I arrived at my godson’s mother’s hospital bedside carrying a bucket of steaming hot jollof rice, a few hours after he was born. Along with the fragrant rice, I made fried chicken and dodo (aka fried sweet plantain). In my Iro and Buba, made out of ankara fabric, I was there to welcome this child into his heritage as a Nigerian boy. He might have been born in America but as his godmother, I intend to keep him connected to his roots. One of the best things about being a Nigerian person is our connection to our foods. Jollof rice, with its long traveling roots, is certainly part of the Nigerian heritage.
The history of Jollof rice is not one that any person can recount authoritatively. Jollof rice has a place in many cultures along the West African coast. Each set of people pride themselves on having the best version of jollof rice. If I was to give you one advice as you begin to enjoy jollof rice, never get sucked into a conversation between a Ghanaian and a Nigerian debating it. The Jollof wars are real. Many a man and woman have been dragged on the internet for days because of jollof rice. People have firmly rooted ideas on what constitutes a proper plate of jollof, as we call it.
Let me tell you a bit about my own perspective on jollof rice. Growing up, this rice dish was not something that we ate every day or every week. Jollof is a special occasion dish. It is made for birthdays. When I moved to California and my white American stepmother asked me what I wanted for my birthday, I remember asking for a pot of jollof rice. It is served at weddings, naming ceremonies, and other events of great importance. The relatively infrequent appearance of jollof rice at the dinner table made it a special dish. It is a dish I still associate with joy and occasion.
I learned how to make jollof rice from Mama Sunday. Mama Sunday, an olopo or caterer, was legendary in my extended family for her food. She was a woman who came from Republic of Benin to work in Nigeria making food. As a young child, I only saw her once a year, on Ileya. Ileya, a Yoruba term for as Eid El Kabir, is a Muslim day of celebration. It marks the day when Abraham was willing to sacrifice his son as a sign of obedience to Allah. Allah rewarded his loyalty by making a ram appear to Abraham as a suitable sacrifice in the stead of his first son. Ileya, or Big Sallah, is a big deal in my family because we are observant Muslims.
On Eid Al Kabir, Mama Sunday and her sous chefs would arrive super early in the morning. Their arrival often marked the official beginning of celebrations. Mama Sunday would set up the cooking arena in the backyard, while we showered and dressed for the special morning prayers. Large scale cooking is often done on wood fires using silver cast iron pans. The smoke from the burning wood often seeps into the pot of food living a complex layer of flavor that is hard to replicate in its absence.
On Big Sallah day, food was often made in abundance to feed the guests that would past through the house. In my mother’s house, we often had other families, of many faiths, joining the celebrations at various points of the day. It was a day that was dedicated to endless eating and drinking nonalcoholic beverages. Days prior, the house would be stocked with sweets like chin-chin, gurundi, and cakes. The refrigerator would hold bottles of Coca-cola, Fanta, Sprite, Bitter Lemon, Maltina, and Five Alive juices.
After breakfast, which was often corn-beef stew with yam, Mama Sunday and her crew would get ready for the day of cooking. So while we went off to pray, they would peel beans for moin-moin. Prep the tomato, onion and red pepper to be blended at the commercial grider. Maybe, they might make puff-puff so that when we got back there was something to munch on. When the family returned from Eid prayer, the ram would be slaughtered in the backyard by the special butcher.
One of the things I appreciate about my childhood in Nigeria is the fact that I learned the provenance of food very early. It was all around me to see. In my mother’s backyard, we had the space to kill our own animals following halal guidelines. We also learned how to eat the whole animal and appreciate it. The processing of the ram on Sallah day is something that still fills me with awe. Every effort is taken to ensure that every part of the animal is used. There are special techniques for removing the animal’s fur so that the skin can be eaten or removing the skin with fur intact. The removed skin would be treated and dried to be used as a rug.
Everything the ram has to offer is used. The head is broken down, the brain is retrieved and eaten fresh. Ram’s brain feels like warm cheese with a creamy mouth feel. The rest of the head is often saved for special soups with the legs. The rest of the animal’s carcass is broken into sections. My mother would often send the first uncooked chunk to another Muslim family in the neighborhood who could not afford to kill a ram. Buying and sacrificing a ram is not a cheap endeavor. This act is often out of reach for many Muslim families. This was a good gesture since my small nuclear family of four could definitely not consume a whole ram by ourselves.
The rest of the meat, including the offals, would be braised in a giant vat filled with onions, garlic, ginger, curry, thyme, bay leaves, and oregano with salt. So when I talk about sacrificing a ram for Big Sallah, I think of it as a hyper form of head to tail eating. After braising the meat, Mama Sunday and crew would fry it. The oil for frying would be further seasoned with onions and garlic. Apart from impacting more flavor in the meat, frying was also a great way of preserving the cooked meat. One Sallah tradition in my family was the exchange of fried meat amongst households. It is important for the fried meat to be dehydrated enough to withstand life outside a refrigerator without spoiling.
Mama Sunday often cooked the jollof rice last. This was a strategic decision because the rice would be cooked in a tomato base boosted with stock from braising the ram meat and oil from frying the meat. The way I cook my rice is the same way that Mama Sunday cooked hers. It is a two-pot system that allows you to better control the cooking process. Many recipes for jollof rice use a one-pot system. Using this common one-pot method, the tomato base is cooks along with the rice in a single vessel at the same time. This system sounds straight forward. In reality, it can be a bit finicky leading to undercooked rice that burns early, even in a good pan.
Getting consistent results is important to me when cooking and writing recipes. This is why I advocate for the two-pot system for cooking jollof rice, especially for beginners. In the two-pot method, the tomato base cooks in one pot while the rice partly cooks in another. I then combine the tomato base with the partly cooked rice. To finish, I place the combined pot on low heat so that the rice steam gently and absorbs the flavor from the tomato base. I have found that this system delivers good results consistently.
In Nigeria, fresh tomatoes, tomato paste, red bell peppers, onions, and habanero pepper are blended then cooked with oil. My system for cooking jollof rice, now that I live abroad in Massachusetts USA, relies on canned tomatoes. I use canned tomatoes because it delivers a more consistent taste than fresh tomatoes. In New England where I live, due to seasonal changes in the taste of fresh tomatoes, it is hard to balance the flavor. Canned tomatoes allow me to have a consistent flavor base to build upon. This is especially true because I have my favorite brand that I use for cooking. This means the canned tomatoes add a consistent level of sugar and acidity in my recipe.
The holy grail of cooking jollof rice is the smokey flavor. Over the years of reading recipes, I have seen a lot of food writers recommend letting the rice burn ever so slightly in the pan to mimic the smokiness of wood fire. In my humble opinion, burnt jollof rice tastes nothing like rice that has been cooked on a wood fire. The approach I take to getting the smokiness in my rice relies on spices. In particular, I use a smoked spanish paprika* to add some of the complex flavors that Sallah rice usually has. The smoked paprika also helps to boost the vibrant red color of this celebratory rice. For even more smokiness, I’ll get a can of fire-roasted tomatoes instead of regular tomatoes.
Caramelized onion is one other thing I must have in my jollof rice. This goes back to my days of watching Mama Sunday cook. She always sauteed a copious amount of onion slices in hot oil before adding in her tomato base. The caramelized tendrils of onions add a spot of sweetness and crunch in a forkful of jollof rice. I know that there are people who prefer to add in the raw slices of onions at the last moment to steam in the heat of the cooked rice. This method is nice but it does not allow the onion to develop its sweetness.
My rice of choice for cooking Jollof rice is Basmati. Some people might find this to be sacrilegious. Traditional Nigerian Jollof rice is made with long to medium-grain white rice. This rice has a higher starch level than Basmati rice. I cook with Basmati because I prefer how it tastes and feels in the mouth. This is the rice I use to cook everything. So, that is what I use for Jollof rice as well.
Like I mentioned early on, there are many different ways to cook Nigerian jollof rice successfully. Just like there have been many bastardized versions of this special rice that has nothing to do with its deep heritage. As you learn to cook jollof rice, it is unavoidable that you will start to adjust the recipe to match your style in the kitchen. You may find yourself adding ingredients like peas and corn to boost its nutritional content. This recipe is a starting point for cooking this rice dish that is such a joyous part of my life.
The recipe I have developed is vegan at its core because I wanted it to appeal to as many people as possible. For non-vegans, looking to boost the flavor profile of this recipe, you can replace all liquids in this recipe with broth or stock. If you don’t have stock and you are serving this with roasted chicken, add in the rendered fat and juices from roasting the chicken into the sauce while it cooks. Even vegans and vegetarians can add in vegetable broth into the recipe as a flavor boost. Or maybe experiment with some bouillon.
In Nigeria, the base of tomato, red bell pepper, and onion is almost sacred. As you modify this recipe, I encourage you to remember this. Deviating from that core trifecta would definitely alter the flavor profile of this jollof rice. The cooked pot of rice should have coated and separated grains. Using the two-pot system allows you to control the amount of fluid used to cook the rice. This also means you are less likely to end up with rice clumps or slush. Claiming jollof rice is a slushy dish is an easy way to get dragged by Nigerian twitter. Trust me! It is not.
You might not perfect jollof rice the first time that you make it. However, I encourage you to keep trying. If you have questions, feel free to leave a comment or questions below. Reach me at @sinmi.araoye on Instagram.
Nigerian Jollof Rice
- 2 Cups Basmati Rice
- 1 Cup Vegetable Oil
- 1 Cup Canned Tomato 8 ounces
- 3 tbsp Tomato Paste
- 3-4 ounces Red Pepper
- 6-8 ounces Onions
- 1 Habanero Pepper 0.5 ounces approximately
- 2 Cloves Garlic
- 1.5 tbsp Smoked Spanish Paprika
- 1/2 tbsp Dried Rosemary
- 1/2 tsp Curry Powder
- 1 tbsp Dried Thyme
- 1 tbsp Dried Parsley
- 1 tbsp Dried Marjoram
- In a pot, add in the rinsed basmati rice and 2 cups of water. Add a bit of salt to the water. Cove tightly and bring to a boil. Once water starts boiling, turn down heat to low. The water should just simmer. The rice should absorb all the liquid in the pot in about 15-20 minutes.
Making the Jollof Rice Sauce
- In a food processor or blender, add in half the onions. Then add all of the canned tomatoes, garlic, habanero, and red pepper. Process until it is a finely blended liquid.
- Slice the remaining half onion.
- Add the vegetable oil into a pot and turn on the heat to medium. After a minute, add in the onion slices. Cook on medium to low heat until onion slices are wilted and about half of initial volume. This should take about 5 to 10 minutes.
- Add in the tomato paste to onions. Cook for about five minutes until the tomato paste becomes fragrant. Stir frequently to avoid burning.
- Pour in the blended tomato mix into the pot. Stir. Then add in the spices. Add in about a teaspoon of salt. Cover and allow to cook on medium to low heat for about 20-25 minutes. Stir every 5 minutes or so to avoid burning at the bottom of the pot. The sauce is ready when you can see the tomato separating from the vegetable oil in the pot. Be careful at this stage because the sauce does splatter and can burn your skin.
Combining the Sauce and Rice
- Add four cups of cooked sauce and the partly cooked rice to a pot. Stir it together until sauce and rice are evenly distributed. If the sauce is less than four cups, don't worry, just add everything to the rice. You can skim off some of the oil if it makes you uncomfortable. Put the pot on low heat.
- Taste the rice and season with salt if needed. Add in about a quarter cup of water to the pot of rice. Tightly cover and allow to cook on low for about 15 minutes.
- After 15 minutes, open the pot and fluff up the rice gently. The sauce and all liquids should be fully absorbed. It is ready to serve.
- Serve the rice with slices of fresh tomatoes if you can get them. Enjoy!
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