BBC – Travel – Jollof Wars: Who makes the best iconic West African rice dish?
With its seductive aroma, dark red color and spicy flavor, Jollof rice is the undisputed queen of West African cuisines. It is our beloved culinary treasure and a dish of our heart and soul. But just whisper the word “Jollof” in West Africa and you could easily start a heated feud of passion. This is because determining which West African nation makes the best Jollof is an ongoing matter of local pride and contention.
Jollof rice is to West Africa what paella is to Spain, risotto to Italy, biriyani to India and fried rice to China. As a child growing up in Ghana, I swallowed Jollof at family reunions, birthdays, coming-of-age ceremonies, engagement parties and weddings. Enjoyed as a main course, this rich and appetizing dish consists of rice cooked in a savory sauce of tomatoes, onions and aromatic spices. These basic ingredients are often layered with ginger, garlic, thyme, grains of selim (a West African spice), tomato puree, curry powder and Scotch peppers. Bonnet, although the exact components and preparation differ from country to country; even from house to house.
While each plate of Jollof may vary, each one brings exciting flavors. The tasty sweetness of the onions is very important. Seasoning is crucial. And the choice of meat – mutton, beef, chicken, goat, lamb or even fish – offers a different delight every time. The meat is spicy and delicately braised in broth until tender, before being fried and returned to the broth. Then the rice is added to the meat, broth and spicy sauce and simmered until it absorbs all the tasty liquid, leaving each grain aromatic, delicious and a delicious orange-red hue.
You may also be interested in:
• Asia’s controversial rice dish
• Can Rwanda’s milk bars survive?
• Did the Dutch steal this “superfood”?
The origins of Jollof rice can be traced back to the 1300s in the old Wolof Empire (also known as the Jolof Empire), which covered parts of present-day Senegal, Gambia, and Mauritania. Rice cultivation 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 throughout the region and settled in different parts of West Africa, taking with them their sumptuous dish of rice.
Despite its ubiquity in the region, few foods have made as much noise as Jollof rice. Today, every country in West Africa has at least one variant of the Jollof, which both divides and unites the region. Each nation and family adds its own twist and interpretation, which is perhaps the root of the fierce competition that takes place on social media, parties and street chats. Black Foodie website, who explores food and culture through a black lens, described it as “one of the most interesting and passionate food debates among the diaspora… these are the most epic food oxen of all time” .
The main protagonists of a debate about who makes the best Jollof rice are Ghana, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Liberia and Cameroon. The Gambia and Senegal are fairly laid back and rarely get into the Jollof controversy; after all, they gave it to the world. A myriad of variations feed the current competition with as many similarities as differences; and with the oral traditions of transmitting recipes, what else could we expect?
For example, my Ghanaian mother would simmer the rice with the sauce and the meat in a one-pot pan, which is, of course, my favorite preparation. Nigerians and Liberians sometimes use palm oil in place of vegetable oil to give greater depth of flavor, especially when cooking with smoked and dried fish. In Nigeria and Cameroon, red peppers are often mixed with the basic ingredients of onions, tomatoes and chili to add vibrancy and subtle sweetness. These two nations also like to add smoked paprika to give the Jollof a smoky flavor, similar to cooking over a wood fire. A Gambian friend boasts of adding smoked snails to her Jollof, a traditional ingredient in The Gambia and Senegal.
Nigerian food writer Jiji Majiri Ugboma believes that “the Jollof feud between Ghana and Nigeria is arguably the most heated food debate among all diasporas.” As a Ghanaian with many Nigerian friends, I couldn’t agree more. These two passionate nations seem to like to hate each other, and both think theirs is the best Jollof rice. One main difference is the type of rice used. Ghanaians use aromatic basmati rice, which gives it extra flavor, while Nigerians use long grain rice, believing it to be the best at absorbing flavor. Both countries enjoy this sweet tease, seeing it as a battle of wits where each tries to exhaust the other with words.
“Ironically, the feud actually brings together Nigerians and Ghanaians,” Ugboma said. “It’s a language of love between the two countries and is similar to the dynamic of siblings teasing each other.”
Jollof’s feud between Ghana and Nigeria is arguably the most heated food debate among any diaspora
The musicians also joined in the joke, with Akon claims Liberian Jollof is the best, even if he comes from Senegal. Ghanaian musician Sister Deborah released an anthem in 2016 titled Ghana Jollof with lyrics including “Ghana Jollof, yummy; Nigerian Jollof, it is funny”.
Senegalese chef Pierre Thiam, owner Teranga restaurant in New York, considers this joke to be both “fun and really serious.”
“I wish all wars were fought like Jollof’s war. No murders! No blood,” he said. “I also believe there will never be a winner. Everyone thinks their mom does the best. I enjoy both Nigerian and Ghanaian dishes and even Sierra Leonean dishes from Jollof, but in my humble time opinion, nothing compares to the original: Senegal Jollof. “
As much as West Africans appreciate these good-natured differences of opinion, our love of food can undoubtedly bring us closer together. It’s easy to see why all hell broke loose when celebrity chef Jamie Oliver cooked Jollof rice and shared his recipe on his website in 2014. West Africans forgot they had a Jollof war In progress. Outraged, their collective response was to drop everything, hold hands and load Oliver’s website. They might be arguing over which Jollof was the best in West Africa, but they weren’t going to allow anyone to play with their culinary treasure. Hashtags like #jollofgate went wild on Twitter. With ingredients such as lemon, cilantro and parsley, Oliver’s Jollof was for many a twist too far, although he pointed out that his recipe was his own take on Jollof. Africans worried that if that were not contested, cultural diversion could quite easily make Oliver’s version the official Jollof rice.
Yet overall, the Jollof debate has been positive and has increased awareness and interest in West African food. The 10 fastest growing food trends for 2020 predicted by Whole foods included West African foods: peanuts, lemongrass and ginger; grains such as teff, sorghum, fonio and millet; and moringa superfoods have all been mentioned as traditional West African flavors that “appear everywhere in foods and drinks”.
And, like a revival of the diaspora, Jollof is suddenly everywhere too. Jollof food festivals have taken place in Washington, DC and Toronto, and Jollof competitions in Nigeria. World Jollof Day has been celebrated every year on August 22, since 2015, with photos and videos unleashed on social media.
As African restaurants around the world become more and more mainstream, they are adding even more variations and interpretations to their Jollof offerings. that of London Ikoyi put smoked Jollof rice with crab cream; while Teranga’s Jollof rice finds a new form in an “Ancient Vegan Bowl”, topped with a stew of sweet potatoes and black-eyed peas, a stew of kale and organic red palm oil and of spicy plantains.
With the increase in the global popularity of Jollof, Thiam believes that “We will see an increasing interest in the dish and in African foods in general. Watch out for Jollof rice in your supermarket aisle.”
As excited as we are that the world is embracing Jollof rice, for West Africans it is more than a colorful and tasty rice dish that we love to chat about – it connects to our rich. heritage and it is a dish that will forever remain in our hearts. Even as we get closer, the fire in the Jollof’s kitchen rages on.
Food wars is a BBC Travel series that invites you to feel the heat when passions erupt around beloved dishes that shape a culture’s identity.
If you liked this story, subscribe to the weekly newsletter on bbc.com features called “The Essential List”. A handpicked selection of stories from BBC Future, Culture, Worklife and Travel, delivered to your inbox every Friday.