The Jollof-Rice Wars of West Africa
Just how much do you know about jollof-rice?
It’s common knowledge that no owambe in Nigeria is considered a success without a taste or whiff of its aroma. Being poor or middle class isn’t even considered an excuse because at any event everyone wants to have jollof-rice. This dish is so popular in West Africa that it even has a day set aside to celebrate it.
So you might want to ask based on this, what’s so special about this dish? Where did it originate from? And is it the same everywhere? So many questions, but not to worry all will be revealed as we take a trip back into the past to explore the origins of jollof-rice in West Africa.
Albeit grudgingly, many admit jollof-rice originated from around the Senegambia region. It is agreed that the first West African chefs to make the dish and pass on the knowledge were either Senegalese or from Gambia. In addition, there’s sparse linguistic evidence to suggest the name “jollof” is a derivative of “Wolof”─ the lingua franca in Senegal, which is also coincidentally spoken in Gambia. There goes another point for jollof; it not only has an international holiday, it has its own language too! Depending on the region, jollof-rice is prepared with slight variations. Certain characteristics and ingredients however, remain constant for example, its orange-red colour inspired by tomatoes and chilli peppers and rice, without which jollof would not be jollof-rice.
Some like it with fish and plenty of vegetables while for others beef or chicken is best. Some also parboil the rice and cook the stew separately until it’s time to combine and finish up together. Others yet disagree and instead cook everything together in one big pot; throwing ingredients in at appropriate intervals until the familiar orange-red tinge is achieved and nearby palates are adequately well-stimulated.
These numerous variations are perhaps responsible for, or at least, the reason why there are never-ending debates about whose jollof is best on the west coast of Africa. To put it succinctly, the beef ─pun intended─ is real and has been the cause of so much online cross-border pugilism involving the usual suspects, Ghanaians and Nigerians.
On a much lighter note however, the tussle over who gets bragging rights on jollof-rice in West Africa has been immensely productive. A quick comb of “jollof” on any search engine will avail an array of articles, memes, DIY jollof videos and even jollof art! The hashtags #JollofWars #Jollofgate are also sure to turn up on quick search as is #BringbackOurJollof, which is reminiscent of the collective African disavowal of British chef, Jamie Oliver’s jollof recipe.
Amidst all this pleasant but heartfelt rivalry over jollof-rice, food competitions to decide ‘who does it best’ have been held in both Africa and her diaspora. But it’s not just been tweetfights, online fisticuffs and meme-sharing, Sister Deborah a Ghanaian rap artiste took the jollof wars to a musical dimension when she released a song Ghana Jollof, and afterwards a video in which she cast subtle aspersions to the second-class nature of Nigerian jollof in contrast to Ghana’s. To add ‘salt’ to injury, her video depicted Nigerian men abandoning Nigerian jollof rice for Ghanaian. I’m almost sure a Nigerian music artiste somewhere is working on a rebuttal to Sister Debbie and her “Ghana jollof”.
Apparently, jollof-rice divides as much as it unites West Africans in their quest for culinary superiority. Nonetheless, everyone agrees it’s a productive division and that it feels refreshing to witness Africa in the spotlight with the rest of the world looking on in rapt fascination.
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