Wednesday, April 4, 2018

The Jollof Rice Wars

Leye - Every other Wednesday

My jollof rice from my meat eating days

It is said that jollof rice can bring world peace. It is also said that God himself was first to cook jollof rice. Which is a bit of a stretch, I admit, because, we all know that God prefers wine and bread, or is it the other way round? 

It is said that jollof rice can heal all afflictions known to man. And woman. And animals for that matter, if your veterinarian says it’s ok to feed your Rottweiler rice. And tomatoes. And scotch bonnets. And onions. And a little cooking oil with salt to taste. The main ingredients of the food of gods that is jollof rice – unless you are Ghanaian and you add cheat ingredients such as garlic and black pepper and God knows what else they add to it to make theirs taste so much better. I never said that. 

 It is also said that to invite people to your party and not serve them jollof rice is like throwing a pool party when your pool is sans water. Like collecting tithes in Church without first giving sight back to the blind. Like having a baby shower before getting pregnant (unless it’s the virgin Mary). Like diet Coke. Or turkey sausages. Or dairy free ice-cream. Like waiting for Christopher Walken to finish a sentence. It is wrong. It is evil. It is pointless. 

If you've ever been to a party at my place, then you've had my jollof rice and you swear by it.

What is even more pointless is the never-ending jollof rice war between Nigeria and Ghana. Pointless because we all know that the Nigerian jollof rice is the best, even if our own minister of culture when asked was silly enough to proclaim Senegal as the country that makes the best jollof rice. The vice president was quick to set the records straight and save the man’s job. Apparently he, the minister, had understood the journalist's question as ‘Where did jollof rice originate?’

And therein lies the silliness of it all. Jollof rice is not even Nigerian or Ghanaian, or the invention of any of the many West African countries that claim it as theirs. It’s from the Wolof people of Senegal. Wolof. Jollof. Get it?

But nonetheless I have been witness to debates, some escalating to full-blown arguments, between Nigerians and Ghanaians over who owns jollof rice. Thank God none of that cultural appropriation nonsense ever sticks when applied to food. 

One would have thought the war was over when Nigerian caterer, Atinuke Ogunsalu won the first ever Jollof Hackathon held in Washington DC in 2017. But no. The Ghanaians claim that Ghanaian jollof, owing to its superior taste, had sold out at the event long before the judges were presented with samples to blind taste. Truth be told, had Ghanaian jollof won, I would have personally started the conspiracy theory that the Ghanaian entry was swapped with Nigerian jollof just before the blind tasting. The pride of a Nation being at stake and all.

What is even more perplexing about this pointless war (that is clearly won by Nigerian all the time), is the fact that there is no single recipe that is The Nigerian jollof, or The Ghanaian jollof. Not one. Ask and every cook has a different way they cook their jollof rice. Some cook theirs with palm oil. Some with groundnut oil. Some use long grain rice. Some use basmati rice. Some cook it all in one pot. Some use several pots. Some add thyme and curry. Some add seasoning cubes. Some believe that to use seasoning cubes is to cheat. Some add prawns, meat, fish to their jollof rice. Some keep it simple. I recently experimented with saffron. I loved it. It would have driven purists insane.

The diabolical way I cook my jollof rice

Then there’s the Party jollof rice. The holy grail of jollof rice. To cook your jollof rice in your own kitchen and achieve that smoky taste and texture of jollof rice cooked in commercial quantities over firewood is to be crowned the Queen or King of jollof rice. Turns out all you have to do is let the bottom burn into a black crust, then leave the lid on to let the smoke infuse into the rice. I know people who will kill me for letting out this secret.

If there are no standard recipes, how then can one judge which country makes the best jollof rice? The Nigerian who won the competition could have used a ‘Ghanaian’ recipe. I would have. Or one from Cameroon, or Gambia, or Liberia, or Sierra Leone, or even from the true ‘owner’ of Jollof rice, Senegal. 

The only time Nigeria and Ghana have ever been united over jollof rice was when British celebrity chef, Jamie Oliver, decided to cook his own interpretation of jollof rice. The abomination he concocted set Nigerian and Ghanaian Internet on fire as in unison, the offended nations sort to distance themselves from Mr Oliver’s ill-informed creation. I suspect he doesn’t read his twitter feed. He would have needed therapy the way the Nigerians and the Ghanaians came for him.  I will not even include a list of his ingredients here.

I am too wise to include a recipe. I don't want to have my Nigerian citizenship revoked.

Such is the power of jollof rice that Mike Mark Zuckerberg, obviously briefed, said of Nigerian jollof while in Lagos, "Yesterday, I had jollof rice and shrimp. It was delicious, fantastic. I was told not to compare Nigeria's jollof rice to that from other neighbouring countries."

The jollof rice war is pointless, even if Nigeria makes the best jollof rice ever, period. But to put this madness to rest once and for all, I propose a no-brainer solution using a democratic process. Let Nigeria and Ghana vote on which country makes the best jollof rice. Simple. Population of Nigeria: 196 million. Population of Ghana 29 million.

Nigerian Fried Rice. Another war waiting to begin.


  1. Oh, my. What shall I do? Suppose you and my Ghanian niece force me to choose.

    I think an event involving both of you and food would be hoot. But perhaps not quite as much fun as this blog post,

  2. Leye, I'm afraid I'm a scientist and the only way a scientist makes these sorts of decisions is by experiment. So in the scientific spirit, I have to insist that you cook your version when next I'm in London. Then I'll have to try Kwei Quartey's. To be scrupulously fair you understand.

  3. I’m tempted to print up hats emblazoned with “Make Rice Not War,” but my real passion after reading this is to find a good jollof rice spot in New York City. Any suggestions?

  4. You've obviously not tasted South African jolly rice!

    Nor have I, but will this weekend, if I can find the best recipe.

  5. Brilliant post. I can appreciate everything that has been said by Leye, though I am a tad annoyed he hasn't invited me to taste his jollof rice yet. I will have to agree with him that Nigerian Jollof rice is best and I'm only half Nigerian!!

  6. I just read Chimamanda Adiche's wonderful book, "Americanah," and saw many references to jollof rice.

    I love dishes made with rice, but don't eat meat. Is there a way to make a vegetarian version?