Celebrating Jollof Rice: A West African Favorite

Jollof rice is one of those dishes that’s popular across all of West Africa. Everyone makes it just a little bit differently, and over the centuries, it has been the base for a number of other similar and derivative dishes. But no matter how you choose to make it, it’s a big part of our culture, our cuisine, and especially our celebrations.

What is Jollof Rice?

Since I’m from Nigeria, I’m most familiar with the Nigerian version of Jollof rice. For me, there are core components, or building blocks that make up a true Jollof rice and give it its flavor profile: a flavorful Omi Eran (meat stock, specifically chicken), the Elo Obe (the ingredient base – tomato, red pepper and/or tatashe pepper, onion, and habanero pepper), curry powder (specifically Jamaican curry), dried thyme, oil, and the smokiness that comes from cooking the Jollof over an open wood flame. 

The Elo Obe – the ingredient base – is universal in the majority of varieties of Jollof rice found across West Africa, and its derivatives (like the red rice native to the Lowcountry of the Carolinas and Georgia – keep reading to learn more!). When it comes to the stock, it’s common these days to use bouillon cubes, such as Maggi or Knorr. With a good flavorful homemade stock, however, it may be easier to control the level of salt or other spices.

In terms of the oil used, vegetable oil is the most common kind. In native Nigerian Jollof rice, we use palm oil, and back in the day, people often used a mix of margarine and vegetable oil.

Mastering these different components is what makes Jollof a distinct and delicious West African dish. These flavors – from the Elo Obe, the spices, the stock, and the oil – are the main foundation of Jollof. (Keep reading to see how I’ve creatively used these components in my Jollof Orzo Soup!)

When it comes to my Jollof rice recipe, the most important spices are curry powder (a Jamaican curry powder mix to be specific) and dried thyme. Depending on the recipe, other spices and aromatics might be added, but these – paired with the stewed tomato or the blended Elo Obe and stock base – give Jollof its familiar flavor.

Nigerian Jollof rice is usually cooked with long-grain parboiled rice. The rice is cooked in the  Elo Obe blend, your oil of choice depending on which Nigerian Jollof rice you are making (vegetable oil, palm oil, or a mix of vegetable oil and margarine), and deeply flavored meat stock, and becomes a medium to carry all of these flavors. Most of the ingredients are cooked in one pot, and the finished dish is served with a protein of choice and other accompaniments that may include fried plantains, moimoi, or steamed vegetables.

This month, we also have Chef Wande from Wanakin’s Kitchen sharing her recipe for Nigerian Jollof rice passed down from her mother!

The Dish of Celebration

Given that Jollof rice is one of the most well-known dishes to come out of West Africa and reach the rest of the world, it would be easy to assume that Jollof is something we eat all the time. In fact, Jollof is much more of a celebratory dish. It’s something you might find on the table at a party, a wedding, naming ceremony, or another group gathering.

But Nigerians don’t always wait for a big event to celebrate. They can turn an everyday gathering into something special, so sometimes it feels like Jollof rice is always around.

And, if you celebrate Christmas, Jollof is a favorite dish to have in the center of your Christmas feast.

In Nigeria, the Yoruba people sing a song around the holiday season that goes: “Keresimesi, odun de odun olowo, Keresimesi odun de odun olomo…” It translates to, “Christmas is here, the holiday of the rich, Christmas is here, the holiday of those wanting kids…” The song is meant to capture joy, prosperity, and hope, and the food we make to eat and exchange with friends is a big part of that holiday spirit.

As a kid, I loved decorating our home, making garlands with my siblings, and putting up the Christmas tree, but I especially loved the food. We all took part in the cooking and baking, and Jollof rice was one of those classic dishes for us. It was a dish we could all gather around, a meal we could share with friends and family while we reflected on the year behind us and looked to the year ahead.

Varieties of Jollof Rice

As mentioned before, there isn’t just one version of Jollof. Everyone has their personal family recipes, the extra spices they add, or the ingredients they leave out to make it their own. But the biggest variations in Jollof rice recipes come from different countries where the dish is popular. It often goes by different names such as Jollof, Thiéboudienne, Riz au Gras, or Benachin.

Senegal: Thiéboudienne

Thiéboudienne is Senegal’s version of Jollof rice, and it’s the country’s national dish. It is sometimes also called chebu jen, and it is said to have originated in the coastal town of Saint Louis in Senegal in the nineteenth century. The name of the dish comes from Wolof words meaning 'rice' (ceeb) and 'fish' (jën).

Thiéboudienne is boldly flavored with combinations of fish and vegetables, and the focus on seafood is certainly due to the coastal influence. Given the proximity of Saint Louis and other Senegalese towns to the sea, seafood plays a large role in the cuisine. 

The cuts of fish and vegetables are all cooked in a rich tomato base. Similar to the Nigerian version, it’s generally a one-pot meal.

Thiéboudienne usually calls for a few unique ingredients, including smoked fish and netetou, which is fermented locust bean powder. When it comes to the fresh fish you might use, any firm, white fish will work well, but grouper or snapper or most authentic. 

Common vegetables used in Thiéboudienne include potatoes, cassava, squash, pumpkin, and plantains. Unlike Nigerian Jollof, Thiéboudienne uses broken rice to make this dish rather than parboiled, long-grain rice.

It’s usually served communally on a large tray with the fish and vegetables arranged on top of the rice in the center. 

Elsie Kriz of AFROVITALITYEATS has put together a Thiéboudienne recipe for us this month, passed down by her family friend, Ma Seybou. It uses seasoned salmon steaks as its main protein and also features green cabbage, cassava root, carrots, eggplant, and our own Egunsifoods’ Obe Ata soup!

Ghana: Ghanaian-Style Jollof Rice

There are well known “Jollof Wars” between Nigeria and Ghana – those partial to the different styles both insist that their version is better. Whichever side you come down on, both Nigeria and Ghana offer flavorful takes on this dish.

In the Ghanaian version of Jollof, uncooked (not parboiled) long-grain rice is usually used, like Thai jasmine or Basmati rice. 

Ghanaian Jollof rice will also usually include a protein. Goat or lamb meat, or beef, are all common additions.

There may also be more spices used in a Ghanaian Jollof rice than a Nigerian Jollof rice recipe. Ghanaian Jollof may also include ginger and garlic blended into the pepper mix, and/or nutmeg, anise, rosemary, and bay leaves to build flavor, in addition to the curry powder.

While some of the accompaniments are similar to other versions of Jollof (protein, mixed vegetables, fried plantains, etc.), Ghanaian Jollof is often also served with shito, which is a popular, hot black chili pepper sauce made with smoked herring and crayfish that originates from Ghana.

Abena Foli, one of the founders of POKS Spices, is making our Ghanaian Jollof Rice this month. Abena grew up in Ghana, and when she moved to the United States, she wanted to try to fill the gap she saw – there was a lack of food products from West Africa in mainstream stores. That’s when she founded POKS Spices.

For her recipe, she’s using the Jollof Spice she developed in partnership with Burlap & Barrel.

Cameroon: Cameroonian-Style Jollof Rice

In Cameroon, Jollof rice is often made with mixed vegetables and cubes of beef. These are mixed into the rice and tomato combination, so they’re distributed throughout the dish.

This gives Cameroonian Jollof (sometimes spelled “Jellof” in Cameroon) rice an amazing texture. Each bite can have a mixture of crisp, flavorful beef, cooked vegetables, and soft, rich rice.

Kriz at AFROVITALITYEATS has a couple of different Cameroonian Jollof rice recipes. She has a Cameroonian Jollof Rice with Salmon as well as an Oven-Baked Cameroonian Jollof (pictured above). Her recipes are fairly similar to other versions of Jollof, but her oven-baked version goes after something a little bit different. Kriz uses her Mild Fresh Herbs Blend and lets it bake rather than simmer over a burner.

Native Style Jollof Rice

While “native” Jollof rice also originates from Nigeria, it’s worth mentioning on its own, since it varies a fair amount from Nigerian Jollof.

Native Jollof rice is also known as Iwuk Edesi. This name comes from the Efik people in Southeastern Nigeria. It’s made with palm oil (instead of vegetable oil) and other local ingredients like fermented locust beans (Iru), Ugu (pumpkin leaves), spinach or basil (Efinrin), and dried or smoked seafood. 

The cooking process begins similarly with a rich tomato and pepper base, but then more of the unique flavor comes from the palm oil and other local ingredients. Palm oil also has a reddish-orange color, which contributes to the distinct color of the dish and the very particular flavor and aroma.

For my recipe, I used our Egunsifoods’ Ata Din Din sauce in place of making the Elo Obe base from scratch. The flavors came out perfectly. I didn’t use the oil from the Ata Din Din because I wanted to use the traditional palm oil, but if you decide to go this route, you can save the oil and use it like a chili oil to enhance the flavor of your other favorite dishes!

When it comes to the final product, texture is important – it’s all about getting that perfect bite on a spoon. You want a little bit of everything: the small cuts of cow skin meat (Ponmo), dry fish, Ugu, etc.

A Mother Dish in Its Own Right

Over the centuries, Jollof rice has been the basis for a number of derivatives, and those who like to get creative in the kitchen have used it as a flavorful foundation for new ideas.

How Jollof Rice Came to the States: Southern, Lowcountry Red Rice

Amethyst Ganaway, a chef and food writer, will not give up her family red rice recipe. She has perfected it, and she will protect it. And rightfully so!

To her, Red rice is more than just a derivative of Jollof rice. “[Red rice] is a special dish that we get to have because it solidifies the connections between our cultures and our ancestors,” says Ganaway. She compares her Red rice closely to tomato perloo, pilau, or pilaf.

Red rice is directly related to Jollof rice, but it’s become a dish in its own right since it came to the United States, carried by the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. The Gullah Geechee people in the Lowcountry of the Carolinas and Georgia can be credited with developing Red rice, which in so many ways still carries those original flavors of Jollof. But just as there are many varieties of Jollof, there are some variations of Red rice as well along the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor. For example, Savannah Red rice is different from Charleston red rice. 

Growing up, Ganaway didn’t realize how rich the history of Red rice was. “It wasn’t until I became a chef that I really started doing research and realized that, oh wow, [Red rice] actually comes from Jollof or Thiéboudienne, but it made sense,” she says. “Growing up in Charleston, South Carolina you know about the connections to slavery and that it was directly tied to rice so there was that final piece of the puzzle that brought everything together.”

Similar to the original Jollof, Ganaway’s red rice is a meal to be shared, and there are plenty of ways to make it. It can be vegetarian or packed with meat and seafood. Canned tomatoes, fresh tomatoes, tomato paste or sauce – they’re all fair game. The goal is to create a final dish with a texture that’s slightly dry, with fluffy rice and a hint of smoke, spice, and sweetness.

Beyond a Rice Dish: Egunsifoods’ Jollof Orzo Soup

When I created my Jollof Orzo Soup recipe, my main goal was to capture the signature things that, in my opinion, make Jollof, Jollof. I went back and forth for a while – is the foundational aspect of Jollof the rice, or the stock? Rice is used universally across varieties of Jollof, but I felt like that wasn’t all the dish came down to. It was more about the flavor.

Finally, I decided it was the stock. It’s the stock and the vegetables that give Jollof that distinct, seasoned flavor, and I wanted to see if I could bring this flavor profile to another dish as well. I set out to make this soupy version of Jollof and swapped out the rice for orzo for an optimal texture.

Orzo keeps its shape better than rice does in soup without getting mushy, plus it releases starch faster, which gives the soup as a whole a creamier feeling. But still, it all came down to getting the flavor right, so I brought in the most important spices: the Jamaican curry powder and the dried thyme.

This soup is a great way to experience the quintessential Jollof flavors while making a comforting, warming soup perfect for the winter months!

Coconut Jollof Rice: A Combination of Flavors

Coconut milk is an ingredient often used in Thai cooking and some other Asian cuisines, but it can put a particularly delicious twist on Jollof rice. By adding coconut milk to the simmering base of tomatoes, peppers, spices, and stock, you introduce a richness and a creaminess to the final dish.

Affiong Osuchukwu, the founder of Ekaterra, an authentic West African spice company, has championed this recipe for us. In addition to the coconut milk, she’s using our own Egunsifoods’ Ata Din Din Sauce and her Jollof spice mix to drive home the flavor.

Growing up, Osuchukwu had two favorite dishes: coconut rice and Jollof rice. When she returned to Nigeria as an adult, she discovered coconut Jollof rice, a delicious, two-for-one combination of her favorite flavors. It was something she couldn’t wait to make for herself.

Osuchukwu founded Ekaterra in an effort to rediscover indigenous West African ingredients, raise awareness of West African food culture globally, and bring these flavors from Africa to the rest of the world.

To Burn or Not to Burn: Kanzo, or Scorched Rice

When you make rice, do you like when some of the grains get stuck to the bottom of the pot, when they get crunchy and sometimes a little bit burnt? When it comes to Jollof, opinions can differ drastically.

Scorched rice pops up in cultures all over the world. There’s Persian tahdig and Spanish socarrat, just two of many dishes where the cooked, crunchy rice at the bottom of the pot is seen as a crucial part of the dish. But not everybody feels the same way about scorched rice.

In the Twi language, the scorched rice at the bottom of the pot is sometimes referred to as “Kanzo.” Twi is a dialect of the Akan language, which is spoken in Southern and Central Ghana by several million people. The Hausa people, spanning from Nigeria to Ghana, also use the term “Kanzo.” Sometimes it’s simply referred to as “bottom pot.”

Ozoz Sokoh from Kitchen Butterfly sometimes calls Kanzo the “chef’s reward” – the flavorful, crispy bits that you can scrape off and enjoy when you’re cleaning out the pot. When the Jollof is cooked over the traditional wood fire, the scorched rice picks up that delectable smoky flavor. For many, it can be a real treat. To try it for yourself, check out Sokoh's recipe on Food52 (our lovely Kanzo images are from Sokoh as well!).

You might find these scorched, crispy grains of rice in any iteration of Jollof. While it may sometimes happen by accident, some people choose to discard it, while others keep it to add a crunch to the dish.

Jollof rice, in most of its iterations, is usually considered to have a fluffy texture, with each of the grains of rice separate from the others. Kanzo, or the burned rice at the bottom of the pan, changes that texture, and creates a new take on Jollof.

Bring a Little Taste of West Africa to Your Holiday Celebrations

People from all over West Africa like to say that their Jollof recipe is the best (hem hem, Nigerian and Ghanaian…), but we’re not here to tell you which version of Jollof comes out on top. Jollof is commonly eaten for celebrations, but it’s also a celebration of our history, culture, and values, both on the continent and in the diaspora. 

It shows up in so many different ways, ways that express each of our personal connections to the dish, regional influences, and history. But these variations all share a common thread – the base for the dish – so it doesn’t mean that one is right and one is wrong. Jollof, no matter how exactly it's made, brings people together to celebrate and spend time together.

We all have our traditions, the foods or the activities that tell us it’s really time to get into the holiday spirit. But sometimes it’s exciting to try something new. If you’re looking for a way to add a bit of spice to your holidays, consider bringing a celebratory platter of Jollof rice to the table to gather your friends and family.

In my recipe, I use a jar of Egunsifoods’ Ata Din Din Sauce to pack a flavorful punch and get my Jollof on the table even faster. Try it out for yourself this holiday season!

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