What’s So Special about Jollof Rice?

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The popular jollof rice is sparking a wave of controversy across West Africa, writes Solomon Elusoji

In Nigeria, to disparage jollof rice is to be accused of treason. At least that was the fate of the country’s Minister of Information and Culture, Mr. Lai Mohammed, when he told CNN’s Richard Quest that Senegal had the best jollof rice on the continent. The statement sparked an outrage across the country, especially on the social media, where a hot debate had been ongoing between Ghanaians and Nigerians on which country cooks the meal best. Few days later, Vice-President Yemi Osinbajo tried to save the minister from the gallows. “We all know that Nigerian jollof rice is the best,” he said, “we beat the Ghanaians and the Senegalese hands down.”

But Mohammed has a point. Jollof rice, which is also known as Benachin (meaning: ‘one pot’) is said to have originated from the Wolof people, who can be found in today’s Senegal, Gambia and Mauritania. Between 1360 to 1549, the Wolof people ruled a vast wealthy and powerful empire that traded with Europeans before it fell to internal conflicts. By the time it disintegrated though, aspects of its culture, including the salacious delights of jollof rice, had spread throughout West Africa. Today, made with rice, tomatoes, and any number of variable meats, spices (such as nutmeg, cumin and ginger) and vegetables, the variety of the meal, especially across West Africa, is astounding.

This simple Wolof history, however, does very little to settle the debate on which country’s version is original and of the better quality. Every country thinks its recipe is the best. Nigerians, with their garlic, red pepper and ginger condiments, purport to have the most authentic recipe. The Ghanaians, with their usual lavish presentation of the meal, disagree. Meanwhile, the Senegalese and Gambians, with their fish-based jollof, are wont to turn up their noses at the inferior reddishness of their neighbours’ delicacies.

It is interesting, too, to realise that this debate has been ongoing for years, with no hope in sight of a truce. These days, the hot exchanges happen on social media, with robust and brilliant ripostes flying around. Last year, Ghanaian singer Sister Deborah, whose real name is Deborah Owusu-Bonsu, released a song called ‘Ghana Jollof’ that accused the Nigerian recipe of “tasting funny”. The video, which was published on Youtube in July 2016, now has over 140,000 views.

Rising from the social media battles, a new wave of jollof rice competitions have sprouted across the continent, the most recent one being the Jollof Rice War at the 13th edition of the Akwaaba African Travel Market held this September. Before that, in July, a three-nation “Jollof War” contest was organised by a local radio station in Ghana with Senegal winning the competition, while Ghana and Nigeria trailed. Weeks after, the first Jollof Festival was held outside Africa in Washington D.C. Nigeria won after about 600 people went through a blind tasting process to decide who was the king of jollof. In August, Lagos organised its inaugural Jollof Festival and it was attended by hundreds of people. In September, just before the Akwaaba version, the Ghanaian Tourism Authority (GTA) also organised a jollof rice challenge at Legon Botanical Garden and featured chefs from Ghana, Gambia, Nigeria and Senegal. Gambia won the competition despite not preparing theirs with tomatoes, giving it a yellow-whitish look. A World Jollof Day, August 22, has even been mooted.

“This is not a competition,” the chief organiser of Akwaaba, Ikechi Uko, said during the launch of Akwaaba’s version of the jollof contest. “We are just trying to create a product for West Africa,” to raise jollof rice, which is the only thing common to all West Africans, to the status of a commercial product that can be used as a leverage to boost tourism in the region.

Uko’s reasoning is simple. For decades, Zambia and Zimbabwe have played on the ‘our side is better’ tussle to promote tourist interest in the Victoria Falls, the largest sheet of falling water in the world. Victoria Falls is shared by the two countries, Zambia to the north and Zimbabwe to the south. Uko sees jollof rice the same way. “The main attraction for tourists are the sights and the food,” Uko, who pioneered Akwaaba, one of the biggest privately-sponsored travel events in the world, from scratch, said.

“Jollof rice is a product our of economy,” the Director General of the National Council for Arts and Culture, Olusegun Runsewe, said, at the opening of the 13th Akwaaba festival, which was headlined by the jollof war. “And Akwaaba has raised our consciousness to realise that jollof rice is our identity.”

But the Akwaaba jollof war, itself, was clumsy. Only two countries – Ghana and Nigeria – participated. But the Ghanaian chefs, who were outnumbered, arrived late for the contest, after experiencing immigration bottlenecks. “We also had to use rice which we were not familiar with,” the head of the Ghanaian chef, Isaac Sackey, told this reporter, “we would have preferred to bring our own rice.” Also, while the Nigerian chefs – 14 in total – presented as individuals, the Ghanaians teamed up and made one lavish, exotic presentation to the judges. “We thought it was a group contest,” Sackey said.

During the tasting session, this reporter bought a coupon and had a feel of all the varieties of jollof rice on display. There was a diversity of taste and presentation. Some opted for a hot, spicy feel, while others toned down the harshness and tried to enmesh the tongue in salty delirium.

One of the Nigerian chefs, Godwin Omoijuanfo, a Business Administration graduate from the University of Lagos, tagged his variety ‘Eko jollof rice’ and it was heavy with garlic and ginger spices. “I tried to give it a smoky feeling,” he said. He has been cooking professionally for six years after attending a culinary school in Lagos, Celebrity Mobile Kitchen. “From the responses I have been getting, I am sure I am going to win,” he told this reporter after the judges had tasted his Eko jollof rice.

One of the judges, Charity Githinji, a Tanzanian who runs an hospitality business, said her team would base their scores on a chef’s presentation of the jollof rice and its palatability. “It has to be something most people can eat, and, of course, the creativity employed in choosing the ingredients is also important.”

Among the judges of the contest was Abby Sarr, a Director of Public Relations and Marketing at the Kairaba, a beach hotel in the Gambia, where she has worked for 22 years. “I’m Jolof from the Gambia,” she said proudly, “and, as you know, jollof rice is our national dish. Whenever someone comes to the Gambia, this is what we give them.”

Sarr told this reporter that what really makes jollof rice special is its one-pot dish status. “Every other African dishes are two pots – you make the stew and the sauce and put in the rice. It’s very unusual. The only other people who do this are the Chinese.”

If you want to taste real jollof, Sarr preached, then come to the Gambia. “The way we cook it is different,” she said. “The main one we cook is with fish, where we stock the fish with parsley, ginger, salt, pepper and other condiments. And then as a garnish, we use spinach, okra, while we have the tamarind and lemon on the side. We also use cabbage, carrot, aubergine, sweet potato. We do all this because in jollof rice, presentation is number one.”

But she was quite pleased with what she saw on display at the Akwaaba contest, especially with the addition of sweet and sour sauce, vegetable medley and plantain by some of the chefs. “I thought the plantain one was new and it tasted really good. And then the Ghanaian presentation was off the charts. It had prawns, shito, red sauce, absolutely amazing. I’m so full now, I don’t think I am going to have dinner. I commend Akwaaba for coming up with this idea: it was great entertainment.”

Two days after the contest was held, on September 12, the results of the Akwaaba jollof rice war was announced and the Nigerians swooped all the prizes. “The Ghanaians faulted with the way they presented,” head of the competition’s Local Organising Committee (LOC), Jubilian Ngaruwa, said.

The overall winner was Chef Idowu Olajide, a veteran cook who has stoked the fires professionally for the past 18 years. “I have been cooking jollof rice every Sunday at my church for the past five years, so it is a part of me.” he said. “So when I heard about the competition, I thought it would be great to come and show my skills and let people know me, although I wasn’t expecting to win.” The taste of his jollof rice, which this reporter partook in, was reminiscent of the typical Lagos party jollof rice, with the smoky sensation and generous lettuce, ginger and garlic.

But, of course, the jollof rice war is far from over (the Ghanaians can feel hard done by). In fact, it might just be about to start.