What’s the secret to great jollof rice?

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This beloved West African rice dish has long kicked up lively debate, so we asked the experts

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I love jollof rice, but never get it quite right at home. What’s the secret?
Beth, Cobham, Surrey

This seemingly simple question is a loaded one – the beloved West African staple has caused diplomatic incidents (Nigeria’s culture minister was accused of betraying his country’s cuisine in 2017 after reportedly saying Senegal’s was the best jollof) and famously got Jamie Oliver into hot water when he added coriander, parsley and lemon to the traditional orange-red mix (#JollofGate). So, into the trenches we go…

The principle of jollof, says Zoe Adjonyoh, founder of Zoe’s Ghana Kitchen, is “it’s a red sauce with onion and heat”. It’s what you do after this – the vegetables (carrots and peas are popular), rice, liquid, meat and the cooking method – that’s the subject of dispute in Ghana, Nigeria, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Cameroon and beyond. “Every household has a different way of cooking it,” Adjonyoh explains.

What can be agreed on, however, is that time is essential. “Like most West African food, you can’t rush it,” says chef Maria Bradford, who grew up in Sierra Leone. “You want to caramelise the onions slowly in coconut oil, before adding tomatoes, spices, herbs, ginger, garlic, scotch bonnet, white cabbage and, finally, stock.”

Adjonyoh agrees: “The secret is in how much love and attention you give the sauce.” That’s what flavours the dish, after all. She blends tomatoes, onion, scotch bonnet, tomato puree, dried chilli and salt, and makes a spice mix of ground ginger and coriander, onion powder, garlic powder, smoked crayfish powder, smoked prawn powder, dawadawa (fermented locust bean), nutmeg, cinnamon, allspice, salt and, sometimes, brown sugar.

It’s a long list, yes, but, as Adjonyoh explains, “in Ghana, jollof is more aromatic”. Add a tablespoon of the spice mix to caramelised onions, along with chilli powder, madras hot curry powder, fresh ginger and garlic, then the tomatoes and good chicken stock, and cook until it “doesn’t taste of tomato any more, but just the spices”.

Adjonyoh washes her rice three times, then works to a 1:2 rice-to-liquid ratio: “You want the tomato base to make up two-thirds of that ‘liquid’, and you add it only once the rice is boiling in the remaining third of water, to open up the grain.” Pop on a lid, then, once two-thirds of the liquid has been absorbed, turn off the heat and leave to finish cooking in its steam.

The rice used is also a bone of contention. Adjonyoh favours long-grain, while chef Fafa Gilbert goes for jasmine (for its “scent and sweet flavour”) or basmati; Lope Ariyo, author of Hibiscus, flits between the latter and long-grain, which she parboils before finishing off in 1:1½ rice-to-liquid. Emeka Frederick, half of the duo behind Nigerian tapas joint Chuku’s, uses brown rice at home and quinoa in the restaurant: “It has the right flavour profile, but in a lighter form.” Not to mention none of the preconceptions. 

Traditionally, jollof is made over fire, so to emulate that smokiness, Gilbert recommends slightly charring the bottom, before upping the ante with smoked paprika, as well as thyme, rosemary and nutmeg. And, because extra fat is always a good idea, she finishes her jollof with butter or coconut oil, and serves it with grilled chicken, fried plantain and avocado.

Ultimately, that’s the joy of jollof: you do you, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. “What I love is that everybody cooks it in their own way,” Frederick says. “Forget jollof wars and follow your tastebuds – but do add a kick of fresh ginger.”

Do you have a culinary dilemma? Email [email protected]

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