The Wide World of Jollof Rice

This spiced red rice dish is loved across the coast of West Africa, with diasporic expressions across the Atlantic.

Jollof rice is the most popular rice dish south of the Sahara, from its birthplace in Senegal across the coast to Nigeria. It is street food, everyday rice and Party Rice—eaten at birthdays, funerals, and celebrations of any sort. It's an often quoted saying that "A party without Jollof is just a meeting," and frankly, I can't remember a single Nigerian party I've been to where Jollof, in one form or the other, wasn't present.

Popular as it is, it's no surprise that this dish is treated like a family heirloom. The exact recipe differs from kitchen to kitchen, and is passed along and treasured.

Jollof Rice
Ozoz Sokoh

Jollof rice is named after the kingdom of Jolof, a historic 15th- to 18th-century state in the Senegambian region. Ancient Dyula travelling salesmen are credited with spreading the joy of Jollof south and all the way to Niger and Nigeria east. Today, Jollof exists in every country across the subcontinent, each with its own unique take.

READ MORE: Rice Is Everything: A Celebration of the World's Most Popular Food

The essentials for Jollof rice are tomatoes, sweet red peppers, chilies of various colors and heat levels, spices, blends and aromatics, vegetables, and the most important of them all: rice. The kind varies from long to short grain, whole to broken, depending on where you are and what you like. It is changes these which both unite and differentiate it. Beef or chicken stock or both are common additions, and in many cases, people use bouillon or seasoning cubes.

One key component of the dish is the stew base, made by blending fresh tomatoes, onions, a variety of sweet, long, hot, and bell peppers with a touch of water or stock. The ratio of those ingredients differs from recipe to recipe, but in every case, these ingredients gets cooked down and reduced mostly to round off the raw, tart flavors. Some people like to roast the vegetables whole or in large chunks before blending. Whatever path you choose, the second step involves frying this reduced tomato and pepper mix in some oil, with or without tomato paste, and seasoning to taste. This is the stew that gives the rice its flavor. Though stove top cooking is the most common, some people use an oven, or even a rice cooker.

In Senegal, Thiéboudienne or Ceebu Jen, as Jollof is known there, is made with broken jasmine rice, (imported from Vietnam via France during colonial times), cooked in a seasoned stew of fresh tomatoes or tomato paste, fresh and fermented seafood, delightful parsley paste called rof, and vegetables—carrots, aubergines, cassava are popular. Typically, firm-fleshed white fish is seasoned with the rof, fried and then removed from the pot, set aside for incorporation at the end. The vegetables are cooked through till they are soft, tender and still retain their shape, then removed, and finally, it's time for the stew. The tomato blend goes in, then seasoning, and then you add rice, stirred gently but thoroughly as it cooks. As the rice nears doneness, the vegetables and fish are reintroduced and to marry the flavors together for the final stretch of cooking. To serve, the rice is ladled into a large dish, and the vegetables and fish are piled on top. Next door, the Gambians call it Benachin and it has many similarities with the Senegalese version, with cabbage being a popular addition.

Across French-speaking countries from Guinea Bissau to Guinea, Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso, Benin, Togo, and Niger, Jollof rice is called Riz au Gras, or Riz Gras for short. The phrase translates as "fat rice" and is a reference to the short-grain variety popular in these parts. In Mali the dish goes by Nsamé or Zaame. Several recipes in these countries are similar to Thiéboudienne and feature whole vegetables including okra, cabbage, and (sweet) potatoes. In Guinea, my friend, Memunat makes a beautiful version cooked in a tamarind-laced stew with beef and potatoes.

In English-speaking Sierra Leone, Liberia, Ghana and Nigeria, the dish goes by Jollof. As a Nigerian, I think of Jollof both as the rice dish and as a noun used to describe enjoyment. "See Jollof" means "see how much fun is being had." Nigerians also favor parboiled, converted rice for its ability to stand up to slow-cooking without turning the rice to mush. The goal is for the rice grains to stay separate, like pilau, each grain beautifully coated in the bright orange-red sauce. More recently, the use of basmati rice is growing. Golden sella basmati is my favorite kind of rice to use. Like converted rice, the grains stay whole in the course of cooking.

The primary seasoning for Nigerian Jollof includes some or all of the following: curry powder, dried thyme, bay leaf, fresh ginger and garlic and pepper, white or black. This is "regular" Nigerian Jollof often accompanied by beef or chicken, fried or grilled; a coleslaw-style salad served with salad cream; dodo (sweet ripe plantains, often diced); and/or moinmoin (similar to tamales, wrapped in leaves or made in ramekins from raw, pureed black-eyed beans)—a feast!

Two other kinds of Jollof are popular, Party and Native Jollof. Party Jollof, also called Party rice, is imbued with smoky flavors and commonly cooked outdoors, over firewood. Some people approximate the flavors on the stovetop by turning the heat up once the rice is cooked, then letting it burn, others employ liquid smoke. There is also the smoky, toasty crusty rice at the bottom of the pot, associated with it, a red spiced equivalent of Persian..

Native rice features vegetal, fermented flavors from a combination of unrefined red palm oil and smoked, dried fish, finished with fragrant herbs like uziza (leaves of piper Guineense) and/or scent leaf, cousin to Thai basil and Vietnamese perilla.

Ghanaians, who favor scented Thai Jasmine rice, and are the other half of the Jollof Wars, a playful rivalry with Nigeria, are partial to ginger, kpakpo shito (a variety of green scotch bonnets) and aromatic spices like fennel and aniseed. The Jollof Wars are all about who makes the best pot and on World Jollof Rice Day, celebrated on August 22 across West Africa and the diaspora, one might see contests and competitions featuring both countries.

Across the Atlantic, there are traces of Jollof in red rice, as well as in Jambalaya. Other similar red rice dishes are the Portuguese Arroz de Tomate and Mexican Arroz Rojo.

Whatever country exploration you decide to embark on now you have knowledge, enjoy it. Explore the popular accompaniments and cook yourself a feast—see Jollof for yourself.

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