) and I always parboil it, in stock (preferable) or water. I remember once, during a cook-off, I used washed, raw rice. Well, let me tell you, that was an epic fail because my rice cooked for two hours and never really softened. So yes, I always parboil my rice. I find it opens up the grains, makes them more permeable so they soak up the seasoned tomato sauce.

Fried plantains

Fried plantains by fiveandspice

Pickled Peas

Pickled Peas by Kitchen Butterfly

I also tend towards fresh tomatoes and peppers. And the trick is to cook on low heat so the rice steams, rather than boils. Heat trumps fluid here: Too much and you’ll have a mushy swamp; too little and you’ll have rock-hard grains. If you need to add liquid, don’t add and stir, like you would for risotto. Add, stir once, and leave it to cook. (And did I mention you can make this vegan with vegetable stock and no butter?)

In the end, the texture you want is one or two degrees of moistness away from pilaf or fried rice: grains coated with sauce yet somewhat separate. Truth is that some like theirs quite saucy and others not, but it’s never like risotto.

To serve the traditional way? Some fried plantains, beef and chicken; a very Nigerian salad of coleslaw with baked beans; and boiled eggs or moin moin, a steamed bean cake.

Happy World Jollof Rice Day 2016. Cook some Jollof! I will.

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Classic Nigerian Jollof Rice

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Makes a family-sized pot
  • 4 cups uncooked long-grain rice (not basmati)
  • 5 to 6 cups stock (vegetable, chicken, or beef) or water, divided
  • 6 medium-sized fresh plum/Roma tomatoes, chopped, OR a 400-gram tin of tomatoes
  • 6 fresh, red poblano peppers (or 4 large red bell peppers), seeds discarded
  • 3 medium-sized red onions (1 sliced thinly, 2 roughly chopped), divided
  • 1 to 2 Scotch bonnet peppers (yellow is my favorite!), to taste
  • 1/3 cup oil (vegetable/ canola/coconut, not olive oil)
  • 3 tablespoons tomato paste
  • 2 teaspoons (Carribean/Jamaican-style) curry powder
  • 1 teaspoon (heaping) dried thyme
  • 2 dried bay leaves
  • 2 teaspoons unsalted butter (optional), divided
  • Salt, to taste

If you had to choose one dish to remind you of your country—or your parents' or grandparents' country—what would it be? Tell us in the comments below!

Tags: jollof rice, jollof, nigeria, rice, rice dishes