West African jollof rice is a longtime staple of the region, and it has become a hallmark food item for the average black foodie. For anyone that has yet to try jollof, you're severely missing out. Jollof rice takes your average grain to new heights, with flavors and pairings that make it a timeless dish.
But what the average consumer may not realize is that this dish is actually the crux of an ongoing, intense debate between Nigerians and Ghanaians — as well as in other countries on the continent where the dish is a staple — on which respective country makes the best jollof rice.
We sat down with two amazing chefs — one Nigerian and one Ghanaian — to get the scoop on what sets the two interpretations of this dish apart.
Tunde Wey is a Nigerian chef, restaurant founder and writer living in New Orleans, who moved to the states from Nigeria as a teen. As a chef, Wey intentionally considers the sociopolitical aspect of how food makes it on to our plates.
“I think that food is a microcosm of society,” Wey said. We don’t typically identify food with politics, making it a fresh space to highlight the challenges that we face. It can be an interesting inquiry into why society is the way it is.”
Wey described Nigerian jollof as a key staple in Nigeria. “Jollof rice is our chief celebratory dish.There are a couple of staples that you need — but if jollof rice isn’t present, something is wrong."
"It's a festive dish, but it’s also a personal dish to make at home regularly," he said. "It’s egalitarian; it works in elevated and subdued spaces.”
“Jollof rice is typically cooked with a technique called ‘one-pot cooking.’ The key is that you’re cooking and steaming the rice within a tomato sauce, as opposed to water, giving it a distinct flavor. You’re simultaneously stewing and steaming,” Wey said.“Key ingredients to Nigerian jollof are tomatoes, habaneros, red bell peppers and onions, which are usually blended down to a puree. I personally make my jollof rice vegan, but some people make a tomato sauce, add rice, then add a chicken or other type of meat stock to it to give it extra flavor. No one can tell you the exact ratio of tomatoes, to bell peppers, to habaneros — it’s just something you know.”
“Ideally, Nigerian jollof should be reddish orange. If your jollof is white or yellow, that’s not a good look,” Wey said, elaborating on what goes into making a hearty pot of authentic Nigerian jollof. “Some people say, ‘If you add stew to your jollof rice, then you have trust issues.’ That’s how good the rice should be — you should want to be able to eat the rice by itself.”
“There are technically two versions of Nigerian jollof: the standard version and the ‘party’ version,” Wey noted. “Party jollof rice is intended to feed a large number of people, since Nigerian parties are notoriously large. To accommodate all of those guests, it’s typical to prepare the dish in huge cauldrons. The fuel source is firewood; the firewood gives the rice a smokey flavor. It’s that smokey flavor that makes that party jollof rice quite special.”
“I don’t know anything about Ghanaian jollof rice,” Wey said, when asked about his preference for Nigerian or Ghanaian jollof. “So maybe that’s a statement on Ghanaian jollof.”
Ghanaian chef and public health nutrition professional Eric Adjepong first fed his craving for the culinary arts as a college student. He then went on to work as a restaurant chef in New York City, until making a move that helped to redefined his career path.
“I decided to pursue a master’s in international public health and nutrition in London,” Adjepong told Blavity. “I went back to New York, and really wanted to marry my love for culinary arts and public health nutrition. [So] I worked at the Harlem Children’s Zone for two years, teaching families and kids about healthy eating. My wife and I then started our own business called Pinch and Plate, a mobile dining service where we bring the restaurant-feel to your home.”
Though he was raised in New York and currently resides in Maryland, Adjepong still feels a deep connection to his Ghanaian roots and fosters this bond through his cuisine.
“I’m definitely influenced my West African background. I grew up in New York, but I’ve always felt close to Ghana, because our culture was so deeply rooted in our household," he said.
“I have a very unique outlook on jollof. I get really passionate about it. During my master’s, I took a deep dive into West African food and how it’s evolved. My connection to jollof is deep — it was one of the first foods I ever ate. It’s a staple, not just in Ghana and Nigeria, but in all of West Africa.”
When asked to explain the significance jollof rice, Adjepong emphasized its history.
“It's the paella of the region,” Adjepong said. “It actually originated in modern-day Senegal and Gambia by members of the Wolof tribe, but — kind of like how Michael Jordan made the jump shot better — jollof has definitely evolved into different things.”
“The number-one difference is the rice itself. Nigerian jollof uses long grain parboiled rice, which is less starchy. With Ghanaian jollof, a Thai or a jasmine rice is used, bringing out more starch in the meal itself,” he said, when discussing the differences between Ghanaian jollof and other rice-based dishes.
“An additional distinct characteristic is spice. The spices that are used in Ghanaian jollof are warm spices, [like] clove, nutmeg or cinnamon. You’ll only find in these warm spices being used in jollof in Ghana,” he claimed.
“It’s also common for Ghanaians to make jollof with the stock of the protein they’re using. If chicken will be added to the meal, then a chicken stock is used. If beef will be added, then beef stock is used,” Adjepong said. “So it gives the unique flavor profile of the protein in the rice.”
When asked which country did it better, Adjepong ultimately remained loyal to Ghana.
“Biasedly, I rep for the home team,” he said. “Jollof debates have become a hot topic. But honestly, both dishes are very similar. I think as long as we’re highlighting West African food and food across the African diaspora, then we’re winning.”
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