why it works
- The tomato mixture is cooked twice, first to soften the edge of the raw, tart vegetables, then again with the seasoning to further develop the savory stew base that defines the jollof.
- It is important to use the right type of rice. In this case, parboiled rice is an excellent choice, as it has the ability to soak up the flavorful, well-seasoned stew without turning into mush.
- Cooking over low heat allows the rice to properly absorb the sauce, cook evenly and not burn on the bottom; stirring as little as possible ensures that the rice cooks evenly while keeping the grains separated.
Cooking jollof rice, a tomato seasoned rice dish, is a rite of passage for many West Africans. For many years, my own jollof game was fragile because I mistook its ubiquity for ease. I had assumed it was easy to make just because I ate it often, at every party, Sunday lunch and everything, and so I didn’t appreciate how some steps in the recipe were crucial. I would rush into making the stew base without developing enough flavor, choose the wrong kind of rice, and be unruly about my cooking method. Some days I ended up with a good pot and other days I didn’t. I’ve learned a lot since then and now make consistently delicious pots. My biggest tip: Slow cooking rice is one of the main keys to success.
Thinking that a good pot of jollof rice required little skill wasn’t the only incorrect assumption I made. I also assumed it was of Nigerian descent, given that I grew up there and was a mainstay at the table. But in 2009, when my interest in cooking better pots of jollof deepened, I started researching West African foods and how they traveled the world. It was then that I discovered the roots of this dish in the Kingdom of Jolof, a historic state from the 15th to 18th centuries in the Wolof-Senegambian region, on the southern edge of the Sahara, far west of Nigeria.
So how did Jollof cross the sub-Saharan coast? According to James McCann in Stirring the Pot: A History of African Cookingthe Dyula ethnic group, famous merchants who established trade routes throughout the region centuries ago, were responsible for dispersing the jollof south of the Sahara, taking them with them as they traveled. Today, every country in West Africa has a version of jollof, each reflecting its particular history and influences. Several regions beyond the African continent also have versions that show how far it spread, particularly via the transatlantic slave trade – red rice Lowcountry and New Orleans Jambalaya in the southern United States are both derived from jollof rice.
Jollof can take many different names depending on the region. In his hometown of Senegal, he retains his Wolof names of thieboudienne or ceebu jen, and in neighboring Gambia he calls himself benachin. Malians call it zaame or nsame. In the rest of Francophone West Africa – Guinea Bissau, Guinea, Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso, Niger, Benin and Togo – it is called riz au gras (“fatty rice” for short). In English-speaking Sierra Leone, Liberia, Ghana and Nigeria it is called jollof.
There are also endless differences from version to version. While Senegalese and Ghanaians opt for fragrant jasmine rice varieties, Nigerians prefer parboiled or converted varieties, such as Golden Sella basmati rice, which cooks faster and is less prone to batting and clumping. In Nigeria, Caribbean style curry powder, dried thyme, bay leaf, ginger and garlic are common seasoning ingredients. Contrast this with the popular Senegalese seasoning of rof, a paste of fresh parsley mixed with other aromatics and used in combination with fermented seafood. A friend of mine from Guinea, meanwhile, adds fresh tamarind to her stew base.
Whole vegetables such as carrots, aubergines, cabbage, okra, white sweet potatoes and potatoes feature in thiéboudienne and other Francophone West African versions, but not in the Nigerian and Ghanaian.
There are a number of details that work together to deliver stellar jollof rice, which I would define as perfectly cooked and seasoned rice with an orange-red color and separate grains that are neither hard nor boiled; jollof should not be creamy like risotto. To avoid this result, I only stir occasionally to help the sauce absorb without developing the creamy starch that heavy (risotto) stirring creates. I also cook it over low heat most of the time. When the heat is too high, the rice pot cooks unevenly and may burn at the base.
A little browning on the bottom layer of the rice is desirable though. Jollof rice is traditionally cooked on the stove or over firewood. Abroad, in the diaspora, many West Africans have explored and mastered oven cooking methods, while others have used rice cookers and InstantPots to provide even more approaches. Although the results are similar, the stovetop and firewood versions are the easiest way to “party” jollof, a version that is defined by its smoky flavor and the presence of a “bottom pot”, the crispy, toasted layer of rice that forms on (as the name clearly suggests) the bottom of the pot, similar to Spanish socarrat. Direct heat from below is just what it takes to create that caramelized, roasted underlay.
Jollof rice is not considered a side dish, but the main course. It is often accompanied by beef, chicken, goat and fish (fried, grilled or stewed) or eggs (boiled, fried or scrambled). In Nigeria, it is served with a salad that looks like an amped up version of coleslaw. It can also be served with moinmoin, a steamed dish consisting of peeled and mashed black-eyed beans wrapped in the moinmoin leaves that give it its name, or dodo—Fried and Ripe Plantains. At least one or more of these accompaniments are considered standard.