The joy of jollof: A beginner’s guide to nutty, spicy, aromatic west African cuisine
Yoruba cuisine is spicy, sour and well-seasoned, says Beach House chef Jumoke Akintola
Jollof rice with fried plantain
The first food I ever cooked was boiled long grain rice. It was to be eaten with obe ata or red pepper stew, colloquially know as red stew, which my aunt had prepared earlier that week. When I served the rice it did not look right but to my aunt’s credit she ate the gloopy mess. After we finished she said, “Next time, use much less water and don’t stir it”. That is how I learned to cook. It is also how my mother and aunt were taught to cook. No recipes, measurements or timings but a cumulative process of trial and error guided by the senses. As my aunt puts it, “We Nigerians measure with our eyes”.
To say “we Nigerians” is to actually homogenise a large and disparate group of people. Nigeria has a population of approximately 200 million made up of roughly 250 ethnic groups, with over 500 languages spoken between them. The three largest groups are the Yorubas, the Hausas and the Igbos. The Yorubas are from the south-west, the Hausas are from the north and the Igbos hail from the south. Although the groups share many broad and important characteristics, they have distinct cultural values and practices denoted by their names, traditional attire and of course food. Being Yoruba, specifically from the border between Ile-Ife and Modakeke in Osun state, when I say we or our, I am referring to Yoruba cuisine.
Our cuisine is colourful, exciting, bold, interesting, tasty, full of flavour and moreish. It is nutty, spicy, bitter, peppery, sour, well-seasoned and aromatic. Any dish that is bland, to some palates, exists to support the consumption of another dish that is anything but bland. We refer to these “bland” dishes as swallows. So-called because chewing is not necessary. Our food is mostly vegetarian with meat and fish being available but optional. We snack on akara (bean fritters), plantain crisps, gizdodo (a chicken gizzard and fried plantain mix), suya (grilled skewers) and chin chin (addictive baked or fried pastry dough pieces). We don’t do dessert. Our staple is pap/ogi, which is made from fermented corn. Pap and other swallows such as ground cassava or pounded yam are eaten with vegetable based stews and soups for example, okra, egusi or efo-riro. Rice is not a traditional staple but has become a key feature of our cuisine due to social mixing in the densely populated cosmopolitan metropolis of Lagos, and the wider Nigerian diaspora.
Jollof rice is a one pot dish that is eaten all over West Africa so it comes in many guises but it is always a striking and vivid shade of orange. It is an every-day dish but it is also present at celebrations, when it is called party rice. It is cooked by gently simmering or steaming rice in well-seasoned obe ata. This ensures that each grain of rice is a flavour bomb. It is my all-time favourite dish and always hits the spot so I am delighted to finally have a recipe to share, with measurements and timings.
800g basmati rice
800g of tinned peeled plum tomatoes
2 large red sweet pointed peppers (approx. 250g)
2 large peeled Spanish onions
2 red scotch bonnets (deseed if necessary)
2 tbsp tomato puree
20g fresh ginger
2 large cloves garlic
2 heaped tbsp curry powder
2 heaped tbsp of all-purpose seasoning e.g. Maggi
3 bay leaves
2 heaped tbsp chopped fresh rosemary
2 heaped tbsp chopped fresh thyme
salt to taste
1 Rinse the rice in a colander at least three times to remove the starch then leave to drain
2 Roughly chop the onions and peppers into chunks
3 Blend the chopped onions, peppers, tinned tomatoes and the scotch bonnets until the consistency is smooth. You may have to blend the ingredients in batches. The task will be easier if you add the tinned tomatoes to the blender first.
4 Mince the ginger and garlic then fry gently with the all-purpose seasoning in a large stock pot or similar.
5 Add the blended tomato mixture and the curry powder to the stock pot, season well with salt, combine the ingredients with a spoon and check for seasoning. Leave to cook on a medium heat for 20 minutes.
6 Add the rice and the fresh herbs to the stock pot then combine the ingredients.
7. Cover the pot with tin foil first and then the lid.
8. Turn the heat to the lowest setting and cook for 35 minutes. Check for seasoning and to ensure that the rice isn’t sticking to the bottom of the pot every 8 minutes or so.
9. Remove the pot from the heat and allow to continue to steam for five further minutes.
10. Plate up and enjoy with fried plantain, barbecued chicken and coleslaw.
Jumoke Akintola is chef and co-owner of Beach House restaurant in Tramore, Co Waterford.