The Battle Over Rice
By Rhea Kumar
Ghana is well endowed with a coastline and agricultural plains further inland, and this manifests in its rich and varied cuisine. Ghanaian cuisine packs in a number of flavors and textures, from the softness of the tilapia fish to the crisp salty taste of yam chips to the sweetness of fried plantains. But no Ghanaian meal is complete without jollof, the flavored rice dish often served with meat or vegetable stew on the side.
According to Cisse Awa, the cook at Agoo Hostel, fufu (cassava), kenke, banku (both fermented maize dishes) and jollof are the four dishes that define Ghanaian cuisine. Of these, jollof is probably the most famous, finding its way to the top of tourist brochures as well as the menus of Ghanaian restaurants. Jollof is also believed to be the predecessor of jambalaya, a popular rice based dish in Southern United States that was likely brought and popularized by enslaved Africans who came to the United States. It’s unclear where jollof originated, but multiple internet sources attribute it to the Jolof Empire that ruled parts of West Africa in the 14th and 15th century. It may have also been influenced by the pre-existing Muslim population in West Africa, given jollof’s similarity to biryani, a rice based dish popular in South Asia and the Middle East.
Awa described the preparation process of jollof in detail to me. “You prepare the sauce by frying onions and add blended tomatoes, green and black peppers, garlic, ginger and bay leaves. If you want to add meat, you must boil or fry it and add it to the sauce. Finally, you cook the rice separately and mix it in with the other ingredients.” Depending on the mix of ingredients, jollof can be red, pink, yellow or white in color. Most frequently, the dish takes on a reddish brown hue, as tomato is one of the key ingredients in its preparation.
Jollof is a popular dish throughout West Africa, prepared with slight variations in each country. Not surprisingly, the inhabitants of each country believe that their version of jollof is the best. Particularly heated is the argument between Ghana and its neighbor Nigeria on whose version of jollof is better.
Here in Accra, the verdict is very clear. Evans Brown, a waiter at Accra’s Buka restaurant, feels that Ghanaian jollof is undoubtedly better. Buka serves both Ghanaian and Nigerian jollof. But, according to Evans, “Even the Nigerians who visit this restaurant say that the Ghanaian jollof is better.” Charlotte, a waitress at Buka, was more ambivalent. “While you can order Nigerian jollof over here, it will be prepared by a Ghanaian, so don’t expect it to be too different from Ghanaian jollof.” Even so, she displayed a strong preference for Ghanaian jollof. “I am Ghanian so naturally I like the Ghanaian jollof better,” she laughed.
There are certainly some concrete differences between how Nigerian and Ghanaian jollof is prepared. Ghanaian jollof is made with perfumed jasmine rice, and usually accompanied by stewed vegetables as well as pepper sauce (shito) on the side. Nigerians, on the other hand, tend to prefer long grain rice which is neither sweet nor perfumed. Instead, their jollof often has a smoked taste. “They like [their jollof]…spicy,” Awa told me, wrinkling her nose just a little. “All of their food is really spicy.”
But for the most part, it appears that the debate between Nigerian and Ghanian jollof has more to do with national pride than actual differences in how the rice tastes. “It’s largely just the difference in the rice we use,” Charlotte reiterated Awa’s insights. “But theirs does not taste as good as ours when served cold,” she said, half joking, half serious.
Since I have not visited Nigeria, I cannot say for sure which kind of jollof is better. But Awa provided me with a satisfactory answer to my question. “My favorite kind of jollof is the one that I have created on my own,” Awa smiled at me. She went on to enthusiastically describe how she likes to stuff jollof and boiled cabbage into leaves and bake or fry them to make tiny sized jollof bites. I smiled to myself as she offered to make her dish for our group on our final day in Accra. Perhaps the best jollof isn’t in Ghana or Nigeria, and isn’t a historical recipe. Perhaps the best jollof is yet to be found.
Rhea Kumar ’18 is an Ethics, Politics, and Economics Major in Pauli Murray College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.