A holiday celebrating a dish beloved of many West Africans, World Jollof Day, was marked last week.
Jollof is a celebration dish. You eat it at parties, naming ceremonies, weddings, funerals — you name it, you will see the familiar and comforting pot of steaming jollof rice.
But jollof is also war – of the deliciously friendly variety.
I come from Ghana, am based in Senegal and travel on reporting assignments all over West Africa. Almost every one of us from the region has grown up with fluffy, red-orange jollof rice, I suspect, as part of our diet. It is a universal favorite — the signature regional dish, with zillions of variations regarding its preparation, depending on your country of origin. And the rivalry is intense about whose country’s jollof rice is best and why. It’s a never-ending dispute – and mainly good-natured, though heartfelt.
As my dear friend Ronke Onadeko, who’s Nigerian, recently put it, “This jollof matter is sensitive and personal.”
So, let’s start with the basics. Rice, tomatoes, onions and chili peppers are the essential ingredients that no one disputes. (I don’t think!) Then it becomes whatever inspires you. Some jollof versions have meat – lamb, goat, beef and, yes, even corned beef. Vegetables are another option. Peas, peppers, carrots.
Prawns and shrimp can also be added. And one especially famous dish — the original and the inspiration for jollof, many say — is made with fish. There’s even a debate about whether to use fragrant or perfumed rice, like Basmati, or not.
From a linguistic perspective, the Senegalese and Gambians have a strong claim to jollof – or joloff or Djoloff – which was probably most likely called Wolof at its origin.
Sound familiar? Yes, Wolof is the lingua franca of Senegal, which is also spoken across the border in Gambia. But the dish is not called jollof by the Senegalese or the Gambians!
However, it stands to reason that the original Wolof/jollof rice came from Senegambia! The delicious, as-good-as national dish of Senegal is thiebou dieun. It’s a mix of rice, herb-spiked fish with roof (spicy stuffing) and assorted vegetables — aubergine, egg plant, whole carrots, cassava, turnips, cabbage and sides including baobab leaf and tamarind sauce. Don’t forget the all-important hoogn (rice crust), served separately. Thiebou dieun royal includes extras — fish balls, shrimp or prawns — and bears very little resemblance to what has come to be known as jollof rice elsewhere in West Africa. That’s mostly prepared with meat, not fish,or simply with vegetables.
The similarity with the Senegalese dish is that thiebou dieun is “red” (tomato-tinged orange) rice – at least in one manifestation of the flavorful Senegalese staple. But there is also thiebou wekh (wekh means “white” in Wolof, which is the color of the rice in that dish).
So the Senegalese, who clearly know where jollof rice must have originated, are barely getting involved in this debate – which pits mainly Nigerians, Sierra Leoneans, Liberians and Ghanaians against each other. Gambians aren’t talking much, either. They don’t need to.
“How can imitation be better than the original?” says my good friend Maimouna Jallow, who is from Gambia. “Do you buy Giorgio Armani or Julio Amani? Wolof jollof all the way!!!”
Recently, friends from the region, the continent, the African diaspora and beyond engaged in our own version of the Jollof Wars online. It all started with a link to this recent article about the Jollof Wars.
“You have literally sparked off culinary fisticuffs among [West African] brothers and sisters over this jollof rice matter!” Ebun Ikenze, another friend from Nigeria, wrote, as each of us jumped into the email fray.
There have been some lyrical contributions in our war of words – some nationalistic, some revelatory and some uncompromising, but all served with a generous dollop of humor and lashings of laughter and togetherness. In many ways, jollof unites West Africa as much as it divides the region.
Amma Ogan, my Nigerian “sister,” says she learned the secrets of jollof in the 1970s from a Senegalese chef, Paolo Diouf, at the Calabash restaurant at the Africa Centre in London’s Covent Garden.
“I learnt from him and a few others the main difference between Senegalese jollof rice and everything else,” Amma explains over email.
“Nigerians parboil the rice, make a separate stew, then mix the two and finish cooking together.
“Senegalese jollof rice is a one-pot affair, everything cooked together slowly so that the rice is steeped in flavour and ‘moistness’ from the get go, and liberally basted with oil, including the big fat carrots that sink towards the bottom of the pot. Perhaps this is where the love for the cro cro (rice crust) at the bottom of the pot originated.”
In Amma’s opinion, “the Senegalese own it.” But the rest of us West Africans are not ready to concede defeat – yet!
Certainly not Ronke Onadeko, the Nigerian who upholds the supremacy of her country’s traditional preparation — jollof cooked outdoors in an iron pot over firewood or charcoal.
“The taste of perfection is smoke-flavoured,” Ronke says, “without the ability to taste any one ingredient, proof of the art of blending the ingredients to form unity.”
Still, Ghanaian jollof has some pretty vocal partisans. They include Sister Deborah, a Ghanaian singer who this year released an infectious anthem, “Ghana Jollof,” that minces no words:
“Ghana jollof, Ghana jollof, Ghana jollof – yummy! Nigerian jollof is just funny,” she sings.
And later: “Ghana jollof on fleek — yours isn’t.”
Those for whom jollof is a new phenomenon, we hope you’re tempted. A word of advice: Latch onto a West African friend or colleague and insist that a variety of the dishes be laid out before you. It is the approach embraced by Namibian friend Ebba Kalondo, from a “neutral” country, who recently found herself in the crossfire of our email Jollof Wars.
“I won’t lie. I’m eating my way through this,” Ebba says. “But I am with you all. Because the struggle is real.”
My Senegalese “sister” Adja Ba, said she would end this delicious email debate once and for all with a photo of the thiebou dieun royal dish she had prepared. Take a look at it above and you be the judge!
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