The Washington Post
A rice world tour makes a stop in West Africa with a fiery veggie jollof
I didn’t plan it, but lately I’ve been on something of a rice world tour. Recent dinners have included homemade risotto and paella, plus takeout crispy Lao naem khao and simple jasmine under mounds of Thai curries and stirfries. The latest stop on this whirlwind: jollof.
The truth is, this West African favorite is varied enough across cuisines and families that it merits its own tour. “It’s literally a staple on every table,” says Peter Opare, the man behind Washington’s Open Crumb restaurant, whose family hails from Ghana. “It is the one dish that brings most Africans together.”
In “Zoe’s Ghana Kitchen,” Zoe Adjonyoh says jollof is akin to such other one-pot rice dishes as jambalaya and paella. “Believed to originate from the Senegalese dish Benachin in the Wolof language or ‘ one-pot rice,’ there are many arguments between Nigerians and Ghanaians about who makes the best jollof and variations exist in Sierra Leone, Togo, Liberia and beyond.” You’ll also find jollof made with coconut milk in Cameroon and a baked version in Gambia, Adjonyoh says.
The diversity of dishes and opinions has long given rise to good-natured “jollof wars” between different nationalities, though “I never really bought into it,” Opare says. “At the end of the day, it’s more by family than by country.”
As to the commonalities, “the principle is always rice cooked in a spiced blend of tomatoes and onion, which gives it its rich red colouring,” Adjonyoh writes.
The rice is one major point of differentiation. Opare’s family prefers jasmine rice, though basmati is also popular among Ghanaians. Opare says you may find people who prefer other longgrain white rice, short grains or even Ben’s Original. You can cook the rice to your liking, as well. Opare prefers his rice softer, while his mother, who previously ran a restaurant and line of items for Whole Foods, likes it firmer. Add-ins run the gamut as well, from stewed and then fried meat to seafood and vegetables. Opare is particularly fond of salted pig feet. You’ll find plenty of variability in the amount and type of spice, too.
I made Adjonyoh’s recipe for Veggie Jollof from her book, which gets a new release stateside this fall after it was originally published across the pond in 2017. While the recipe calls for peas and carrots, you can swap in the vegetables of your choosing, as long as they’re cut small enough to cook through while the rice steams in the final 20 to 25 minutes of cooking. I happily ate this as a main course with the accompanying salsa, though it would also make a great side with your choice of grilled or braised meats. The recipe makes a generous 8 cups, giving you plenty of flexibility to serve a few as a main or many as a side.
There’s no beating around the bush: The ingredient list is long. Like me, you may already have many of the ingredients in your pantry or fridge. Thankfully, most of the elements are simply mixed or blended together and lend themselves to making ahead. To cut back on the work or ingredients, you can buy a jollof spice blend (including from Adjonyoh herself ). If you make it, use the extras for future batches of jollof or as a rub for grilled and roasted meats. Or follow Adjonyoh’s lead and incorporate it into the breading for fried chicken. You’ll also likely have leftovers of the green kpakpo shito salsa, an onion-and-chile relish that packs the same kind of fiery heat as the finished jollof. This condiment would be right at home on nachos, tacos, gazpacho or grilled meats and sausages. We also found that the jollof itself can improve over subsequent days, with the flavors melding even more.
Cooking the jollof is fairly straightforward. It does require some attention, however. Depending on the strength of your cooktop, you may need to tweak the heat to avoid cooking down the tomato-based sauce too much. If for some reason you do, merely splash in extra water when you add the rice to ensure there’s just enough liquid to start boiling. Pay attention while the rice steams. If it’s looking really dry, splash in a bit more water and/or turn down the heat even more. The rice shouldn’t be burned to the point of being black or bitter on the bottom, but you will likely get a crispy layer on the pot. “That’s the best part,” Opare says. “A lot of people love that.”
Soon you may be thinking of ways to adapt this flexible dish the same way Opare often does when he gets home from work. “Jollof rice is just a great everyday side dish,” he says.