In Nigeria, jollof rice isnâ€™t just a tasty West African dish â€” itâ€™s a national obsession. Dozens of top chefs gathered at the weekend for Lagosâ€™ inaugural jollof festival, showcasing their personal twists on the tangy tomatoey rice to a crowd of hundreds of hungry hipsters.
Imoteda Aladekomo, a 31-year-old chef who has been making jollof for four years, has led the way in reinventing the national staple, creating several pioneering variants through her company Eko Street Eats.
â€œItâ€™s so popular because itâ€™s easy to customise,â€ she said while preparing take-away boxes at the jollof fair, staged at a former railway yard complete with disused train tracks, blaring Nigerian music and a giant version of Scrabble.
â€œRice is really easy to get here whereas other ingredients arenâ€™t. Every party has to have jollof rice and every Sunday people will have it, having looked forward to it all week,â€ she added, her plastic gloves caked in rice.
â€œJollof rice will always reign supreme â€” even compared to McDonaldâ€™s or whatever, your jollof rice captures peopleâ€™s childhoods.â€
Her flagship version, deep-fried in breadcrumbs and served with plantain sauce and a fiery red pepper coulis, drew a steady stream of jollof afficionados.
Mo Alatise, a self-taught chef, also drew a crowd with her distinctive fusion-style jollof offerings. â€œWe try to do a mix of really local recipes, but I imagine it with things from other countries â€” like very traditional gnocchi from Italy with jollof,â€ the 30-year-old told AFP.
â€œOr a rice bowl from Asia â€” but instead of white rice, I made it with jollof,â€ she said, wearing oversized sunglasses and a hat decorated with a feather.
â€œIâ€™ve been to Italy and I read and researched a lot. Itâ€™s literally our staple, weâ€™re so proud itâ€™s the nationâ€™s favourite dish. Weâ€™re literally obsessed.â€
The origins of the distinctive, deceptively simple dish are hotly contested. The word jollof is related to â€œWollofâ€, a language spoken in Senegal where the dish is also popular. As well as Nigeria and Senegal, variants of the recipe are enjoyed across West Africa.
â€œThereâ€™s this big battle about where it came from. Iâ€™ve tried jollof from Senegal and it wasnâ€™t great. I think ours is best â€” but Iâ€™m a little biased,â€ said Alatise.
But the divisions were set aside in 2014 when British celebrity chef Jamie Oliver adapted the local favourite with alien ingredients including parsley and lemon â€” inspiring Ozoz Sokoh, a Lagos food blogger, to set up the festival this year.
â€œThere was this whole brouhaha when Jamie Oliver made it and it didnâ€™t look like jollof,â€ said Sokoh, a 42-year-old geologist and author of the Kitchen Butterfly blog.
â€œDespite the jollof wars between Ghana and Nigeria they came together to say: â€˜You cannot colonise our platesâ€™.â€
But the â€œjollof warsâ€ reached fever pitch last year when Ghanaian singer Sister Deborah released a song called â€œGhana Jollofâ€ that accused the Nigerian recipe of â€œtasting funnyâ€.
Controversies aside, Sokoh said the universal affection for the dish helps to unite the Nigerian diaspora and people with West African roots around the world. â€œIt brings many countries together â€” itâ€™s not just West Africa, but countries where the slaves went, like the American south and parts of Mexico,â€ she said.
And while food delivery services offering international favourites like sushi and pizza are expanding rapidly in Nigeriaâ€™s big cities, jollof has retained a special place in the hearts of the countryâ€™s huge youth population.
â€œMost of us young people forget about our traditional food,â€ said Jane Ibitola, a 32-year-old financial adviser from southern oil city of Port Harcourt. â€œBut whenever you move away from it, you cherish it again.â€