What Is Jollof Rice?
According to a renowned Senegal-raised chef and author.
By Chef Pierre Thiam for Food Network Kitchen
Chef Pierre Thiam is a Senegal-raised, New York City-based chef, author, restaurateur, social entrepreneur and culinary ambassador.
What Is Jollof Rice?
Jollof Rice is a popular spiced rice and tomato-based West African dish.
It is also the source of a controversial, yet peaceful conflict lovingly called The Jollof Wars. The long-standing rivalry among West African nations is rooted in one seemingly simple question: Which country makes the best Jollof rice? Every nation, of course, claims to have the best version of this delicately spiced mealtime favorite. At first glance, most preparations of Jollof rice look quite similar: fluffy, confidently bright red rice and placed boldly in the center of a plate or buffer table. But each country is known for its own style—slight variations in the recipe that makes it unique.
In Senegal, Jollof is cooked in a rich tomato broth flavored with fish, vegetables, fermented conch and dried fish, giving it a rich and pleasant umami taste. Nigerian Jollof is also cooked in a tomato broth, but often with curry spices and meat. In addition, people often cook their Jollof over a wood fire in Nigeria, which gives it a subtle smoky flavor and a delicious burnt-crunchy rice crust that forms at the bottom of the cooking pot. Ghanaian Jollof is also cooked with curry spices and meat but has more of a fiery heat due to the addition of extra-spicy scotch bonnet pepper in the early stages of the tomato broth preparation. Sometimes, different kinds of rice are used, too. The Senegalese have developed a preference for broken rice (which resembles couscous)—a remnant of its colonial past when French occupiers imported processed rice debris from Vietnam to Senegal. Nigerians like to prepare their Jollof with long grain rice; the Ghanaians often opt for the more fragrant basmati.
Today, the Jollof Wars have expanded beyond the African continent to the far expanses of the African diaspora. Jollof battles are frequently organized in various cities around the world, with each country represented by cooks concocting their best Jollof recipes. Blindfolded judges of diverse backgrounds meticulously taste and score each creation. No matter how fair the method of judging may seem, the winners will never be unanimously accepted. Countless attempts to settle this bloodless war have all proven inconclusive. As it’s often been said, there is no accounting for taste. Different people like different things ... and national allegiances run deep on the African continent.
What Are the Origins of Jollof Rice?
Although Nigerians and Ghanaians seem to be the most vocal and opinionated in the battles of the Jollof, the origins of this dish actually trace back to Senegal. The Jollof Empire, also known as the Wollof Empire, ruled Senegal from 1350 to 1549. The empire prospered on trade thanks to the Senegal River, which facilitated travel from the coastal nation inland to neighboring West African countries. Numerous trade expeditions have played a key role in popularizing the dish in the region. If there is one thing we always travel with, it’s our food, and the memories it creates along the way.
Although I as a Senegalese feel confident that the Senegalese Jollof is the clear winner, I have truly enjoyed all the other variations of Jollof while traveling in Ghana and Nigeria. In a strange way, Jollof rice is a dish that highlights the unifying role of food. It is bringing West African communities together through our fiery, passionate, unbridled love of this one dish.
Note on the OG Jollof: Thieboudienne
In Senegal, the original Jollof Rice, which is also our national dish, is actually called “Thieboudienne.” When the dish was disseminated to the rest of West Africa, it became known as “Jollof Rice” in homage to its ancestral roots, the Jollof empire.
Thieboudienne (pronounce ceebu jenn) translates as “rice and fish” in the Wolof language. This simple translation of the name couldn’t be more deceiving. Thieboudienne is a unique eating experience.
In Senegal, Thieboudienne is traditionally served in a communal bowl, with the rice spread as a blanket at the bottom of the dish, topped at its center with fish and an assortment of chunky vegetables that have been slowly cooked in the same fermented tomato broth as the rice. The fish, usually a firm meaty white fleshed type, like grouper or snapper, is cut with slits and stuffed with a spicy parsley mixture called “rof.” The vegetables might include eggplants, carrots, cabbage or cassava, depending on what’s fresh in the market. A variety of accompaniments are also served alongside Thieboudienne, including fresh lemon wedges to squeeze over the meal to bring contrasting acidity, a side of the scorched rice dregs known as “Khoon” that have formed at the bottom of the pot and add fun crunchy texture and a side of “dakhar,” fresh tamarind that’s peeled and soaked in the tomato broth, adding pleasant fruitiness to the dish.
The best way to eat thieboudienne is around the bowl, with friends and family, and, if you are up to it, with your hand (the right one always!). In Senegal, we believe that food tastes better when you eat with your hands (cleaned ones, of course).
Whichever way you eat it, Thieboudienne is bursting with complex and surprisingly delicious layers of flavors at each bite.
How to Make Jollof Rice
Serves 4 to 6
- 2 cups jasmine rice
- 4 tablespoons peanut or vegetable oil
- 1 cup chopped yellow onion
- 1 cup chopped green bell pepper
- 2 tablespoons tomato paste
- 1 cup peeled and chopped tomatoes or canned diced or chopped tomatoes with juice
- 3 cups vegetable stock or water
- 1 bay leaf
- 1 small piece of fermented conch aka “yett” (about 2 inches) or a few dashes of fish sauce
- 2 teaspoons fine sea salt
- 1 1/2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper
- 1 Scotch bonnet or habanero chili
Rinse the rice several times until the water runs clear. Drain and set aside.
In a large pot, heat the oil over medium-high heat. When the oil begins to shimmer, add the onion and bell pepper. Cook, stirring with a wooden spoon, until the vegetables begin to soften, about 3 minutes. Add the tomato paste and lower the heat to its lowest setting. Continue cooking, stirring often with a wooden spoon to avoid scorching, until the tomato paste begins to darken, 5 to 7 more minutes. Add the tomatoes and their juice and stir well to combine. Add the vegetable stock, bay leaf, fermented conch (“yett”) or fish sauce, salt, pepper, and Scotch bonnet. Raise the heat to high and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to low and simmer until the oil begins to rise to the surface, 10 to 15 minutes.
Meanwhile, in a steamer or couscoussier, add the uncooked rice, cover tightly, and steam for about 15 minutes. You’ll want to stir the rice once or twice to make sure it cooks evenly. (The rice is done when it is half cooked; the outer rim of each grain is translucent but it’s still crunchy to the taste.) Remove and stir to prevent clumping.
Transfer the rice to the tomato broth. Stir and cover with a tight-fitting lid. Reduce the heat to the lowest setting and cook until the grains are soft, about 30 minutes. Uncover and stir to release the steam and fluff the grains. Taste to see that the grains are cooked. If not, add a few drops of water, cover again, and continue cooking for a few more minutes. Transfer to a platter and serve.
Jollof rice is a well-loved one-pot rice dish in popular in many West African countries, including Nigeria. It is made by cooking rice in a flavorful tomato and pepper puree.
Jollof rice originated in the Wolof or Jolof Empire in the Senegambian region, and today the dish of rice cooked in a tomato (or tomato and bell pepper) stew is one of the most recognized West African dishes around the world. Rice is not the only grain that can be used for jollof--jollof beans and jollof pasta are also popular. This version uses fonio, an ancient grain that's been cultivated for thousands of years in West Africa. Serve it on its own, or pair it with some vegetables, plantains and your favorite protein.