I am not exactly a social media guru or aficionado. I am more of an observer and can’t be bothered most times by the drama; but one day while Instagram trolling, I stumbled on a meme depicting the difference between Nigerian and Ghanaian jollof rice. It showed two men wearing suits, the well dressed and dapper man was titled Nigerian jollof rice, while the poorly dressed and comical man was tagged the Ghanaian jollof rice. It was hilarious but insulting and then I checked it out some more and well my mind was blown and ding…I had to write about this, I just had to.
You see, I consider myself an above average authority on Ghanaian cuisine. I lived in Ghana for over a year and I sampled the cuisine as much as I could, and well it was good. I know this argument about jollof rice comes from a place of passion – both countries don’t joke about jollof rice. I mean who could blame us, jollof rice is ‘the business’. One of my all time favourites and an Achilles heel (It’s as close to chocolates on my list of kyrptonites. I stay away from it now with trying to be FitGam and all).
Jollof rice just gets you, when you are lucky enough to eat one that is decadent and perfect, you will be smiling like a fool for the rest of the day (True story).
In trying to dissect this issue though, I will try and be as unbiased as possible because on both sides of the divide I have eaten some life changing jollof “rices”. You know what, I am getting ahead of myself, let’s take it from the start.
ORIGIN OF JOLLOF RICE
Jollof rice is a dish made with rice, tomatoes, tomato paste, onions, scotch bonnet peppers, salt, spices and vegetable oil. Whatever variations are available, these ingredients are a must in the dish. The long grain rice we use to cook this dish is not even indigenous to us. It is imported into our shores from Asia. This already tells you this dish came from somewhere else.
The truth is none of the two countries can claim ownership to the invention of the dish. Yes, mastery has been achieved because of years cooking this dish, but it doesn’t mean we own it. For example the “beignet”(a fried donut) is originally a French recipe; but for some reason, New Orleans in America is considered the “beignet” capital. So I understand how dishes can be passed around and then become the pride of a place.
The dish was invented by the “Wolof” people – an ancient tribe that was spread across Senegal, Gambia and Mauritania. It is called “Thieboudienne” in Senegal and “Benachim (One pot)” in Gambia but the “Wolof” tribe reside in Senegal today so Senegal is the Jollof rice Inventor. However, it was passed around along the West African coast and became so popular. Interestingly, a lot of people don’t know it originated from Senegal. I saw on online poll with Forty percent of the respondents saying Jollof rice is from Ghana, Thirty three percent Nigeria, Seventeen percent Senegal and Ten percent Gambia.
THE GHANAIAN JOLLOF RICE
For you to understand Ghanaian jollof rice, you have to know that the rice used is different from the Nigerian one. Their preference is Thai Jasmine- a perfumed more starchy rice which we call “basmati”. The average Ghanaian can’t stand the long grain rice Nigerians eat. They say it’s not sweet and the grains are too fat.(It’s a thing)
It was in Ghana that I learnt to cook perfect “basmati” rice. My flatmate taught me to cook the rice with one and quarter inches of water covering the rice i.e. the first line of your thumb to your fingernail tip. When the water dries, the rice will still be a little hard, all you do need to do is cover up with foil paper and steam on low heat and you have perfect fluffy rice.
The same methodology is used for jollof rice, but a rich tomato stew infused with a meat stock of your choice is fried first before you pour in the rice. Note that this rice is NEVER parboiled or you will end with a soggy mess. The starch content in this rice is quite high. In fact there is a dish in Ghana called “Rice Water”- a rice pudding eaten with milk and sugar. You cook the rice with lots of water on high heat and it becomes the consistency of oatmeal. It is delicious by the way.
I remember a jollof party we had in church. (You heard right, it was a jollof rice party. Jollof rice is taken seriously in Ghana.) Each home was to bring different kinds of jollof rice; lamb, chicken, turkey, beef, goat meat, sausage, gizzard, pork (it was in Ghana that I fell in love with pork). In a bid to outshine one another, people brought their A-games. The meals were just amazing. Ahhh, memories…
Ghanaians also love spicy food. The more peppery, the better it tasted. So the jollof rice is often accompanied with “shito” – a peppery oily condiment made from onions, shrimp, ginger and peppers served in small plastic containers. “Shito” is great and there are some supermarkets here in Nigeria that sell jars of “shito”. When my sister was still in school in Ghana, she used to bring jars of shito when she was on vacation and in my house. We use shito to eat everything – bread, yam, chips e.t.c. Any Ghanaian jollof rice that is unaccompanied by shito is incomplete.
I used to eat a lamb jollof rice that another flatmate of mine used to bring from Tema, a city in Ghana. It was just superduper outstanding. My elder sister (not the one who schooled there) says the best jollof rice she ever ate was in Ghana, so there are Nigerians who appreciate the Ghanaian take on the dish.
If you are ever in Accra, Ghana and want to try out the jollof rice, I recommend trying out Katawodieso in Osu, Country Kitchen in North ridge, Auntie Muni’s in Labone, Marquis Tante Marie in Accra Mall. I know a lot of Nigerians know Buka Restaurant in Osu, and though the ambience is great with a huge lunch crowd, the jollof rice is underwhelming for me.
THE NIGERIAN JOLLOF RICE
My earliest memories of jollof rice as a child were at parties and celebrations. Jollof rice and chicken and coke was the delicacy of Christmas day. Watching Jollof rice being cooked during festivities by the “alases” was always a joy for me.
There are two types of Jollof rice in Nigeria: the regular home cooked one, which is nice; and the “Party Jollof rice” which is epic. If I have to choose my favourite, it will be Party Jollof rice.
Party jollof rice is in a league of its own – that awesome smoky taste is legendary. I will go for an Owanbe because of party jollof rice.
Cooking perfect party jollof rice is an art to be learned. I believe it’s the firewood smoke and the burning of the rice in the cast iron pot that gives it that indescribable taste. The new school party jollof rice cooked at parties with gas cooker is not the same – except the cook is exceptionally gifted.
If you are a professional caterer and your jollof rice is not superb, you could be in some mess. My sister was telling me of a woman who was a professional caterer (a very comfortable one)who was praying beside her in church in a fervently Yoruba way with her head shaking and shouting “Oluwa, jor ma je ki rice mi jimi ” ( God, please don’t let my rice be soggy). You may laugh but I feel the woman’s pain.
Jollof rice cooked the Nigerian way is pretty great. Some people parboil it, some don’t. Some add green peas and sweet corn. There is local jollof rice made with palm oil or palm nut extract.
I believe I have eaten thousands of jollof rice in my lifetime. I can’t start recommending places to eat great jollof rice because I won’t exhaust the list. There are too many great experiences with this dish right here at home.
Let me wax philosophical and say that what we see at play here is deeper than a fantastic dish. It could be the ever irrepressible Nigerian superiority complex and the typical African/Ghanaian view that Nigerians are aggressive and think they know all. We all have our prejudices and I am not about to go into all that; but the truth is the take of both countries on jollof rice are great, and every one should be proud of their take on the dish and not start an insultfest.
Can we stop being so critical?
It’s the same way I didn’t get the entire #Jollofgate when it happened. The man (Chef Jamie Oliver) was trying to put his spin on the dish and he was almost crucified. If we continue to have this possessive/aggressive stance on our foods, it will turn people off from learning and loving our cuisine.
In my humble opinion, there are no winners. They are both amazing, really. And I daresay that most of these troublemakers have not sampled both jollof rices to make an informed assessment.
Food and subsequently taste is subjective, our tastes can’t always correlate, that would be weird. Let there be peace, please.
Photo Credit: Dreamstime | Robyn Mackenzie