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What’s the Big Deal about Jollof Rice? A History

Jollof Rice is a popular delicacy eaten in most parts of West Africa, including Ghana, Senegal, Gambia, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Ivory Coast, Togo, Cameroon, and Mali. There are various variations in nomenclature and differences in the kind of ingredients used. For instance, the Senegalese and the Gambians refer to it as theibou dienne or benachin. In French-speaking areas, you will hear Jollof rice referenced as riz au gras.

The Big Deal About Jollof Rice Origin

Several theories exist as to the origins of Jollof rice. It is important to note that the meal has and continues to disperse far and wide. Hence, you may be forgiven if you think Jollof rice originated from say Nigeria or Ghana. In fact, polls show that a great majority believe one or both of these countries own the patent rights to the meal.

However, this claim stands on unsure ground, to say the least. This is because the word Jollof comes from the language of the Wolof people, originally meaning “One pot”. The Wolof people were a predominant race that operated a powerful empire between 1360 and 1549. In this time, the people traded with the Europeans and facilitated the exchange of commodities and the practice of “blacksmithing, small-scale marketing, and rice agronomy.  Before the downfall of its empire, the Wolof had succeeded in spreading their culture and way of life, including the gift of Jollof rice. The Wolof people can still be found in present-day Senegal, Mali, and Mauritania, in West Africa.

The Ingredients

Jollof rice is a meal comprising rice, tomatoes, tomato paste, onions, scotch bonnet peppers, salt, spices and vegetable oil. Whatever variations encountered, these ingredients almost always feature in the dish.

The Big Deal Regarding the Status of Jollof Rice

Jollof rice is revered, even almost worshipped. It goes beyond having a plate of the sumptuous meal; you must come prepared mentally and physically (yes, hungry) and take your place before this dish with such a cult status.


Even a high ranking government official received huge criticism, for his perceived sacrilegious comment. Nigeria’s current Information Minister recently committed the “cardinal sin”, when he offered remarks, stating that Senegal cooked the best version of the dish in West Africa. This happened during an interview session he granted the CNN. The minister was stripped bare on social media, by his compatriots, who rose to the defense of the undisputable crown, held by Nigeria’s Jollof rice.

In fact, it will interest you to know that the word Jollof has a meaning in the informal Nigerian Lexicon:

  1. Jollof (noun, verb), denoting a state of enjoyment;

Look at her, as she’s jollofing’ (she’s enjoying herself!).Synonyms include enjoyment, pleasure.

Also find the following wise sayings authored by some individuals on various social media platforms, inspired by the ever-living dish:

Spelling Jollof rice with a small letter j is an insult. Jollof rice is not just a food, it’s a feeling, a sign of hope and a way of life” by Weirdo, Twitter.

“He who eats Jollof Rice with stew has trust issues” Jill Walker Rettberg, Twitter.

Now that you know, never, ever spell or even say the word with a small letter j ( sorry J), whenever you find yourself in areas that consume this delicacy. You have been warned!

The big deal over who cooks Jollof Rice best

There have been great debates across the West African sub-region as to who holds the crown in preparing the best version of Jollof Rice. While various countries lay claim to the throne, no rivalry gets bigger and better than that existing between Ghana and Nigeria.

These sister countries already slug it out on many other fronts like sports (especially football), tourism, cultural refinement amongst others. But in the debate of who cooks Jollof rice better, both countries do not retreat, will not surrender!

In examining the debate properly, expect to find Nigerians pushing their case with an air of superiority, with the Ghanaians resisting and disliking this aggressiveness, presenting their case with realities on the ground.

To better contextualize the argument, it is best to examine the versions of both countries.

Ghana Jollof Rice

Nigerian Food plate

Jollof rice eaten in Ghana differs from that of Nigeria—the main difference being the type of rice used. Ghanaians love Thai Jasmine, a perfumed more starchy rice which also goes by the name “basmati”. The long-grained variety, a favorite spec in Nigeria, is somewhat of anathema in Ghana!

Another major difference will be the style. In Ghana, the chief ingredients include vegetable oil, onion, bell pepper, cloves of pressed garlic, chilies, tomato paste, beef or chicken, mixed vegetables (sometimes added) and black pepper. The process begins with preparing the chicken or beef by seasoning and frying it until it is well cooked. The rest of the ingredients are all then fried; starting with onions, tomatoes, and spices respectively.

After the cook must have attained the perfect fried condiments, rice is added. It is cooked until the meal is ready.

For good measure, the basmati rice in never parboiled! If it is, what results is a soggy mess that no one would want to eat!

Nigerian Jollof Rice

Nigerian Food jollof rice

Jollof rice, cooked in authentic Nigerian style includes ingredients such as long grain parboiled rice, tomatoes and tomato paste, pepper, vegetable oil, onions and stock cubes. Additional condiments such as chicken or meat stock, curry powder, garlic, white pepper, crayfish, and bay leave also add to the taste/flavor of the Jollof rice.

There are stark differences in the method of cooking. In Nigeria, a fried tomato and pepper puree typically forms the base for the process. The chicken or meat stock, onion and stock cubes all enter into the brew and simmer. The rice is often washed first and added to the liquid.

Popular accompaniments to the meal will include tasty foods like fried plantains, moi moi, steamed vegetables, coleslaw, Nigerian salad among others.

Do you really want to taste the spunk in a type of Nigerian Jollof rice? Then you should ask for “Party Jollof Rice”- a smoky, tasty rice, often cooked in a cast iron pot over firewood or charcoal fire.

The big deal about your verdict

Your verdict regarding which country cooks the best Jollof rice is of little consequence because taste is most important, and they both provide it.

More importantly, you must understand that each warring party (country) has a unique offering and interpretation of Jollof rice, especially since the basic ingredients do not differ: rice, tomatoes, onions, scotch bonnet peppers, and spices.

Wherever the wind blows you to, take the time to enjoy the version of Jollof served, pay your host generous amounts of compliments, and as much as humanly possible, remain on the divide when the argument arises as to who cooks the best Jollof Rice!