- A food scientist’s perspective
It is often difficult to assess what African cuisine is, as it reflects a diversity of the many cultures that exist on the continent, with a cuisine that reflects uniquely local, authentic and traditional flavors. Irrespective of the country, African cuisine is united around meals with meat, plenty of whole grains and beans, and fresh fruits and vegetables. From South Africa’s meaty foods, Zimbabwe’s cassava, corn, and flour staples, West Africa’s jollof rice, and flour paste and soups, the continent’s countries have dynamic, flavorful, and very healthy options that reflect their traditions and Arab, European and Asian influences.
African food is reminiscent of people that have visited Africa or have had the African cuisine taste – and no African food is as popular currently as jollof rice.
The African Jollof has a reputation not only for its seductive aroma, deep-red color, and spicy flavor, thanks to a diversified array of recipes; it is also the undisputed queen of West African kitchens, with many countries laying claim to this culinary treasure. The popularity of the Jollof has extended beyond Africa’s shores and inspired Jollof festivals all over the world, as well as its national day (August 22).
The African Jollof has often caused intense sibling rivalry between West African countries, particularly Ghana and Nigeria; competition so intense, stoked by the internet, social media, street food, fusions, and word of mouth that even one of the world’s biggest billionaires refused to settle it!
As a Ghanaian residing in Nigeria, I am frequently asked about Jollof rice and my preferred version with an expectation that I choose a side; either for my country of birth or for the country where I work.
Do I prefer Ghanaian Jollof because it’s what I grew up eating from my beloved mother’s pot, or do I prefer Nigerian Jollof since it’s become a mainstay in my diet over the last few years? Please note that this is not a case of favoring one Jollof over another. As a food scientist, here are my thoughts.
Origin of jollof rice
The major Judges that should preside over the Jollof battle between Ghanaians and Nigerians should be the Senegalese and Gambians, because according to African folklore, jollof rice was originally called ‘Benachin’ or ‘Thieboudienne’, depending on who you ask, and originated from the Senegambia region of West Africa. The Jollof has traveled across borders birthing a variety of regional recipes showcasing the diversified and creative features of the African culture.
It is believed that Jollof is derived from the word ‘Wolof’, as the people of these regions were called the ‘Djolof. A woman who lived close to the Senegal Delta River substituted rice for barley during a barley shortage and prepared the first Jollof using rice, fish, vegetables, and tomatoes. Since then, Jollof from this region traveled to other countries and to West Africa where the creative culinary magic of Nigerians and Ghanaians played with the concept of the dish. The Jollof is home in the Gambia, Ghana, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Cameroon, and more than a third of Africans, emerging as an icon across borders with a diversified array of recipes.
The essence of African Jollof
Generally, both in Nigeria and Ghana, what gives the rice the red color and the unique taste that differentiates it from Senegalese rice are the ingredients. These ingredients include; tomatoes, tomato paste, onions, scotch bonnet peppers, salt, spices, and vegetable oil. Depending on what’s available in both countries, there are assorted vegetables and local spices.
Popular seasoned dish of rice, tomatoes, and spices; the Jollof is a main dish and staple at parties and family gatherings. At its base, it is stewed rice with tomatoes, onions, vegetable or olive oil, habanero (or scotch bonnet) pepper, tomato puree (or tin tomatoes), stock cubes, thyme, curry powder, ginger, and garlic. Its spices, ingredients, and cooking methods slightly vary between households and countries, but the basic elements of rice, tomatoes, and onions remain the same.
The significance of Nigerian Jollof is the kind of grain used. Nigerians use large particle, long grain parboiled rice grain typically produced locally. The rice is parboiled (precooked in the husk) and washed to change its texture, boost nutrition, and make it more resistant to weevils. The foundation of the dish is to sauté the onions in the groundnut oil to fry while building the flavor with thyme, curry powder, pepper, seasoning cubes, and other local ingredients. Another important ingredient that compliments it with a minty, herby taste and perfumery aroma is ‘bay leaf.’
Nigeria Jollof has a mild level of tomato but applies a longer cooking process that produces a smoky note that reacts with the tomato to create a smoky ashy and roasted tomato note. It is this smokiness that is called party Jollof. There are also different flavor profiles produced from charcoal, as opposed to a contemporary gas grill, or even hot coals or wood. The smoke generated adds a high delightful savory character to the rice.
Nigerian Jollof also uses paprika, a mildly hot and sweet, dried and ground red pepper spice, which contributes to the richness and sweetness of Nigerian Jollof. It also provides brilliant color in the finished product and contributes to the sweet type flavor as well as a bit of smokiness to the product. For more hotness, Nigerians use a lot of chilis, from yellow lantern chilis – (capsicum chinese) to habanero pepper which provides a sweet and floral flavor.
Unlike the Nigerian Jollof, Ghanaian Jollof is made with fine particle size basmati rice, which is a long, slender, tiny grain that does not require parboiling. Basmati rice has a large surface area for sauce absorption and high starchy contents with an aromatic smell, because of the basmati or Thai Jasmine type of rice used.
The Ghanaian Jollof does not require the sauce stress but only that one must prepare the tomato stew and meat stock which is used to cook the rice. These, with other key local spices such as hot peppers, ginger, and onions are added to give it the flavor and the colour.
Unlike the Nigerian Jollof, Ghanaian Jollof has a higher tomato flavor composition, because Ghanaians love Tomato in several forms, whether fresh, ripe, fruity, puree or cooked. Ghanaians also add meat to the tomato sauce to create a heart meaty tomato flavor in the Jollof. Ghanaian Jollof is not as spicy as it uses less bird-eye chili and scotch bonnet chillis as compared to Nigeria. The Ghanaian Jollof rice has a unique burnt taste with a preference by many for the “bottom of the pot.” The burnt flavour comes from the reaction of the pot with the rice resulting in brown note that adds an authentic and delicious jollof rice.
It is impossible to talk about the unique taste of African Jollof without talking about the secret ingredient of bouillon cubes. Boullion cubes have transformed cooking across West Africa, as an essential ingredient in many everyday dishes. Since they were introduced by Nestle in the 1950s, bouillon popularized by Maggi cubes has transformed cooking across the region – providing a boost to flavors that need a careful and often time-consuming juggling of herbs and spices. Bouillon provides a boost in all dishes and contributes to what we call the fifth taste – Umami.
This comes come from glutamate which is found in all bouillon cubes and functions as an overall enhancement. While most countries used standard bouillon cubes as an enhancer, Nigerians also prefer adding natural glutamic enhancers – fish, specifically crayfish to produce a well-balanced profile. Ghana prefers the addition of diced vegetables, meat in the rice mix which also provides a long-lasting taste perception.
So, which Jollof Tastes Better?
Every country has its unique way of preparing dishes, and Jollof rice is not an exception. Both countries have given us the copyright of flavored rice which is recognized internationally on different menus of the world.
However, since both Nigeria and Ghana have exposed people across the world to their unique culinary skills, it is difficult to know which tastes better. Regardless, the battle of the taste remains an unending one.
Should one Jollof be better than the other? I doubt.
Taste is determined by context. The major determinants of food choices revolve around biological determinants such as hunger, appetite, and taste; economic determinants such as cost, income, availability, and physical determinants such as access, education, skills (e.g. cooking), and time. Other determinants are social, such as culture, family, peers, and meal patterns; psychological determinants such as mood, stress and guilt and attitudes, beliefs, and knowledge about food.
Cultural influences play a role in the choice of one Jollof over the other. We have seen how cultural influences can lead to the habitual consumption of certain foods and the exclusion of others, for example, meat from diets. Countries with distinct Jollof create unique methods that depict the sensory profile of their countries. Hence, the conversation around which Jollof is better may never have a definite answer. The focus should be turned towards amplifying African Jollof and indeed, other African dishes to the world. Thanks to all the proponents of Jollof, it is fast becoming a global dish with inclusion on many international menus.
A demographic shift of more Africans traveling outside the continent and innovation on African food has boosted the culinary impact African-inspired foods are making globally and the African Jollof is leading this charge. Increasingly, African-owned restaurants are using African food to share their world and experiences. For Africa transplants in the diaspora, Jollof and other African foods offer a taste of home and create demand for more authentic eating experiences.
Whether Ghanaian, Nigerian, or Senegambian, African Jollof, and food are useful tools for education in African culture and help non-Africans understand contemporary Africa through food. While Jollof is good, there is a big, wide world of African cuisine waiting to be discovered. As one of the youngest continents, Africa offers a wide range of yet-to-be-discovered innovative flavors.
Cuisine is no longer local. What starts as delicious food enjoyed in one region has evolved into sought-after dishes at the international level; albeit with countries now localizing specific characteristics. For instance, the Japanese ramen is a popular noodle soup enjoyed in Asia, that has been exported to other parts of the world. In Africa, ramen-type noodles are deeply embedded in the local markets with annual servings exceeding 1.78 billion as at 2017. What is remarkably unique is not only how Asian noodles are different in taste from African noodles, but the taste and application divides in noodles even within Africa!
Jollof offers Africa a platform to share who we are with the world, and hopefully, inspire their applications of African food. What will make African food global is the applications by non-Africans, not social media contests by Africans.
My daughter Kelsey is born to Ghanaian parents but loves Nigerian and Ghanaian Jollof equally after she stayed in Lagos for a few years. I think it would be unfair to make her choose.
Brifo is the Managing Director of Freddy Hirsch Nigeria and West Africa, a fast-growing producer and distributor of spices and ingredients in Nigeria and West Africa.