Anthropology: The Cultural Debate of Jollof Rice

A plate of jollof rice, accompanied with cucumber and tomatoes.
Plate of jollof rice

Not So Humble Beginnings: Wolof Empire

Around the 14th century, the Wolof Empire fed its people and economy using the Senegal river and the Gambian river. Lasting for two centuries, the empire developed a strong trade system which was fueled by minerals and food. With an economy centered around their mining and rice growth, the Wolof empire spread its influence over the majority of west Africa. As the Wolof people began trading and developing alongside Europeans, food like jollof rice began to change.

Throughout this article, we’ll be studying the different dishes sharing the name of jollof rice!  From Gambia and Senegal, to Nigeria, this dish has become a homestyle favorite for so many.

To read more about Africa and its culture, please visit this side of our website!

Different Kinds

A globe focused on Africa with a background of green leaves
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Unsurprisingly, as the Wolof people spread, so did their food. Gambia, Senegal, Ghana, and Nigeria all took on their own forms of simple meals, such as jollof rice. While the formula for this delectable dish is simple, (rice, tomatoes, onions, and veg), each country has its own unique take. As we go through each of the varieties, make note of which you think you’d like to try!  I’ll tell you my favorite, but only when we get closer to the end. Wouldn’t want to spoil this for you!

Gambian and Senegal Jollof

Senegal Flag
Photo by Victor Rutka on Unsplash

Jollof rice in this region is called Benachin, which is actually derived from the Wolof language.  It means “one pot”, a pretty self-descriptive name. As time went on, and the dish spread across the continent, the name of the rice was changed to reflect its heritage.

Cooked with a variety of vegetables and spices, and rotating between chicken and beef. The key thing is, all the meats, all the veggies, all the rice, it’s all cooked in one pot. The flavors all soak into each other and create a dish bursting with character!

This dish also tries to make the rice a little crispier than the neighboring countries do, using a little extra palm oil, and spicing it up with tamarind.

Make Your Own!

If you’d like to experiment at home with this region’s rice, you should check out National Food’s recipe. This one features eggplant, garlic, and cabbage. This delicious assortment of veggies and chicken, tied together by tomato paste.

Foodche also has a delicious recipe that is worth a shot.  Of course, if you have any friends who make their own, ask them!  It can be a blast to cook together, and get their family stories about the dish.

Access Gambia is a wonderful website to get authentic, Gambian recipes. Anything from dumplings and fufu, to okra stew, this website can give you delicious foods to try. The best part about this one, is it’s a fish jollof recipe.

Let’s Go Out To Eat

If you find yourself in Gambia one day, you should make a point of trying their food on a professional level! Darboes Restaurant has a delicious collection of Gambian cuisine. With a cozy porch, relaxed environment, and variety of food, Darboes offers a great way for you to break into the new style of food. Located just a few minutes away from the beach, it’s an easy spot to check out after a fun water day.

Another wonderful, outdoorsy restaurant to visit would be Musa’s Bendulla. A little bar, located not too far away from Darboes, offers authentic Gambian cuisine. In addition to the delicious food, be prepared to try one of their drinks, from beers to coffees.

Al Terrace features amazing food choices, with a special shout out to it’s Benachin. All three of these restaurants are located fairly close together, with lovely patio seating. Just a warning, though, if you choose to try any of these, be sure to bring a can of bug spray!

Local Options

If you don’t see yourself making the trip any time soon, don’t worry! There are plenty of West African restaurants in America.  In Maryland, there’s Mansa Kunda, with a delicious selection of foods from all over west Africa, particularly the Senegal region. This place is a must try!

In America, there are a shocking few Gambian restaurants. Almost all of our restaurants are Nigerian based.  However, in London, there’s quite a selection to choose from.

Gamby Shack features a good mix of Gambian and Carribean food. Homemade, open only for lunch, and offering delectable Gambian cuisine, this is somewhere you can’t skip.  Oh, and, it’s important to note they do have a five star rating.

The Sene Gambia Takeaway, also located in London, offers a friendly atmosphere and so many food choices to try! Run by a trio of sisters, this family-based restaurant offers you a wide selection of authentic, Gambian food.

Ghana

Man holding the Ghanaian flag
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The history of Ghana is almost as rich as its food. Influenced by their trade with Europeans, like the Portuguese and Dutch, Ghana grew to be a bountiful location. In 1957, Ghana proclaimed its independence, encouraging thirty other countries to do the same.

Here’s where it gets a little spicy. In recent years, a friendly rivalry of sorts has been sparked between different countries as to which jollof is the best. The Ghanaian jollof stands out because of its use of basmati rice instead of plain white rice. This gives the dish a unique flavor and texture.

The Ghanaian jollof features the usual suspects: tomatoes, onions, rice, garlic, chillies, assorted meats, and spices. The order of how each of these items go into the meals is crucial. To get the unique Ghana flavor, it’s suggested you add cloves, cinnamon, or nutmeg. This gives it a sweeter, smoother flavor, and is greatly due to the Dutch influence on the country.

Make Your Own!

For a wonderful Ghanaian recipe, check out My African Foodmap! This is a simple recipe, with easy to follow directions. The best feature of this recipe is that it comes with a vegetarian option.

Panning the Globe also has an amazing recipe as well, complete with a list of suggestions for what sides to serve with the dish. This recipe looks to be a little richer, and it’s definitely worth the extra work.

Now, if you really want yours spicy, check out Essie Spice. In this recipe, they use more chili sauce and, the big kicker here is Scotch Bonnet peppers. These peppers add a lovely flavor and depth to the dish.

Let’s Go Out To Eat

Buka Restaurant

If you’re ever in Ghana, specifically Accra, you should look at the Buka restaurant. With a lovely porch and an extensive menu, this place is certainly worth the try. Wanna snack on peppered snails, palm nut soup, or, the obvious, jollof rice.

Azmera restaurant is another wonderful, authentic Ghanaian restaurant. Waakye, banku and okro stew, and red red are all delicious meals to try. While they don’t have jollof as a main dish, this place is still a must!

Another wonderful place in Accra is Country Kitchen. This is homestyle Ghanaian food. Not spruced up, not fancy, just good, old-fashioned, Ghanaian cuisine in a relaxed environment. Not to mention, the prices are affordable.

Local

If you live near Houston, Texas, you’re in luck! We have quite a selection of West African restaurants. As a cultural hub, teeming with people from all over the world. In a place so diverse, it makes sense that we would have a wide collection of extremely diverse cuisines. Everybody wants to share a piece of their homeland, and it creates a wonderful environment.

Afrikiko, off of Bissonet and 59, has jollof rice, as well as a nice variety of soups and fish. They’ve been around for nearly twenty years, and maintain an almost five star rating. With enough food in each order for two meals, it’s perfect for sharing or keeping for the next day.

Zongo has brilliant West African food, with jollof as a side or entree, a variety of meats and stews, and wonderful reviews. Fun fact, Zongo is Hausa for “traveler’s camp”, giving visitors a sense of warmth and reference.

Nigeria

The city of Abeokuta, Nigeria
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In Nigeria, the trade was greatly influenced by the Yoruba and Hausa tribes. These tribes offered up iron sculptures, and traded for gold, feathers, and other gifts. These cultures were quickly converted to Islam through trade, and Nigeria became a trading hub.

The cultures involved in these trades were predominantly Saharan and Mediterranean. These cultures traded gold for salt, and, unintentionally, their cultures also mingled.

As time went on, trade continued, and leadership shifted, the culture turned into a conglomeration of Nigeria’s history. Knowing this, it’s no surprise to see their food reflecting such a large variety of cultures, specifically Mediterranean, Islamic cultures.

For example, the Nigerian jollof features a rice that originated in India, poblanos or habaneros come from Mexico, and thyme, which comes out of Egypt. A dish with flavor just as varied as its people, it’s no wonder jollof is adored by so many.

Make Your Own!

If you check out Food52, you’ll find an affordable and time-efficient jollof recipe. This one features onions, peppers, curry, thyme, and bay leaves. They give you advice for accents, and how to make party rice! This is where you cook your jollof rice over a fire and give it a delicious outdoorsy flavor.

On EvsEats, she claims Nigerian as her favorite because she enjoys the flavor of long rice more. Basmati rice is “too sweet” in her opinion. This is an easy to follow recipe, with many of the same ingredients we see in the last recipe. The only difference is her details at the end on the importance of order.

Ellyajoku has a recipe for an authentic party jollof rice. All of the ingredients are easily accessible, and maybe something you have lying around your house. Using a “stainless steel pot” or just cooking over a fire should be enough to get you that extra zing you need!

Let’s Go Out To Eat

Bukka Hut

One day, if you’re ever exploring the streets of Lagos, Nigeria, you should be sure to visit the Bukka Hut. This restaurant, while permanent with a beautiful design, offers a wide selection of street foods. From boiled yam and egg sauce to pap and akra to jollof rice and seafood okro, this restaurant is certainly worth a try. With wonderful reviews and a beautiful location, Bukka Hut should be number one on your list of travels.

The White House is another delicious option. This restaurant is another assortment of street foods, cooked in a fairly open restaurant. It’s food is cooked over a hot fire, and served in a warm, homey environment. Serving porridge and party jollof rice, this place is certainly a must!

Moi moi, jollof rice, and fufu fill the menu at Olaiya. This restaurant has three locations, and the prices change depending on location, but don’t let that stop you. Don’t mistake this simple menu, it’s still delicious and full of flavor!

Local

Baba Jollof is a restaurant in Houston, Texas, complete with a hookah bar. With designer stew, plantains and, not surprisingly, jollof rice, this restaurant is certainly worth trying. Their reviews are very positive, and are, overall, very positive.

Another Houston restaurant that you have to visit is Kobam’s Grill. This was my first experiment with Nigerian food outside of what my coworkers brought me. I must say, the service was brilliant, and it was very inviting. The waitress was very conversational and very funny, making the visit extremely memorable. In addition to this, the food was phenomenal! On my visit, I tried the okra soup with fufu and beef. This place is magnificient, and you should certainly pay this restaurant a visit.

Aduke Nigerian Cuisine is located in Los Angeles, California. Reviews agree their food is magnificent and authentic. Their efo riro stew and their jollof platter are just two of their more popular dishes. Akara is a great appetizer to start off with, and the amount of food will certainly be enough to last anyone at least two meals! While the menu is a little pricey, keep in mind each meal is meant to be shared, and split between two people.

At Home

Four rolls of jollof rice with nuts, tomato paste and crocheted oven mitts
Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

I’ve been fortunate enough to live in a city teeming with different cultures and people from all over the world. Houston has not only been my home, but also my gateway to trying new things! Because of this, I’ve made it a goal to try foods from all over the world.

I discovered jollof rice when my boyfriend decided to try his hand at making some. He brought it to work and let a few of our Nigerian coworkers try it, letting them test for authenticity. It was widely agreed he made good jollof rice, but he needed to try home-made, Nigerian jollof. We had two coworkers bring us their jollof, and one of them brought us moi moi to serve as an appetizer. It took one bite for me to fall absolutely in love with the food, and extremely curious about more Nigerian cuisine.

An Interview

Pen writing notes for interview

One of my coworkers, who brought jollof and moi moi, agreed to talk to me a little bit about his preferences in regards to jollof. This dish has been a part of his life from the moment he was born. He grew up in the Republic of Benin, and made many wonderful, family memories while sharing jollof rice.

He personally prefers to multi-task while making his jollof. Instead of cooking everything in one pot, he cooks his stew in a separate pot from his rice, and, by the time the rice is done, the stew will be ready. He then mixes it together in a big pot and cooks it for a little bit longer. This way, all of the flavors are cooked together. His personal favorite meat is goat meat, and he loves to serve it with a side of plantains or moi moi.

My other coworker, who grew up in Lagos, has always made his jollof very spicy. It’s been a part of his life for many, many years. He enjoys going out to Cafe Abuja, Komchop African Restaurant, and Grains and Solid restaurant, all located in the Houston area.

Hubert and Rasheed have been such wonderful coworkers and, more importantly, I consider them my friends. It meant so much that they were willing to talk about this little piece of home, as well as bring some for me to try. I look forward to trying more jollof and other Nigerian cuisine, as well as trying to make a few of the dishes.

One thing all of us have agreed on is that Nigerian jollof is the best jollof!

In Conclusion

People move to America in search of the promise of a better life. Coming from all over the globe, these people are forced to adjust to life in a new culture. Many, however, fight the homesickness with a taste of home, and some offer it to their community.

Restaurants of every nationality pop up in major cities as these people find ways to feel more at home and give others a chance to share in their culture. Food has the surprising ability to bond people together, especially when they share the same food. With this in mind, it comes as no surprise that other people from different cultures want to share a piece of their home.

Food from other countries and cultures can be absolutely terrifying sometimes. Let’s be honest, sometimes we just want an old-fashioned hamburger. New spices, different rice, different meats and sauces, they can all be intimidating, but don’t let that stop you! Opening yourself up to new experiences can open your mind and heart to other people. So go ahead and start your cultural, food adventure.

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