Skip to main content

The Journeys Of Jollof Rice* by Sonala Olumhense

This much can be said about the geographical origins of jollof rice: West Africa. 

Beyond this, there is no agreement as to an actual location.   Nigerians claim it, perhaps because, owing to our population, we eat more of it than anyone in the world. 

Jollof rice is claimed by the Senegalese, perhaps because of the historical and cultural background of the Wolof and the Jolof peoples of the area. 

Joloff rice is claimed by Ghana, perhaps because of their close affinity with Nigeria, or some feeling that they own it dating from the period their Empire stretched into parts of Senegal.  Curiously, in her book, A Song Flung Up to Heaven, award-winning writer Maya Angelou sends a recipe for jollof rice to her mother from Ghana.  (Obviously, the author had never wandered in Nigeria; never tasted the Jollof delights of Iya Iyabo’s restaurant in Moshalashi). 

Jollof rice is claimed by Mali and Mauritania, perhaps because of their historical ties with Senegal, or with Nigeria (by way of the Benin Empire).   

Jollof rice is claimed by Gambia, proving that this is a hugely popular dish throughout Africa’s West Coast, where it is a must at weddings and other celebrations.      

Curiously, jollof rice is not claimed by the Chinese, whose restaurants around the world exist because of rice.  It is of some interest that even in West Africa, ‘Chinese food’ menus do not feature Jollof recipes.

Jollof rice is usually served with other delicacies such as dodo and fried meat.  Notice that these are elements that are not a part of the Jollof itself.  They are additions that may be obtained from the other end of the buffet table, or thrown in by Ms. Girlfriend to make the dish – or, both dishes, when you think about it -- irresistible. 

This is where the problem begins.  Nobody seems to know what is part of the Jollof itself, and what is not.  One so-called recipe says, rather shamelessly, “the most common basic ingredients are: rice, tomatoes and tomato paste, onion, salt, and red pepper. Beyond that, nearly any kind of meat, fish, vegetable, or spice can be added.”

You have to remember that someone is passing this off as a genuine recipe.  Tell me: was rice ever supposed to be cooked without rice or onions and salt and pepper?  Are fish and meat really part of any particular recipe, or are they called to evidence in every jollof rice “recipe” because people expect to eat them at a meal?

Speaking of fish and meat, another recipe begins, “1 chicken, cut-up (when I say "cut-up", I don't mean breast, thigh, wing etc., I mean hacked with an axe or whatever into little pieces, bone, meat skin and all) - the trick to African vs. American authenticity.”  You can tell that the writer is no cook at all, can’t you?

A respected magazine begins its recipe this way: “1/4 teaspoon salt, 1/3 cup all-purpose flour…”  Remember, I said the magazine was respected; I did not say by me.

Yet another recipe for jollof rice opens, “Pour oil into large saucepan. Cook onion in oil over medium-low heat until translucent…”

And don’t you just hate it when someone begins a “recipe” with such fiction as “2 cups of water.”  This has neither focus nor meaning, two key ingredients a true chef must be armed with.  I mean: two cups of water?  To cook how much of what, and for how many people?

How did this culinary chaos come about?  The answer is simple: people trying to justify or explain the contents of a dish beyond its true history.  And this is what makes all the recipes for jollof rice bogus.  

The chaos is attributable to the true inventor of this dish: hunger.  I do not mean the kind of hunger that everyone experiences from time to time, or the kind that arises because such distraction as work has kept one from food.  I mean the kind of hunger that only a bachelor seems to know, the kind that keeps a man awake in the middle of the night because there is simply and absolutely no food in his house: no geisha sardines, no egusi, and not even garri to soak in water. 

That was how Mr. Bachelor Boy made his famous discovery.  Looking into every half-hidden pot and every yet-to-be-washed plate, he finally began to pay attention to some leftover cooked rice and a spoon or two of stew that he had been ignoring.  His searing pangs of hunger now replaced by a flash of inspiration, he proceeded to do the obvious: emptying one into the other.  Once he had warmed the concoction, his monumental invention was complete. 

It seems that generations of hungry men and women, restaurants and party organizers, owe their triumph to that man.  Pity he did not take out a patent on his invention, or write down his diligent step by step, ingredient by ingredient method.   As a result, not only has he never earned a coin for his pains, every Tom, Dickson and even their sister Harriet now claims expertise over jollof rice. 

In the end, the chef is the recipe.   There is no original jollof rice recipe because the dish has only two ingredients: rice, in one plate or pot; and sauce, any cooked sauce, in another. 

Perhaps it is because of this vacuum that you now hear such meaningless phrases as “Gambia Joloff” or “Ghana Jollof.”  Actually, there is only one Jollof: good or bad.  Regrettably, the bad far outweigh the good. 

I have been to parties, haven’t you, at which the jollof rice obviously was no Jollof at all, reeking of palmoil and some indistinct combination of ingredients.  I mean a dish in which even good old pepper was not represented, let alone salt.

I have also been to other parties, haven’t you, where the jollof rice first seemed to have been ignored, only to disappear after an hour.  That means someone with a genuine mixing talent had engineered some good Jollof, and the hit had been discovered.  

Somewhere, Mr. Bachelor Boy must be full of regret.  As a result of having failed to append his name to his invention, you have young ladies today who claim to be champion chefs simply because they can empty Yetunde’s egusi into Lakunle’s rice.  You ask her, “what are you eating?” and she answers through teeth that have yet to be brushed, “jollof rice!”

But it is a new day, and as popular as the dish has become, and its potential to become even more, it is time to rest the debate about its origins, particularly now that diversifying the economy is finally gaining attention in such cultures as Nigeria.  To that end, it is also time to promote healthier versions of jollof, cooked with brown rice and olive oil, and garnished with fresh vegetable salads. 

That would be jollof that restaurants, airlines and television cooking shows worldwide could feature in their menus.  Many two-faced African leaders arriving at the United Nations General Assembly every September might even confront it in New York restaurants.  

[email protected]
Twitter: @SonalaOlumhense

*Originally written in 2007 as “DOING JUSTICE TO JOLLOF RICE,” this edited version is published in honor of Facebook billionaire Mark Zuckerberg, who discovered the dish in Nigeria last week.