Nkiacha Atemnkeng weighs in on the Jollof Wars and makes a case for jollof rice from Cameroon, Ghana, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Senegal, and the Gambia.
‘Food tells you a lot about a culture, a lot about a people’ — Trevor Noah
I am in Nigeria, queuing up for food at the 2017 Aké Festival in Abeokuta. There is a constellation of rice dishes displayed on the buffet table upstairs in the main building where guests eat – jollof rice, ofada rice, fried rice, boiled rice… Rice is probably a Nigerian staple. The buffet service guy glances at me, waiting for my command. The aromas of all the other palatable meals sting my nostrils, but I dismiss them all. I want to relish the culinary glees of that one-pot dish that tells me a lot about the Nigerian culture and the Nigerian people, so I say: ‘Jollof rice!’
The guy dips his deep spoon into the jollof tray and scoops a spoonful of it, flattens the top with another spoon and nicely slaps the rice onto my flat, rectangular plate. He asks if I want a second spoon. I say yes. When it falls on my plate again, the two jollof mounds look like a pair of breasts: two big, bold eminences of Uncle Ben’s rice standing closely apart. I go for fish and goat meat next, then return to my seat, with a fresh bottle of 5 Olive pulp orange juice in my left hand and a plate of jollof in my right hand. I am ready to devour Nigerian Jollof for the first time.
Jollof rice is the tropical sun setting at dusk in its orange splendour
I insert the first spoonful of jollof into my mouth and chew. My taste buds spring to action, serving a slightly different purpose this time— contrasting rather than tasting. They compare the taste of Nigerian Jollof to that of Cameroonian Jollof (which I’ve had my whole life), and to Ghanaian Jollof (which I ate for the first time in Ghana in 2015). The rice grains are bigger and less sticky than Cameroonian Jollof.
The verdict: Less spicy and less tasty than Cameroonian Jollof. My mind quickly flips to the image of CNN’s Richard Quest tasting Nigerian Jollof for the first time on screen, during an episode of CNN Business Traveller Nigeria, in June this year. The words he uttered after his first bite still resonate with me.
‘It is just rice, tomatoes, oil mixed with some other things,’ he had squeaked, almost dismissively. I don’t agree with Mr Quest. From his facial expression, I could sense his detachment from Nigerian Jollof, or maybe from the craze for it, which probably stems from his preference for American and European cuisine.
The reddish-yellow hue of jollof is a sight to behold. Jollof rice is the tropical sun setting at dusk in its orange splendour. Its subtle, perfumed aroma that excites the nose is pleasant, although not as strong-scented as other spicy African dishes. Its sweet taste, with just enough peppery and unctuous seasoning, is unforgettable. Jollof’s easy recipe and brisk cooking makes it a go-to meal for many Nigerians. I can see why Nigerian Jollof is not just a national delicacy but also a sacred dish for festive tapestry. But I don’t know why Nigerian Jollof rice is the most popular of the country’s dishes in Africa, whereas Ofada rice tastes better.
Many African food experts, bloggers and dieticians did some research on the origins of jollof rice, and they discovered that Senegal and Gambia own the copyright and bragging rights of the first jollof recipe in Africa. Jollof is believed to have originated in the Senegambia region of West Africa among the Wolof people, where it is known as benachin.
Their yummy one-pot dish quickly spread across West Africa, with each new jollof-adopting nation bringing in its own unique twist of ingredients. The battle for supremacy has now evolved into a full-blown West African Jollof War.
I have now come to the conclusion that Almighty Nigerian Jollof is overrated and overhyped – a phenomenon which stems primarily from ‘Nigerian pride’
Interestingly, the Jollof War is generally fought between Nigeria and Ghana. Cameroon, Sierra Leone, the Gambia, and Liberia are also jollof-cooking nations, but they, as well as the originators – Senegal –, somehow get relegated to the background during the contentious jollof debates. I have listened to a BBC Radio food programme where West African food bloggers and journalists were engaged in one of their jollof fights on air for about thirty minutes— Cameroon, Sierra Leone, Liberia and the Gambia were not even mentioned.
That notwithstanding, each country has its own delicious version, laden with cooking innovations, marked by the inclusion or exclusion of sea food, green plants, okra, deep-fried ripe plantain, carrots, and green beans.
My personal experience at Aké, was an important step in my quest of understanding this ‘Almighty Nigerian Jollof’ of mythical qualities. When I told a couple of Nigerian friends with whom I was having drinks that we have Cameroonian Jollof, they were not only shocked but also made fun of the whole idea.
‘Cameroonian Jollof! How does that even sound to the ear? It is just weird.’
‘We spice it up with carrot and green beans and a few other things.’
‘We’re wary of any jollof rice that is cooked with carrot and green beans!’
‘Isn’t cooking supposed to be innovative?’
— Nii Ayikwei Parkes is BLUE for #Sudan (@BlueBirdTail) May 16, 2017
I went on to say Cameroonian Jollof tastes better, just to witness their reaction. The Nigerians around me burst into laughter and dismissed the whole idea of Cameroonian Jollof again. The exchange led me to this thought: in the business of taste buds, everybody blows their own trumpet. Even Zimbabwean novelist, Panashe Chigumadzi, who isn’t from a jollof-cooking country, said during her 2016 Aké book chat that her own unique version of jollof rice, which has got South African cooking influences, is better than Nigerian Jollof. The statement sparked uproar from the audience. In June, when up to three Nigerian writers were shortlisted for the Caine Prize for African Writing, the 2017 chair of judges, Ghanaian novelist, Nii Ayikwei Parkes, tweeted: ‘[…] now I get why their jollof can’t compete. Bookworms!’
I have now come to the conclusion that Nigerian Jollof is overrated and overhyped – a phenomenon which stems primarily from ‘Nigerian pride’. Jollof rice indeed has its origins in Senegal and the Gambia, among the people who call it ‘Benachin’. All the other West African countries only poached Wolof Jollof.
Nkiacha Atemnkeng works at the Douala International Airport in Cameroon. His works have been published in the 2015 Caine Prize anthology, the 2014 Writivism anthology, This Is Africa, Brittle Paper, and Bakwa Magazine. He attended the 2015 Caine Prize writers’ workshop in Ghana and the 2017 Nigeria-Cameroon Literary Exchange project. He is a Sylt Foundation writing residency prize winner and Ethiopian Airlines Cameroon’s 2016 blogging award winner. He tweets @nkiacha.