Why It Works
- The tomato mix is cooked twice, first to soften the edge of the raw, tart vegetables, and then again with seasoning to further develop the flavorful stew base that defines jollof.
- Using the right kind of rice is important. In this case, parboiled rice is a great choice, as it has the capacity to absorb the flavourful, well-seasoned stew without turning to mush.
- Cooking on low heat allows the rice to absorb the sauce properly, cook evenly, and not burn on the bottom; stirring minimally ensures evenly cooked rice while keeping the grains separate.
Cooking jollof rice, a seasoned, tomatoey rice dish, is a rite of passage for many West Africans. For many years, my own jollof game was shaky because I had confused its ubiquity with easiness. I had assumed it was easy to make simply because I had eaten it often, at every party, Sunday lunch, and everything in between, and so didn't appreciate how crucial certain recipe steps were. I'd rush through making the stew base without developing enough flavor, choose the wrong kind of rice, and be undisciplined about my cooking method. Some days I’d end up with a good pot and other days, not. I've learned much since then, and now make consistently delicious pots. My biggest tip: Slow-cooking the rice is one of the main keys to success.
Thinking a good pot of jollof rice required little skill wasn't the only incorrect assumption I made. I also assumed that it was Nigerian in origin, given that I grew up there and it was a mainstay of the table. But in 2009, when my interest in cooking consistently better pots of jollof deepened, I began researching West African foods and how they traveled the world. It was then that I learned about the roots of this dish in the kingdom of Jolof, a historic 15th- to 18th-century state in the Wolof-Senegambian region, on the southern edge of the Sahara far to the west of Nigeria.
So how did jollof find its way across the sub-Saharan coast? According to James McCann in Stirring the Pot: A History of African Cuisine, the Dyula ethnic group, famed merchants who established trade routes throughout the region centuries ago, were responsible for the dispersal of jollof south of the Sahara, taking it with them as they traveled. Today, every country in West Africa has a version of jollof, each reflecting its particular history and influences. Several regions beyond the African continent also have versions that speak to how far it has spread, particularly via the transatlantic slave trade—Lowcountry red rice and New Orleans jambalaya in the American South are both descended from jollof rice.
Jollof can take many different names depending on the region. In its birthplace of Senegal, it retains its Wolof names of thiéboudienne or ceebu jen, and in neighboring Gambia it goes by benachin. The people of Mali call it zaame or nsamé. In the rest of French-speaking West Africa—Guinea Bissau, Guinea, Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso, Niger, Benin, and Togo—it's called riz au gras ("riz gras" for short). In English-speaking Sierra Leone, Liberia, Ghana, and Nigeria, it is called jollof.
There are also endless shadings of difference from one version to the next. While Senegalese and Ghanaians go for varieties of fragrant Jasmine rice, Nigerians prefer parboiled or converted varieties, such as Golden Sella basmati rice, which cooks more quickly and is less prone to mushiness and clumping. In Nigeria, Caribbean-style curry powder, dried thyme, bay leaf, ginger, and garlic are common seasoning ingredients. Contrast that with the popular Senegalese seasoning of rof, a fresh parsley paste mixed with other aromatics and used in combination with fermented seafood. A Guinean friend of mine, meanwhile, adds fresh tamarind to her stew base.
Whole vegetables like carrots, eggplant, cabbage, okra, white sweet potatoes, and potatoes feature in thiéboudienne and other versions from French-speaking West Africa, but not in the Nigerian and Ghanaian versions.
There are a number of details that work together to deliver stellar jollof rice, which I would define as rice that's stewed and seasoned to perfection, with an orange-red color and separate grains that are neither hard nor mush; jollof should not be creamy like risotto. To prevent this outcome, I stir only occasionally to facilitate the absorption of the sauce without developing the creamy starchiness that heavy stirring (a la risotto) creates. I also cook it on low heat for the majority of the time. When the heat is too high, the pot of rice will cook unevenly and be at risk of burning at the base.
Some browning on the bottom layer of rice is desirable, however. Jollof rice is traditionally cooked on the stovetop or over firewood. Abroad, in the diaspora, many West Africans have explored and mastered oven-baked methods, while others have made use of rice cookers and InstantPots to come up with even more approaches. While the outcomes are similar, stovetop and firewood versions are the easiest route to "party" jollof, a version that is defined by its smoky flavor and presence of "bottom pot," the crispy, toasty layer of rice that forms on (as the name makes clear) the bottom of the pot, akin to Spanish socarrat. The direct heat from below is just what's needed to create that caramelized, roasty underlayer.
Jollof rice is not considered a side, but the main dish. It is often paired with beef, chicken, goat, and fish (fried, grilled, or stewed), or eggs (boiled, fried, or scrambled). In Nigeria, it is served with a salad that resembles an amped-up version of coleslaw. It may also be accompanied by moinmoin, a steamed dish made with skinned, pureed black-eyed beans wrapped in the moinmoin leaves that give it its name, or dodo—fried, ripe plantains. At least one or more of these accompaniments is considered standard.
- For the Stew Base:
- 1 pound (475g) plum tomatoes (about 3 medium tomatoes), cored and roughly chopped
- 2 medium (7-ounce; 200g) red bell peppers or 2 red shepherd peppers (see note), stemmed, seeded, and roughly chopped
- 1 medium (8-ounce; 225g) red onion, roughly chopped
- 1/4 of a Scotch bonnet or habanero pepper, stemmed and seeded
- 1 1/2 cups (355ml) Nigerian stock
- For the Jollof Rice:
- 1/4 cup (60ml) peanut, vegetable, or other neutral oil, divided
- 1 medium (8-ounce; 225g) red onion, thinly sliced, divided
- 3 dried bay leaves
- 2 teaspoons Caribbean/Jamaican-style curry powder (see note), plus more if needed
- 2 teaspoons dried thyme
- Kosher or sea salt and freshly ground black or white pepper
- 2 tablespoons (30g) tomato paste
- 3 teaspoons (12g) unsalted butter, divided (see note)
- 1 1/2 cups (355ml) Nigerian stock
- 2 cups (400g) converted long-grain rice or Golden Sella basmati, rinsed
- 1 plum tomato (4-ounces; 120g), halved then sliced thinly crosswise into half-moons
For the Stew Base: In a blender jar, combine tomatoes, red pepper, onion, Scotch bonnet or habanero, and stock. Blend until a smooth puree forms, about 2 minutes. This will yield just shy of 5 cups (1.18L).
Transfer the stew base to a 3-quart saucier or saucepan, cover partially with a lid to contain splatter, and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Reduce the heat to medium-low and cook, stirring and scraping the bottom occasionally, until reduced by half (roughly about 2 1/2 cups; 590ml), about 30 minutes. Remove from heat and set aside.
For the Jollof Rice: In a 4- or 5-quart pot or Dutch oven, heat 2 tablespoons (30ml) oil over medium heat until shimmering. Add half the sliced onion along with the bay leaves, curry powder, dried thyme, a large pinch of salt, and a large pinch of black or white pepper. Cook, stirring, until the mixture is fragrant and the onions soften slightly, about 3 minutes.
Stir in tomato paste and 2 teaspoons (8g) butter. Cook, stirring continuously, until the tomato paste darkens, about 3 minutes. Stir in reserved stew base, cover partially with the lid to prevent splattering, and cook at a gentle simmer over medium-low heat until reduced by half, about 15 minutes.
Stir in stock and bring to a boil over high heat. Season with salt and pepper; if the curry flavor is lacking, you can add more to taste (the curry powder should come through pleasantly but not be overpowering, though this is a question of personal taste).
Stir in rice until evenly coated in sauce. Cover the pot with a double piece of foil or parchment paper, crimped down around the edges to seal, then top with lid (this will trap steam to lock in the flavor and aid cooking). Reduce the heat to the lowest possible and cook for 20 minutes, then uncover pot and gently stir rice to redistribute. Cover again and continue to cook until rice is just cooked through but still retains a firm bite and the liquid is mostly absorbed, about 15 minutes longer. If rice is undercooked and/or still wet, cover and cook 5 minutes longer.
Stir in sliced tomato along with the remaining sliced onion and the remaining 1 teaspoon (4g) butter until butter is fully melted.
Remove from the heat, cover, and let stand 10 minutes. Serve.
blender, 3-quart saucier or saucepan, 4- or 5-quart pot or Dutch oven
Red shepherd peppers are sweet, long, thin-skinned Italian peppers, similar to Nigerian tatashe peppers. They have great flavor and bring a deep red color to Jollof rice. If you can't find them, red bell peppers can be used instead.
3 teaspoons butter is the same as 1 tablespoon, so to evenly divide the butter into 3 teaspoons, first cut off a 1-tablespoon piece using the markings on the wrapper for guidance, then divide into equal thirds.
This recipe works best with converted long-grain rice (also known as parboiled rice), including converted styles of basmati (such as Golden Sella).
Make-Ahead and Storage
The stew base can be prepared in advance and refrigerated for a week in an airtight container, or frozen for up to 3 months.
Jollof rice keeps well—in fact many people love leftover jollof. Thaw leftovers overnight in the fridge, then warm on the stove top over gentle heat, or in the microwave.