A Brief History of Jollof Rice, a West African Favourite

Jollof rice and fish
Jollof rice and fish | © Sura Nualpradid / Shutterstock
Hakeem Adam

Jollof rice packs a powerful punch in the taste stakes, but its origins are a point of contention with many African nations claiming it as their own. So much so that online wars are ongoing to protect it.
In West Africa, sacred Jollof rice is a fragrant dish that is revered across the sub-region for its unique sweet taste and subtle spiciness. It is also the source of heated discussion online among Nigerians, Ghanaians and Senegalese as to who owns the bragging rights to the dish. However, in order to understand the magic of Jollof or who can rightfully lay claim to it, first its history must be understood.

Jollof is believed to have originated in the Senegambia region of West Africa among the Wolof people, where it is known as benachin. The mouth-watering meal has travelled throughout the sub-region because of the frequent cultural exchange that goes on there. As such, it has evolved into several regional varieties, laced with the heritage of the place where it is prepared. Nevertheless, it maintains its magic and is relished all over Africa.

Jollof rice

The urge to appreciate and define Jollof is so strong that when Jamie Oliver published an inaccurate recipe for Jollof in June 2014, West Africans united to criticise the adulterated dish – Ghanaians and Nigerians worldwide made it clear that his version had strayed too far from its beginnings. The misrepresentation of Jollof rice is frowned upon as it is treated with great pride, especially with the international recognition that the meal has garnered by the Jollof Wars. But the perennial conflict between Nigerians and Ghanaians as to where the dish originated and whose version is best should not even exist, as history credits the Senegalese for its invention. However, the wars continue, resulting in many viral music videos, songs, articles and cook-offs. Although getting involved in the middle of the conflict is best avoided, the friction also helps bring awareness to the dish. Instead, you are better off just tucking in and enjoying the awesome meal.

The origins of Jollof rice are hotly contested

For those who aren’t familiar with Jollof rice and are wondering how a rice dish can pack so much punch, the secret is in how it soaks up so much flavour. You would not imagine that boiling plain rice in the same pot as peppers, tomatoes, spices and meats would create such soft, yet crisp tomato-stained grains, with so much sweetness locked inside them. Another advantage that Jollof rice has over other Ghanaian dishes is that it can be enjoyed with a healthy range of other condiments such as salads, avocado and deep-fried plantains. So if you’re feeling adventurous and trust your culinary skills, why not try out this authentic Ghanaian Jollof rice recipe.

Cooking with tomatoes helps give Jolllof its distinctive red colour

In Accra, Jollof rice is very popular and can be found in most restaurants and at some of these street food stalls. It tends to be spicy as it is served with Shito (a pepper-based sauce), but don’t let that dissuade you from enjoying the dish, especially if you want to choose where your allegiance lies in the Jollof Wars. When it comes to plating up time, remember that no matter where your Jollof is from, you can still appreciate it for its superb taste and polarising magic.

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