West African Countries are Rice Rivals
In Nigeria, jollof rice isn’t just a tasty dish — it’s a national obsession. Dozens of top Nigerian chefs gathered for Lagos’ inaugural jollof festival in August 2017, showcasing their personal twists on the tangy, tomatoey rice to a crowd of hundreds of hungry foodies.
Imoteda Aladekomo, a 31-year-old chef who has been making jollof for four years, has led the way in reinventing the national staple, creating several variants through her company, Eko Street Eats.
“It’s so popular because it’s easy to customize,” she said while preparing take-away boxes at the jollof fair. “Rice is really easy to get here, whereas other ingredients aren’t. Every party has to have jollof rice, and every Sunday people will have it, having looked forward to it all week.”
The origins of the distinctive, deceptively simple West African dish are hotly contested.
The word jollof is related to Wollof, a language spoken in Senegal where the dish is also popular. Variants of the recipe are enjoyed across West Africa.
“There’s this big battle about where it came from,” said chef Mo Alatise. “I’ve tried jollof from Senegal, and it wasn’t great. I think ours is best — but I’m a little biased.”
The “jollof wars” reached fever pitch in 2016 when Ghanaian singer Sister Deborah released a song called Ghana Jollof that accused the Nigerian recipe of “tasting funny.”
Controversies aside, fair organizer Ozoz Sokoh said the universal affection for the dish helps to unite the Nigerian diaspora and people with West African roots around the world.
“It brings many countries together,” she said. “It’s not just West Africa, but countries where the slaves went, like the American South and parts of Mexico.”
Although food delivery services offering international favorites, such as sushi and pizza, are expanding rapidly in Nigeria’s big cities, jollof has retained a special place in the hearts of the country’s huge youth population.
“Most of us young people forget about our traditional food,” said Jane Ibitola, a 32-year-old financial advisor from the southern oil city of Port Harcourt. “But whenever you move away from it, you cherish it again.”