Every culture and community has that one revered dish. The dish with a recipe that is passed down from generation to generation and is the trademark of any celebratory dinner table. In Italy, it’s pasta. In Jamaica, it may be rice and peas.
For us West Africans, it is Jollof.
There are few foods in this life that are more sacred than Jollof. The delectable, orange-hued rice dish is the food mascot of the region. The basic recipe of rice, tomato paste, and spices packs a flavor punch that will have you salivating for days. In fact, as I sit here writing this I can’t help but long for a taste of my mother’s Jollof. There’s something special about the way the rice soaks up the aroma of all the ingredients, and the way the flavours dance on your tongue with each bite. The simplicity of the dish makes it accessible to people from other cultures who are being introduced to West African cuisine. I have yet to find someone, West African or otherwise, who has claimed to dislike Jollof!
I’m sure I’m not alone when I say Jollof has been in my life longer than I can remember. Jollof was a special treat in my house growing up, and I have many fond memories of sharing a laugh over a plate with my cousins on my visits to Ghana. No matter the occasion, the dish is always the pièce de resistance of a family function. Jollof is ingrained in our culinary traditions, so much so that party with West Africans is not a party without Jollof. It is a gathering of disappointed and hungry people; a hostage situation at best.
But while Jollof is such a celebratory dish, it is also a point of contention.
Jollof likely originated from the Wolof tribe in Senegal, and the culinary tradition spread across Africa over time. Each country boasts that their version reigns supreme, and there is now an intense and usually good-natured dispute. The matter is very heated, highly personal, and demonstrates how beloved this rice dish truly is.
There are countless variations of how to cook this dish, and in a way, Jollof mirrors the diversity of West Africa itself. Each country’s take on the dish is unique, adding to the magic that is African cuisine. Nigerian recipes frequently use par-boiled rice, while Ghanaians will usually prefer jasmine or basmati. Some prefer fish to meat, and while some people would scoff at the idea of adding okra or green beans in the mix, others will say they are essential. And God forbid you forget to include the Maggi cube. You might as well feed me sawdust.
Food has an uncanny way of connecting us to culture, memories, and emotions. Jollof is no exception. The treasured culinary tradition is one of very few things that is uniquely and purely West African, and it’s for this reason that many of us hold it so dear. It is more than just rice with tomatoes and spices; it is a delicious homage to the vibrancy of our cultures.
We can all agree that a bad plate of Jollof is just as memorable as a good one, and for all the wrong reasons. While we may all argue about which country cooks the best Jollof, all of us West African folks know that we all have that one relative who makes the perfect pot, and the other who would be better off ordering takeout. So while we all would like to claim ownership of this special dish, we must take note that, at the end of the day, no one country makes bad Jollof; only bad cooks can make bad Jollof.