As a kid growing up in London with parents who were born in Nigeria, I went to lots of Nigerian hall parties (aka owambe) to celebrate birthdays, weddings, and other special occasions. Besides the colorful African attire and the large dance floors, what I remember best about these parties were the sprawling buffets filled with pounded yam, efo elugusi, obe ata, jollof rice, fried rice, beef, chicken, fish, plantains, and salad. Most of the kids—including myself—always opted for jollof rice because of its delicious flavor. Plus, it did not have any veggies like fried rice.
For me, jollof rice represents celebrations and togetherness and while it is linked to owambes, its reach is far greater. The story of jollof is about its variations as well as its ability to endure and adapt, which is reflected throughout West Africa and its iterations in the Americas. Jollof rice is a dish that is embedded in Black history, yet just like slavery, it transcends it. And because of this, I, a descendant of African culture, stand on the shoulders of jollof rice’s rich history, able to share and celebrate it.
The Community and Rivalry of Jollof Rice in West Africa
It is believed that rice was introduced to West Africa in the 16th century by the Portuguese, during a time when slave trade abounded. Today, rice is cooked in a variety of ways in West Africa: simply boiled with a pinch of salt, cooked with vegetables to make fried rice, or made with a richly spiced tomato sauce for jollof rice. Both jollof rice and fried rice are reserved for special occasions and are not often cooked in households.
At its base, jollof rice is made with rice, spices, and tomatoes, which turns it an orange-red color. There are variations of jollof throughout West Africa. For example, Senegalese jollof rice is made with broken rice, which was imported to Senegal from Vietnam during the French colonization. It includes fish and vegetables like French beans, carrots, and bell peppers. Ghanaian jollof rice is made with basmati rice and includes peas and carrots, and a protein like chicken or beef. Nigerian jollof rice, on the other hand, is made with long-grain rice and no additional ingredients other than tomatoes and spices. It’s known for its smoky flavor because the ingredients in the tomato base are roasted.
There is an ongoing rivalry among West Africans regarding who makes the best jollof rice and where it originates from. Nigerians believe that jollof rice should be made with long-grain rice with no add-ins, while Ghanaians believe that it should be made with basmati rice and always include vegetables and a protein. Recently, the United Nations supported jollof rice as originating from Senegal, but regardless, this debate is still alive and kicking.
Growing up, my secondary school was predominantly West African and Caribbean, and we’d often bring leftover jollof rice as a packed lunch to share with classmates, so I was exposed to different variations of the dish. We were never able to decide which region makes the best jollof rice, but it was always fun to debate.
The Evolution of Jollof Rice in Diaspora
In the early 1600s, slave ships landed in the Americas, carrying along with it African rice culture. This explains why dishes like Charleston red rice, jambalaya, and galinhada heavily mirror West African jollof rice—the rice, tomato base, and spices—with variations based on ingredients available in their respective regions.
Charleston red rice from South Carolina is made with rice, tomatoes, spices, bacon, and sausage—it’s similar to jollof, but uses ingredients from the Carolinas. Jambalaya, from New Orleans, is also rice cooked in a tomato base, with the addition of andouille sausage, shrimp, and peas, inspired by the French influence in Louisiana and seafood from the Gulf of Mexico. Galinhada is a traditional Brazilian stew with chicken, rice, diced tomatoes, and peas.
These variations and adaptations of jollof rice are extremely popular across the world. The main reason—other than the fact that they are delicious—is that the core ingredients are easy to find at most any grocery store: rice, tomatoes, onions, red bell peppers, chicken, sausage, spices. The recipes are relatively quick to make, they are crowd-pleasers, can be made in large batches, and enjoyed over the course of a few days. It’s not hard to imagine why they survived the harrowing test of hardship, sorrow, and time to adapt and become celebratory dishes that reflect the boldness of African culture.
Finding My Own Version of Jollof Rice
I too have my own version of jollof rice. The recipe was passed down to me from my mum—it’s a Nigerian jollof, which I make using ingredients available to me in the U.K., where I live. As a kid I remember waiting by her legs and begging for a spoon as she finished making large batches of jollof for parties and family gatherings. My favorite part was the burnt bits at the bottom as this is where all of the flavor was.
Though the jollof rice I made today is rooted in a traditional Nigerian recipe, I’ve adapted it over the years to make it my own. I use both chicken stock and bouillon to flavor the rice. I fry the tomato paste before adding the rice to really bring out its bold color. Sometimes I even use canned tomatoes for ease instead of fresh tomatoes, and scotch bonnet peppers to give it a spicy kick. What I’ve always stayed true to regardless of time and place is that I make jollof rice to bring the people I love together, and I’m forever prepared to be judged. It’s a common denominator for West Africans like me and our diaspora across the world.