Photo from www.kitchenbutterfly.com
Happy world jollof rice day! Just to get something out of the way it is jollof not joelof or jlof. If your vocal chords are not doing a little song and dance you are not saying it right. Initially, I was not going to create anything to mark this day but then I realized that I have said that consistently for the last few years. I almost felt unqualified to say anything because my jollof is still not up to my own standards.
I have a love hate relationship with the preparation. Jollof rice it is pretty much rice cooked in a sauce similar to Spanish paella or Louisiana dirty rice. What makes jollof special is the maker. That is right, this rice takes a bit of fairy dust to master. The ingredients are simple; rice, tomato paste, peppers, onions, salt, curry, thyme and love. Despite its simplicity, it has a complexity to it.
The whisper of curiosity is often times subtle
The first time I had real jollof was at a party. As most Lagosians’s know the iya olopo that cooks for parties have special magic in their hands. On the Muslim holiday ileya (in Yoruba) or Eid El-Kabir we would go over to my mom’s friend’s house to eat. As far back as I can remember I would always spend my time around the ladies cooking in the kitchen. I am still unsure why but there is a ruggedness to cooking in the South West of Nigeria I both love and admire at the same time.
As soon as guests start to arrive, the rice was one of the first things to be cooked after the meat was fried. It is almost traditional in that house that they serve jollof rice and goat meat first. Later they will bring around harder dishes like abula (which is the collective word for amala, gbegiri and ewedu), efo elegusi or efo riro. In that house I was introduced to ingredients like iru, ogiri, epo pupa, shawa and panla. For some reason at the time, my mom did not cook with those ingredients.
Each year, I would watch them cook that rice and the method was quite simple. The would fry onions in some veg oil, add in the tomato paste and peppers and let them fry for a bit. When that was done, the beef broth would be added and last the rice. They would always use a Saki pot. After some time, they would cover the rice to allow it to steam and burn and that was all. The rice was steamed, sweet, salty, smoky and complex.
Jollof rice is harder to cook than one would think!
That visual sent me on an over 10 year journey to actually make jollof rice for myself. The first time being in 2009 when I went to university. I failed woefully because I used a kind of risotto rice because I thought all rice was the same. I picked the first one I saw in the store. The next memorable time was around 2015 when I tried to make it for staff meal in Chicago and I failed again! I remember chef saying “Does nobody know how to cook rice” and I turned my face away to prevent further shame. For some reason I was ending up with poto poto (mush) and not rice.
The day I finally understood jollof was in 2016. The Kitchen butterfly mentioned that she was making jollof Rice for a Food52 submission. Out of curiosity as I usually do, I went over that evening to see how she would do it. She did everything I did and I was aggressively unimpressed. I was just about to roll my eyes when I noticed something. She measured the broth with the tomato sauce and turned the heat down and covered it to steam. Then it hit me! I had been cooking the rice on the highest heat and adding too much liquid. Typically, I would measure my 2:1 ratio of water to rice and then add in my stew. That made the ratio almost 2.5:1 or 3:1. That day I let out a hiss of frustration, relief, annoyance and joy. Of course the rice came out magical and for the first time I knew why!
Eventually I triumphed but I am not yet satisfied
I am now proud to say that this year, I made jollof rice that was almost to my standard. The only thing missing is the proper smoky flavor and I know I will master that with time. I still dream of the day I will make socarrat which is the bottom pot of Spanish paella. Now I feel qualified to celebrate world jollof day as an almost graduate of the school of jollof.
As usual, my focus is not on recipes and if you are curious, you can check out this link to a video that the kitchen butterfly made with Food 52. It has text and video for those of you who don’t like reading like me. Till next time, continue being awesome.
- Iya olopo – Professional female cooks for hire who specialize in making Nigerian foods. It is typical to hire them to cook for large parties.
- abula – Collective word for amala, gbegiri and ewedu
- amala – Paste made with dried cassava powder
- gbegiri – Sauce made with beans and palm oil
- ewedu – Vegetable soup made with Corchorus olitorius
- iru – Fermented locust beans
- ogiri – Fermented melon seed paste
- shawa – Dried fish mainly herring but also used collectively or other dried fish
- panla – Also called stock fish from dried cod from Norway also called okporoko
- epo pupa – red palm oil