Jollof Wars

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The jollof wars are a well known rivalry, often friendly, sometimes not, between Nigeria and Ghana. The conversation over whose rice is better is a constant source of banter, competition and entertainment in this community, with each country fiercely advocating their rice as superior.

There are some notable differences:

In Nigeria, it is typically cooked using long grain rice and has a smoky flavour. It is also known colloquially as party jollof where the rice is slow cooked over firewood in large quantities, resulting in a Maillard effect a the botton of the pot where the rice becomes more browned or even slightly burned, allowing the smoke to permeate throughout the rest of the pot.

While in Ghana, the dish is cooked with basmati rice, aka Thai Jasmine rice, which creates a starchier texture. It is often made by first frying meat in oil, again making use of the Maillard effect but at a different stage of the cooking process, and incorporating the residual stock into the dish. Ghanian jollof rice has more of an emphasis on the spices used and can be served with Shitor, a spicy condiment.

Jollof rice is eaten throughout West Africa but it is Nigeria and Ghana that seem to dominate the conversation. However, neither Nigeria nor Ghana can fully lay claim to this dish. Jollof rice originated from the Wolof people of the Senegamibia region and is thought to have been named after the Jolof Empire that ruled in this area from the 14th to 15th century, later becoming the Jolof Kingdom. In this region it is also known as thieboudienne/ceebu/chebu jen or Benachin which translates to one pot in the Wolof language: Bena- One, Chin- Pot. Traditionally it is cooked with assorted meat, fish and vegetables so actually resembles what we would recognise now as a fried rice.

While the dish originated in Senegal it is unlikely that it was able to spread through West Africa as far as Cameroon via the Wolof people. James C. McCann argues that as this is not mirrored in ‘linguistic, historical or political patterns’, it is instead much more likely that the dish spread with the Djula tribe of the Mali Empire who conquered the Jolof Empire in the 15th Century. Their movement across West Africa is also reflected in the spread of Islam, blacksmithing, small scale marketing and rice agronomy.

This theory is further supported by the timing of the introduction of tomatoes and chilli peppers to West Africa in the 15th and 16th centuries due to the Columbian exchange. At this time it is possible that jollof rice would have represented wealth and celebration as it would have been expensive to cook with these new ingredients brought over from South America. Jollof rice could have been used as a status symbol to communicate a families wealth, generosity and hospitality similar to the way pinapples were often presented to impress dinner party guests in 18th century England.

Today we have easy access to all the ingredients necessary to cook any variation of Jollof rice however the sense of celebration and ceremony surrounding Jollof rice, remains. It is still typically served at celebrations and as a traditional Sunday meal for many West African Families.

I have delicious memories of eating smoky Jollof rice, with chicken and fried plantain every Sunday of my childhood and this is a tradition I look forward to continuing. It doesn’t look like this war will be ending any time soon.