Jollof Rice: Heart of West Africa

Nigeria has one of the best cuisines in the world, which includes dishes or food items from the numerous ethnic group that makes up the country. Nigerian cuisine like those of other West African countries such as Ghana and the Benin Republic contains spices and herbs with the use of palm oil or groundnut oil to create delicious sauces and soups with an enticing aroma.

Rice is consumed in every part of the country either prepared as coconut rice, jollof rice, and fried rice or processed into the traditional dish Plate, which is a combination of rice with ground dry corn, spinach, tomatoes, onion, peppers, garden eggs, locust beans, groundnuts, biscuit bones, and minced meat. So, let’s talk about the controversial Jollof Rice. It possesses a seductive aroma, it’s mostly deep-red in color and it can be spicy or mild flavor. Jollof rice is the undisputed queen of West African kitchens. It's our beloved culinary treasure and a dish from our very heart and soul. But just saying this country has the best "Jollof" in West Africa and you could easily start a passionate feud. Deciding the W. African nation which makes Jollof best is an ongoing matter of local pride and contention.

Jollof rice is to West Africa what paella is to Spain, risotto to Italy, biriyani to India and fried rice to China. As a child growing up in USA my favorite Nigerian dish was either rice and stew but mainly jollof rice. I swear you can’t go to any Nigerian gathering without seeing the savoring dish and there were many variations of the dish. Jollof rice is made using flavorful ingredients such as tomato sauce, onions, and aromatic spices. Each cook adds their own authentic ingredients such as ginger, garlic, thyme, grains of selim (a West African spice), tomato puree, curry powder and Scotch bonnet chilies.

The choice of meat – mutton, beef, chicken, goat, lamb or even fish – delivers a different deliciousness every time. The meat is spiced and delicately braised in stock until tender, before being fried and returned to the stock. Not all prepare their meat the same way, but you get the drift. The rice is then added to the meat, stock and spicy sauce and simmered until it absorbs all the flavorsome liquid, leaving every grain aromatic, delectable and a luscious orangey-red hue.

The origins of Jollof rice can be traced to the 1300s in the ancient Wolof Empire (also called the Jolof Empire), which spanned parts of today's Senegal, Gambia and Mauritania. Rice farming flourished in this region, and Jollof began life as a dish called thieboudienne, prepared with rice, fish, shellfish, and vegetables. As the empire grew, the Wolof people dispersed across the region and settled in different parts of West Africa, taking their sumptuous rice dish with them.

Though popular across West Africa few foods have caused so much controversy as Jollof rice. Today, every West African country has at least one variation of Jollof, which both divides and unites the region. Each nation and family add their own twist and interpretation, which perhaps is the root of the fierce competition taking place across social media, parties and street-side chats

The main protagonists on who makes the best Jollof rice are Ghana, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Liberia and Cameroon. The fiercest fight are between Nigeria, and Ghana. Myriad variations fuel the ongoing competition with as many similarities as there are differences. Nigerians and Liberians sometimes use palm oil instead of vegetable oil to give a richer depth of flavor, especially when cooking with smoked and dried fish. In Nigeria and Cameroon, red peppers are often blended with the base ingredients of onions, tomatoes, and chilli to add vibrancy and a subtle sweetness. These two nations also like to add smoked paprika to give Jollof a smoky flavor, similar to cooking over an open wood fire. With the increase in Jollof's global popularity, I won’t be surprised if it we start seeing it in restaurants or in supermarkets.

We love that the world is embracing jollof rice, but for West Africans, it is more than a colorful and tasty rice dish we enjoy arguing over: it connects to our rich heritage and is a dish that will forever remain in our hearts. Even as we draw closer together, the fire in the Jollof kitchen rages on.

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