October is Black History Month. For today’s recipe I wanted to learn about (and try to make) a dish I’ve never eaten before: Jollof Rice, a hugely popular and quintessentially West African food. I didn’t specifically set out to make Jollof rice when I began researching the history of West African food, but it was impossible to escape it – everywhere I turned, recipes for Jollof rice popped up, each proclaiming to be better than the last. It was too tempting to resist…
Firstly, let me start with a bit of a disclaimer by saying that I am not an expert in any way about the vast and various cuisines of West Africa. All I have done for this post is a bit of research, chatted to a few friends and colleagues who know how to cook Jollof Rice, and given it my best shot. If you want to find more African recipes or know more about the history of Jollof Rice (also here) then please do click on those links to see what people far more knowledgeable than me have to say.
I’ve written a bit about the cuisine of non-European food such as ancient Egypt and Persia, but it feels easier to write about this food when it’s framed in terms of ancient civilisations and the dishes either aren’t made anymore, or have changed significantly from the original.
This is one reason I tend to write mostly about the history of European food; it feels more familiar to me. Similarly, when I wrote about the history of my Indian grandad’s food it felt familiar because I was writing about my family first and foremost. It’s a totally
daunting different feeling to be writing about the history of a food that is still loved by millions today. Jollof Rice is so treasured and fiercely defended that there are ongoing bitter online rivalries about which nation makes the best version. Seriously, the scrutiny on any recipe that claims to be for Jollof is fierce and the condemnation, if such a recipe is found lacking, is harsh.
Hence the disclaimer. I can’t pretend to fully understand the nuance and symbolism of Jollof Rice, I didn’t grow up eating it and I don’t have any stakes in the #jollofwars. Instead what I can do this Black History Month is to read, research and listen to others. I hope you’ll spend some time this October (and, to be honest, all year round!) doing the same.
What’s in a name?
When I naively typed ‘Jollof Rice recipe’ into Google I was immediately hit with over 3 million results. This was genuinely a bit terrifying to me; I enjoy variety up to a point, but after a quick look it seemed that each recipe on the first page was different from the last. The second page of hits yielded similarly overwhelming results too. People also had Strong Opinions on these recipes and the only thing I came away knowing for certain was that if I wanted authentic Jollof I should avoid Jamie Oliver’s recipe and Tesco’s ready-meal version at all possible costs.
At its most basic, Jollof Rice is a dish of rice that is cooked slowly in stock and a mixture of blended tomato, onion and pepper. Over time the rice absorbs the liquid and takes on a deep red hue. Many variations of Jollof Rice contain other things, such as peas, carrots, meat or fish – and it’s in these additions that disputes between what is ‘the best’ Jollof often focus their attention.
Sadly, there isn’t an original written Jollof recipe we can point to as the first version of this dish and as far as I could see there are literally hundreds of ways to prepare it. However, the consensus among many West Africans seems to be that Jollof Rice originated from the Wolof people, possibly some time during the Jolof (or Wolof) Empire – a collection of West African states including modern day Senegal and the Gambia, dating from 1350-1549.
In Senegal today the Wolof people are the largest ethnic group, accounting for almost 40% of the country’s population and Wolof is the lingua franca of the country. The history of the Wolof people probably dates to around the 12th century when people migrated west following the collapse of the Empire of Ghana in c.1100, which was situated in present day Mali and Mauritania. In Wolof, Jollof Rice is called ‘benachin’, which translates as ‘one pot’ because everything is cooked in the same pot.
Yet despite the connection between names, Jollof Rice is the national dish of Nigeria, not Senegal. The national dish of Senegal is another rice dish, thiebou dieun. This dish contains more ingredients than the Jollof Rices of other countries and the main similarity seems to be that it is red and also contains rice and tomatoes.
So what are the ingredients of Jollof rice?
Well, rice. Duh. Also stock, onions, tomatoes and peppers. After that it gets…contentious.
Rice had been cultivated in Africa for around 3000 years and was an important part of West African cuisine long before the Jolof Empire existed. Judith A Carney writes that in the mid 15th century, an early Portuguese visitor described the cultivation of wetland rice on floodplains possibly near the Gambia: “They arrived sixty leagues beyond Cape Verde, where they met with a river which was of good width, and into it they entered with their caravels … they found much of the land sown, and many fields sown with rice…”
Onions were also a native crop, grown in North Africa from as far back as 5000 years ago. The ancient Egyptians held a special place for onions, with some arguing that the onions represented symbols of eternity because of the rings-within-rings. When Rameses IV died in c. 1160, onions were placed in his eye sockets. Don’t ask me why.
However tomatoes and peppers, other key ingredients in Jollof Rice, weren’t introduced to Africa until the early 15th century when the Portuguese set up trading posts along the river Gambia. Therefore we can say with some confidence that if Jollof Rice (in its modern day form at least) was a creation of the Jolof Empire it wasn’t part of the cuisine until sometime around 1440, which is when Portuguese traders appear to have arrived in the Jolof Empire.
Initially the Portuguese trading posts were intended to develop trade links between Africa and Europe, though in reality they were more like garrisons and were designed to force West Africans to trade only with Portugal, rather than other European traders. In exchange for manufactured goods such as firearms and new foods, the Portuguese took items such as gold and terracotta. However, these actions later contributed to the beginnings of one of the most brutal and horrific atrocities in history: the transatlantic slave trade.
The legacy of the transatlantic slave trade
The transatlantic slave trade refers to the enslavement and transport of millions of Africans from their homeland to the Americas during the 16th to 19th centuries by European traders – notably the Portuguese, Dutch, English and French. To this day it is one of the worst periods of human history, involving suffering on an unimaginable and harrowing scale.
The effects of the slave trade echo through history into today’s societies and in his work How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, the late historian Walter Rodney argued there was a fundamental economic imbalance between some European and African countries as a result of Europe benefiting economically from enslaved human labour while Africa was bled of its citizens.
As well as people, Africa lost parts of its own food identity from the 16th to the 19th centuries as European colonisers took over land and systematically set about destroying the existing culture. According to the food historian Igor Cusack, it is near impossible to overestimate the colonial impact on African national cuisines. The West African dish groundnut stew, for example, came about partly because French colonisers destroyed many of the indigenous crops in Senegal and used almost all of the agricultural land there for groundnuts, which were then exported for profit. Likewise the use of broken rice in the aforementioned thiebou dieun is due to colonial rule where large quantities of poor quality rice were imported from French Indochina to Africa, with the best quality rice to going straight to France.
One more reason it’s challenging trying to gather early evidence of Jollof rice is because there aren’t many sources available. That’s not to say they don’t exist, just that either my research skills aren’t good enough, or that making pre-16th century African sources readily available to the general population of the UK hasn’t been prioritised by archives and libraries. Or it could be a combination of both (probably this one, to be honest.)
Much of West Africa’s history is also oral and told through stories and customs that are passed down through generations in the form of songs or folklore. Griots – akin to ancient Greek bards or epic poets – are one important way the history of West Africa was passed down.
Despite the issues I had with gathering reliable evidence about the history of pre-16th century African food, I did find this OpenEdition journals collection and this British Library article hugely helpful when researching the history of language, writing and food across the African continent.
Back to Jollof
What is clear is that in spite of the distorting influence of the slave trade and colonialism on the history of African food, Jollof Rice is a quintessentially West African dish. Its reach into numerous countries – both in Africa and across the world – under various names and versions, and the joy and love it generates by those who share its culture, is testament to that.
In lieu of a ‘first ever’ Jollof recipe, I settled for something arguably better: a Jollof recipe that had remained largely unchanged for a couple of generations, shared with me from an exceptionally generous colleague. Out of respect for him I am not publishing his family recipe, though I have included links to similar recipes that are already available online at the end of this post.
Full disclosure to anyone following the #jollofwars, though: it is a Nigerian version. This was actually perfect for me as my dad spent quite a bit of his childhood growing up in Lagos, so I felt like if I was going to make any type of Jollof recipe I’d have wanted to try a Nigerian one, just to see if it was similar to the ones he remembered.
Let’s make Jollof (finally.)
I actually made this Jollof twice because the first time I added an entire un-deseeded scotch bonnet to the tomato/pepper/onion purée and then spent the next 12 hours in the fetal position when I tried a teaspoon of it. I had though I wasn’t too bad with spice, but oh my god.
The second time I made it I avoided all the seeds in the scotch bonnet and added only the tiniest scraping of the flesh to the tomato mixture. This mixture was then added to a stock, which I made by hand following my colleague’s instructions, and then I added the rice.
Nigerian Jollof Rice is rinsed of all its starch, so I had to wash the rice I used multiple times until the water ran totally clear. Following the recipe, I then added the rice to the pot of stock and tomato purée and left it to cook, stirring it frequently to stop it sticking to the pan.
After a while it was done. The liquid had mostly been absorbed by the rice, which had turned a deep red colour. As per my colleague’s instructions, I served the Jollof alongside the chicken which had been used for the stock and which I had baked after removing it from the liquid.
This. Was. Incredible.
Spicy (but not too much this time) but surprisingly sweet, and with a deep savoury flavour in the background because of the stock used to cook the rice in. I think maaaaybe my Jollof was slightly wetter than it should have been (looking at other versions online they seem less sticky), but even if it was it didn’t seem to affect how good it tasted.
Before I made it I had tried to think of food I’d eaten before that might be similar, and had wondered if paella might fit the bill. After one bite I could see that though these two dishes shared common ingredients, they were clearly distinct from each other. Given that both West Africa and Spain have historical links to Portugal, it’s not surprising that comparisons are sometimes drawn between the two dishes, but the truth is there are clear differences. Paella has a more fishy and saffron-y flavour, whereas Jollof is peppery, more herby and meatier.
Ultimately I’d urge anyone who, like me, has never tried Jollof Rice before to give this a go. Set aside a few hours to really appreciate the process and you won’t be disappointed. Hold back on the scotch bonnet if you don’t enjoy breathing fire, though.