Will the Real Jollof Rice Please Stand Up?

There is no staple food as universally loved by West Africans as rice. This humble grain unites us all in culinary agreement; in many places, it is a symbol of happiness, of prosperity and of celebration. It is often a perfect accompaniment to the region’s rich stews and soups and is ubiquitous at weddings, birthday parties, company dinners, Sunday lunches and even burial ceremonies.

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Of all the rice dishes, there is none as polarising as Jollof rice. It is generally held that this one-pot wonder is King of the Rice Dishes, but which Jollof rice is the best? Save for the Jamie Oliver #jollofgate incident (when everyone agreed that whatever Jollof truly was, it wasn’t that), a consensus has never been reached. Ghanaian Jollof or Nigerian Jollof? With or without stew? Peas? Carrots?

Yeah. Pretty confusing.

Unfortunately, the origins of many African foods are poorly documented, but all the literature points to a common birth of this dish. A woman called Penda Mbaye is believed to have substituted rice for barley in an already established dish, and Thieboudienne was born. Pronounced ‘Cheebu-jen’, this is the national dish of Senegal. Preparing Thieb, as locals call it, is an all-day affair. It is a daunting task, especially in England, where many of the ingredients cannot be readily purchased. Having tasted it during a visit to Dakar, I set out to create an Anglicised version for those willing to try it without going all the way, as it were.

My attempt yielded a less flavoursome result than the original, but I believe that anyone who has not tasted this does not deserve to contribute to the Jollof debate. That’s right, I said it. I’m Nigerian, for the record. I love our smoky red rice as much as the next Yoruba girl, but this is worth it. I promise.

THIEBOUDIENNE

Serves 4

Ingredients

  • 4 firm fish fillets, such as red snapper, sea bream or tilapia
  • For the roff, or vegetable stuffing:
  • 1 medium white onion or 3-4 scallions
  • 4 garlic cloves
  • handful of parsley
  • 1 scotch bonnet pepper (use less or remove seeds if less tolerant)
  • salt to taste
  • For the rice:
  • 1 cup peanut oil or vegetable oil (or half/half with palm oil)
  • 1 large onion, finely chopped
  • 1 green bell pepper, finely chopped
  • 1 cup concentrated tomato paste
  • 1 cup smoked and dried salted fish, such as stockfish or eja sawa, cleaned
  • 4 large carrots, roughly chopped
  • 3 scotch bonnet peppers, chopped and seeds removed
  • 1 courgette, chopped
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 4 plum tomatoes, quartered
  • 3 cups cabbage, chopped
  • ¼ cup dried hibiscus flowers (optional)
  • 1 tablespoon black pepper
  • 2 tablespoons sugar
  • 3 cups basmati rice (broken rice is more authentic, if you can find it), rinsed to remove starch
  • Bouillon cubes, to taste
  • Salt, to taste

Method

First, make the roff. Grind all the ingredients into a paste, then make a slit in each fillet. Stuff the vegetable mixture into each fillet and coat the outsides with any leftovers. If you do not have access to a pestle, chop the ingredients as finely as possible. Set the fish aside.

Heat the oil over medium-high heat, then sauté the onions and green peppers until the onions are translucent and the peppers are soft.

Fry the fish fillets in the oil until cooked through, about 6-8 minutes per side. Set the filets aside where they can keep warm.

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Add the tomato paste to the oil, adding half a cup of water after 5 minutes to thin the mixture if desired. Add the dried fish, carrots, courgettes, scotch bonnets and bay leaves. Bring to a boil, and then reduce heat and leave to simmer for at least 30 minutes, checking to see when the carrots become tender.

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Add plum tomatoes, and cabbage and simmer for a further 10 minutes. Use a slotted spoon to remove vegetables from the sauce, and keep covered in a bowl to retain warmth. Add the hibiscus flowers, black pepper and sugar. Add bouillon cubes and salt as desired.

Add the rice to the sauce; the rice should be completely submerged but not overly so. Stir to distribute in the sauce, then reduce heat to low and cover. Cook until rice is tender, checking occasionally to ensure pot does not dry out (add water if this is the case).

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Lami’s tip: To lock steam into the pot and reduce the need for added water, cover the pot with foil before you put the lid on, like so:

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Remove rice from the fire and serve with the vegetables and fish.

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Notice the dark bit on the rice, to the left? That is xoon, the chef’s reward. If done properly, Thieb leaves a layer of darkened, crispy rice at the base of the pot. This is undoubtedly the best part of the dish, and the cook will often reserve this portion for herself or for those she likes! Traditionally, the entire pot is served in one large bowl for everyone to eat with their hands.

I served this with Ghanaian shito, a shrimp-based sauce that complemented the fish base of the Thieb amazingly. The only thing this plate is missing is a healthy serving of dodo, deep fried plantains loved across West Africa. For an umami kick, add a handful of fermented locust beans to the oil in step 2. What did I leave out? Traditional Thieboudienne includes cassava tubers, dried snails, eggplant and tamarind paste, and is served with limes. Feel free to go all out if you please.

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The dark blob at the top is Ghanaian shito paste.
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The fish was to die for! I’ve been cooking fish wrong all my life.

I hope you enjoy this as much as I did! While I agree that it is not quite the version one would get on the streets of Dakar, it is a good starting point for those desiring to attempt its creation. What do you think?

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2 thoughts on “Will the Real Jollof Rice Please Stand Up?

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