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 stir-fries. The latest stop on this whirlwind: jollof.
The truth is this West African favourite 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 the 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 long-grain 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.
Here, I’m sharing Adjonyoh’s recipe for veggie jollof from her book. 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-chilli 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 flavours 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 enough 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.
Active time: 2 hours | Total time: 2 hours 30 minutes
Makes: 4 to 8 servings (makes 8 cups)
Jollof is an iconic dish in West Africa, with many countries and people throughout the diaspora claiming their version is the best. This is a Ghanaian take from Zoe Adjonyoh, which, like the others, features rice cooked in a fiery spiced blend of tomatoes and onions. It can be made with meat or seafood, and this vegetarian recipe is flexible enough to allow for whatever produce you prefer.
There’s no denying the ingredient list is long, though many of them are pantry staples. Also, keep in mind that three of the components – the jollof dry spice mix, the tomato-based chalé sauce and the green kpakpo shito salsa for serving – easily come together and can be made in advance to cut back on the day-of work. Or you can choose to use the mostly hands-off time during which the sauce and rice cook to make the salsa.
Use extras of the spice mix in more batches of jollof or as a spice rub for any grilled or roasted meat. Adjonyoh incorporates it into the breading for fried chicken, too.
This makes a large portion of rice, which you can serve as a main course for a few people or as a side for a larger group. You’ll likely have leftover salsa, which packs a good bit of heat. It would be great on nachos, tacos, gazpacho or grilled meats and sausages.
Make ahead: The chalé sauce can be made 1 day in advance and refrigerated.
Storage notes: The jollof dry spice mix can be stored in an airtight container in a cool, dark place for several months. The green kpakpo shito salsa can be refrigerated for up to 3 days. The finished jollof can be refrigerated for up to 2 days. Reheat leftovers in the microwave or on the stove top.
Where to buy: Cubeb pepper is widely available online, as well as at some spice shops and African markets. You may also choose to purchase a jollof dry spice mix.
For the jollof dry spice mix:
2 tbsp ground ginger
2 tbsp dried thyme
1 tbsp plus 1 tsp crushed red pepper flakes
1 tbsp garlic powder
2½ tsp ground cinnamon
2½ tsp ground nutmeg
2½ tsp ground coriander
2 tsp onion powder
1 tsp smoked paprika
1 tsp fine sea or table salt
1 tsp freshly ground cubeb pepper (may substitute a mix of freshly ground black pepper and allspice)
For the chalé sauce:
200g tinned chopped tomatoes or 280g fresh tomatoes, hulled and coarsely chopped
1 jarred roasted red bell pepper, drained
1 small white onion (about 115g), coarsely chopped
1 small red Scotch bonnet chilli pepper (use half and de-seed if you have a low heat tolerance or substitute ½ tsp cayenne for a milder heat)
1 tbsp tomato puree
2 cloves garlic (optional)
One (2.5cm) piece fresh ginger, finely chopped
1 tsp Madras curry powder (extra hot, if desired)
½ tsp crushed red pepper flakes
½ tsp fine sea or table salt, plus more to taste
½ tsp chilli powder (extra hot, if desired)
For the jollof:
3 tbsp peanut oil or vegetable oil
1 medium white onion (about 225g), diced
1 tsp curry powder, such as Madras
1 tsp chilli powder
2 tbsp jollof dry spice mix (see above)
2 cups chalé sauce (entire yield from above)
300g basmati rice or other long-grain white rice, thoroughly rinsed until the water runs clear, then drained
½ to 1 cup water, as needed
155g fresh or frozen peas (no need to thaw, if frozen)
3 carrots, scrubbed and diced
For the green kpakpo shito salsa:
2 medium white or red onions (about 450g total), diced
100g green kpakpo shito (cherry) chilli peppers, roughly chopped (may substitute any other hot green chilli, such as green bird’s eye, jalapeno, habanero or Scotch bonnet)
One (2.5cm) piece fresh ginger, finely chopped
1 clove garlic, chopped
2 tbsp fresh lemon or lime juice
2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
½ tsp fine sea or table salt, plus more to taste
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Make the jollof dry spice mix: in a medium bowl, combine the ginger, thyme, red pepper flakes, garlic powder, cinnamon, nutmeg, coriander, onion powder, smoked paprika, salt and cubeb pepper until combined. Blend them together in a spice grinder or with a mortar and pestle, working in batches, if needed. You should get about ⅔ cup. Use right away or transfer to an airtight container and store in a cool, dark place until needed.
Make the chalé sauce: in a blender, combine the tomatoes, roasted pepper, onion, Scotch bonnet chilli, tomato puree, garlic, if using, ginger, curry powder, red pepper flakes, salt and chili powder. Blend until you have a fairly smooth paste. Taste, and season with more salt, if desired. You should get about 2 cups. Use right away, or transfer to an airtight container and refrigerate until needed.
Start the jollof: in a large, heavy-bottomed pot, such as a casserole dish, over medium heat, heat the oil until shimmering. Add the onion and saute until golden, 8 to 10 minutes. Add the curry and chilli powders and stir to coat the onion, then stir in the 2 tablespoons of jollof dry spice mix.
Add all of the chalé sauce to the pan and stir well to combine. Reduce the heat to medium-low, cover and cook for 20 to 25 minutes, stirring occasionally. The sauce should be slightly thicker and darker than when you started, and extremely aromatic.
Make the green kpakpo shito salsa: while the sauce is cooking, start the salsa (you may need to break this up into two parts and finish it while the rice is steaming). In a food processor or blender, combine the onions, chillies, ginger, garlic, lemon or lime juice, olive oil and salt. Process gently in brief pulses until you have a coarse paste of finely chopped ingredients. Scrape down the sides and stir once or twice for even chopping. Avoid pureeing the mixture, especially in a blender. Taste, and season with more salt, if desired and black pepper, to taste. You should get about 3 cups. Use right away, or transfer to an airtight container and refrigerate until needed.
Return to the jollof: after the sauce has cooked, stir in the rice and ½ cup of the water and bring the mixture to a boil. If there isn’t enough liquid to actually boil, stir in a bit more of the water, just enough to bubble. Stir in the peas and carrots until combined. Reduce the heat to low, cover the pot with a piece of foil or parchment to keep in the steam and replace the lid. Cook for 12 to 17 minutes, until the rice is mostly, but not completely, soft. When you check on it, stir the rice and scrape up as much of the layer of rice from the bottom as you can. If it’s looking very dry or threatening to burn, add another splash of water. Replace the foil and lid, turn off the heat and leave the pot on the burner to allow the rice to finish steaming to cook through, 8 to 10 minutes. You may end up with final a layer of browned rice at the bottom, which is normal (and some people’s favourite part), but it shouldn’t be charred to the point of being acrid. If you remove the pot from the burner and leave the lid on a few more minutes, that can help it release from the bottom as well. Fluff up the rice, then serve with the kpakpo shito salsa on the side.
Nutrition per serving (1 cup rice and 2 tablespoons salsa), based on 8 | Calories: 250; total fat: 7g; saturated fat: 1g; cholesterol: 0mg; sodium: 390mg; carbohydrates: 42g; dietary fibre: 4g; sugar: 5g; protein: 5g.
Recipe adapted from ‘Zoe’s Ghana Kitchen’, by Zoe Adjonyoh (Voracious, 2021).
© The Washington Post