Party jollof rice is a term you will often hear in Nigeria, particularly in and around Lagos State. But what exactly is it and why the sensation surrounding this topic? We explored just that this week and came up with a few surprises.
A quick hop around the internet reveals 3 things. From being described as the classic Nigerian jollof rice to the distinctively burnt smokey version, and finally the ultimate of all West African jollofs with an authentically rich taste.
One conundrum we need to overcome is the issue of either parboiling the rice (pre-boiling until al dente) or using parboiled rice which is pretty much Tastic or Uncle Bens style, a thicker more rubbery parboiled in husk, then dried grain of rice that never really gets overcooked. I sometimes wonder whether this is something which has been lost in translation over the years. I always understood Nigerian jollof to be cooked with the second version of parboiled rice, not to literally pre-boil it.
On tasting Nigerian jollof rice, it really always just tastes burnt, endearingly described by Nigerians as smoked, due to the bottom of the pot being allowed to… well… just burn. Is that the delicious bottom pot taste everyone raves about? Is this really deliberate or simply a matter of mistakenly thinking that caterers cooking large vats of party jollof in traditional cast iron pots over firewood actually intend the bottom to burn so much? Firewood heat can’t really be turned down to gas number 5, so it really begs the question as to whether authentic smokey party jollof is really original or serendipitous.
Needless to say, the entire jollof topic is one that often attracts great discourse. I have asked one jollof expert about jollof. This is none other than my mother, a retired home economics teacher who spent over 30 years teaching in Botswana. She argues that a lot of jollof recipes published on the internet today, particularly Nigerian jollof, are nothing more than savoury rice.
Savoury rice? We wanted to dig a little deeper. We turned to historical literature for this and a trip down memory lane finds books such as Nigeria’s Miss Williams Cookery book, published in 1957. I can’t get a hold of the book although Ozoz Sokoh has a copy. What a treasure! The book too 😏. I would have loved to see what it unearthed. A search on savoury rice reveals a popular savoury tomato rice dish from Portugal, arroz de tomate. This sent my mind spinning. The Portuguese have had a presence in West Africa since the 16th century and influence flowed both ways… I would like to imagine. The early use of tomatoes in West African cuisine has not been definitively recorded. The Portuguese are said to have brought tomatoes and peppers in from the New World however there is no evidence to support that tomatoes were planted before the 19th century. Similarly for the hot chilli peppers and red bell peppers or tatashe, a common ingredient in sauces and stews in Nigeria.
The use of curry powder either in the form of Jamaican or Indian curry is almost always cited as a necessary ingredient in party jollof. Yet this again is an external influence which came in through the spice trade and back from the New World.
But what about rice itself? The good news is rice is indigenous to Africa, particularly Oryza glaberrima, which has been cultivated in Africa for at least 3000 years. The early Portuguese explorers noted as early as the 15th century that the Jola people of Senegal employed a rice growing technology that was to be admired. Interesting to note that the rice experts were the Jola or Djula people. Jollof much? Maybe. How our West African ancestors cooked African rice for millenia, we most likely could say a version of waakye or rice and peas is the most authentic. Both ingredients, rice and cowpeas, alongside the red sorghum or millet leaves which add colour, being indigenous African in so many ways. But when exactly did Jollof enter and how did it become our own? That, my friends is a question for another day. International jollof rice day approaches on August 22nd, and we want in on the action. So without further ado, I give you my party jollof rice recipe.
4 tablespoons oil
1 large onion
2 cloves of garlic
1 inch of ginger
1 to 2 scotch bonnet peppers (ata rodo in Yoruba)
1 tbsp tomato puree
4 large fresh tomatoes/1 canned tomato
1 seasoning cube
1 teaspoon thyme
2 teaspoons curry powder
2 cups easy cook rice (dry parboiled rice, not pre-boiled)
2 cups hot or boiling water
1. Heat the oil in a heavy based saucepan.
2. Fry the onions until golden brown. Add the garlic and ginger a few seconds before adding your tomato puree. My mom always told me that I need to make sure the tomato puree fries for a good amount of time to reduce the acidic taste.
3. Add the curry, thyme and seasoning cube followed by the tomatoes and scotch bonnet peppers. (If your kitchen is equipped with a blender, you would have simply added the pepper and ginger to the tomatoes and blitzed them all together).
4. Now allow the stew base to simmer and reduce. Make sure you have a pot cover handy, as it often becomes very hot and messy whilst simmering the stew base. Do this for about 15 to 20 minutes, stir continuously to make sure it is not burning.
5. Wash the rice in the mean time then soak it in some boiled water until the tomato stew base is ready.
6. Strain the soaked rice and add it to the pot. Season to taste carefully.
7. Top up the pot with enough water for those with an experienced eye for rice. This would normally be about 500mls (2 cups), you may need to top up if the rice is still hard. Bring to the boil.
8. Once simmering nicely and the moisture has nearly all gone, cover with parchment paper right above the rice (to lock in moisture and add natural cooking pressure). Close with an air tight lid. Reduce the heat and simmer slowly.
9. Taste the rice and once the grains are cooked, raise the heat back to high for just 2 minutes, and allow the bottom of the pot to toast. Take off the heat and your rice is ready to eat!
I love serving this with goat or lamb stew and a side of freshly chopped, mildly dressed red cabbage salad.
The History of African Rice – https://www.odi.org/sites/odi.org.uk/files/odi-assets/publications-opinion-files/4146.pdf
Find out more about how Senegal’s Jola people grow rice – http://www.pnas.org/content/99/25/16360