No matter how often or where I eat Jollof, it’ll always be considered owambe (”party”) food in my heart.
Since 2015, I’ve celebrated World Jollof Rice day every Aug. 22 with friends and (virtual) strangers. I’ve organized Jollof art installations and have even started a Jollof festival, one which now pulls in thousands of people each year. We're all united by a love of Jollof, or party rice, and the accidental (or intentional!) scorched layer at the bottom, which Nigerians call "bottom pot."
You may know “bottom pot” by another name: “kanzo” in Northern Nigeria and Ghana, “xoon” in Senegal, “kose” in Guinea, and “intshela” in South Africa; “socarrat” in Spain, “bay kdaing” in Cambodia, and “tutong” in the Philippines. “Guo ba” in China, “kazmag” in Uzbekistan and Azerbaijan, “pegao” in Colombia and Puerto Rico, “cocolón” in Ecuador, “concón” in the Dominican Republic, “nurungji” in Korea. “Okoge” in Japan, “intip” in Indonesia, “cơm cháy” in Vietnam, “khao taen” in Thailand, “hikakeh: in Iraq, “graten” in Haitai, “bunbun” in Jamaica, and “tahdig” in Persia. There are numerous others.
I’m fascinated, and made hopeful, by the small, mighty things that connect us—like the smoky, crunchy crust that lines a perfect pot of fluffy rice.
Growing up, bottom pot was seen as the by-product, a happy bump on the road to party rice. No one set out to make it, but if it happened, it happened. And while I love serendipity, I also really love bottom pot—and so, I began designing the scorched, almost-burnt-but-not layer into my recipes.
For World Jollof Rice Day this year, I’m uniting Queen Jollof with King Bottom Pot. Nailing that tension between textures—of soft, fluffy rice and roasty, crunchy grains—requires a two-step cooking process: First, building flavor and starting the cooking process (we can think of this as “par-cooking” the rice); then, adding just enough gentle heat to let the bottom layer toast, while the insides steam and fluff.
Into my classic recipe, I’m swapping in golden sella basmati rice, the grains of which are parboiled post-harvest, and hold up decently well despite longer cooking times. For a surefire, shattering-crisp shell, I employed some of Samin Nosrat's tips found in her recipe for Persian-ish Rice.
Lining the bottom of the pot with cooked rice, cloaked in a fatty, creamy sauce (Nosrat uses yogurt, I use coconut cream for a coconutty variation on Jollof) ensured a cohesive and—most importantly of all—easily unmoldable bottom pot.
When ready to invert, run a spatula or butter knife around the pan so the rice is eager to leave when you flip. Then, get a plate—one that’s slightly larger than the width of the pan—and center it over the rice. Pressing the plate onto the pot firmly, flip and land the plate onto your table or work surface. Lift the inverted pot to reveal Queen Jollof, fittingly crowned with a perfect, gleaming crust.
For many years, I lamented the lack of opportunities to feast on smoky Jollof. Truth be told, it was more my lack of desire to leave the house than one of invitations. And once my friend’s mom taught me how to create bottom pot, I settled into my true self—making and eating party Jollof at home, for special occasions and not.
But this year—perhaps ironically, perhaps expectedly—I want to go out to an owambe somewhere, to be surrounded by the joyful sounds of people coming together over good food and conversation. But instead, my children and I will be partying at home—sharing a pot of crispy-bottomed Jollof even, especially if there's a crack or two in the crust. I hope you’ll join us.
For the Jollof:
- 2 cups (450 grams) golden sella basmati rice, washed until the water runs clear
- 14 ounces fresh tomatoes, roughly chopped
- 3 medium red onions (2 1/2 onions roughly chopped, 1/2 sliced)
- 1-2 habanero peppers, as needed
- 1/3 cup tomato paste
- 1/4 cup vegetable oil
- 1 large red bell pepper, seeded and roughly chopped
- 2-3 cups of stock, as needed
- 1/2 teaspoon curry powder, to taste
- 1/2 teaspoon dried thyme, to taste
- 1/4 teaspoon ground white pepper, to taste
- 1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper, to taste
- 1 - 2 dried bay leaves, as needed
- Kosher salt
- Soak the washed rice in room temperature water for at least 20 minutes while you prep the stew.
- Blend the fresh tomatoes, bell peppers, roughly chopped onions, habanero, and tomato paste until smooth. You should have about 3 1/2 cups.
- Heat the oil in a large non-stick pot set over medium-high heat. Once the oil is shimmering, add the sliced onions and a pinch of salt. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the onions are golden.
- To the pot, add the blended tomato mixture ,1 1/2 cups of stock, curry powder, dried thyme, white and black pepper, bay leaf, and a generous pinch of salt. Cover and let simmer steadily until the stew is reduced by about a third, 15-20 minutes. Taste and adjust seasoning, as needed. Ladle out 3/4 cup of the stew into a small bowl and set aside. (You’ll fold this in later to boost the color and flavor of the rice.)
- Drain the soaked rice and add to the pot, stirring well. Reduce heat to the lowest possible setting, return the lid, and let rice cook for 20 minutes.
- After 20 minutes, stir the pot’s contents once more, making sure to scrape the bottom of the pot as well. Remove from heat, and add the reserved 3/4 cup stew.
For the bottom pot & assembly:
- 1/3 cup ghee
- 1 ripe plantain, cut into 1/2-inch coins and lightly salted (optional)
- 1/2 cup coconut cream
- Heat the ghee in a 10-inch non-stick pot set over medium-low heat. If using the plantains, when the oil is just starting to shimmer, sear until just caramelized, about 1 minute each side.
- Spoon 3/4 cup of the Jollof rice mixture into a small bowl, and gently fold in the coconut cream. Spread the rice mixture in a thin layer onto the plantains, if using, or simply onto the hot oil in the pan. It should reach up the sides a bit, about 1/2-inch or so, kind of like pressing a pie crust into a pan. Spoon the remaining Jollof rice over, gently leveling, but not packing it too tightly—you want the rice to stay light and fluffy.
- With the handle of a wooden spoon, poke 5 or 6 holes into the rice, ensuring you touch the bottom of the pan (think of them as chimneys that allow the steam to escape). Cook the rice, uncovered, for 16 minutes, turning the pan a quarter turn every 4 minutes. You should see the oil bubbling around the sides, and the edges of the crust turn golden.
- Once the crust is formed, turn the heat to low, and wrap your lid in a kitchen towel (this will help absorb any excess moisture). Cover the pan and cook for another 15 minutes, or until the rice is cooked through.To lightly scorch the bottom of the pot, increase the heat to high and let cook for 2-3 minutes.
- Gently remove from the heat and prepare to unmold. Run a spatula around the edges to loosen the crust. Place a large plate over the pan—pressing the plate firmly onto the surface of the pan—and carefully invert the rice onto the plate. (If the crust isn’t quite as dark as you expected it to be, broil for a few minutes.)