Bon Appetit Wednesday! West African Jollof Rice

Jollof_riceIt’s an explosion of flavors, a mingling of ingredients, that creates a perfect symphony of taste. Jollof rice, or “one pot” in the Jolof language, is thought to be the original dish behind the Cajun favorite called jambalaya.[1] Jollof rice can be found in all corners of West Africa, with different regions claiming their own recipes. Each variation boasts a history with roots as deep as the culture in which it originally made its appearance. But to tell the true tale of jollof rice is to tell the story of the Wolof tribe.

It is believed that the Wolof tribe originated in the Sahara during a time when that area was actually green and lush, supporting both humans and various animals and plants. Indeed, 3,500 years ago the area was called the “Green Sahara.”[2] Due to desertification, the region became inhospitable for farming and so the tribe moved to more fertile areas. Eventually, the Wolof, also referred to historically as the “Jolof” tribe, occupied parts of Senegal and Gambia.[3] (Click here to read our post about the history of Nigeria, which discusses the desertification of the Sahara).

In the 14th century the Jolof Empire emerged, composed of the six Wolof states of Jolof, Kayor, Baol, Walo, Sine and Salum. The empire thrived throughout the 15th and 16th centuries, but infighting as well as attacks from outside eventually led to its demise in the late 19th century.[4] [5]

Today, these descendants of the great Jolof Empire are a strong and proud people occupying West Africa. They are culturally, politically and economically influential, having built a reputation in international commerce and trading.[6] Though they live in various West African countries, they maintain strong ties to one another as a united tribe. They also share the love of jollof rice, a dish whose origin is unknown, but seems to have always been a part of the Wolof culture. However, this cultural dispersion has resulted in an enduring dilemma: no one is able to agree on the exact recipe. Depending on which country you’re in, you could be eating your rice with a variety of unique ingredients. Reina Yaidoo, a West African writer for The Guardian, describes this culinary brouhaha in an article about “the dish that everyone loves, but no one can agree on.”[7]

Every country has its own version, and abhors “inauthentic” variations. In Ghana, it is eaten on its own or with fried, ripe plantains. The addition of green, leafy plants is much frowned upon there. Nigerians purport to have the most authentic recipe and sigh wearily at preposterous notions such as adding garlic, bell pepper, carrots, green beans or cabbage. Likewise, a stunned silence would greet anyone adding seafood to jollof rice in my home country, Liberia – which is, ironically, on the coast. Meanwhile, our French-speaking cousins in Cote D’Ivoire, Senegal and Mali would see the use of okra or nuts as heresy.[8]

And the variations don’t stop at West African jollof rice. In fact, the rice dish itself was carried to the Americas with the slave trade and eventually became the basis for jambalaya, a Cajun dish that is also inimitably rendered according to a chef’s imagination.

The recipe we’re bringing you today is a Nigerian version of the dish. Full of mixing and mingling flavors with a dash of heat, it is a perfect meal for a cold, winter night. Enjoy!

West African Jollof Rice

Recipe courtesy of

Serves 4


  • 2 cups of rice (long grained or medium variety)
  • 1/4 cup of groundnut oil or 1/4 of cup olive oil
  • 1/2 tablespoon of butter
  • 1 teaspoon of dried thyme; if using fresh, 2 tablespoons would be perfect
  • 1/4 teaspoon of curry powder (optional)
  • 1 onion, sliced
  • 1 celery, diced
  • 1 green pepper, diced (remove the seeds and white membrane)
  • 2 -3 garlic cloves (as per taste)
  • 1 cup of diced chicken breast, not cooked preferably; omit if vegan
  • 1/2 inch piece of ginger, peeled and grated
  • 1 tablespoon of ground paprika (smoked would be ideal)
  • 2 tablespoons of cayenne; add more if you want it hotter
  • 3 tablespoons of tomato paste (I love using Hunts)
  • 2 large tomatoes, chopped finely (or 1 small can pureed tomatoes)
  • 1 carrot, cubed
  • 1 chicken bouillon cube
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 2 cups of chicken stock
  • 2 cups of water
  • 1/2 cup of portabella mushrooms, chopped (optional)
  • Peas (you can use frozen mixed vegetables)
  • Salt
  • 1/4 cup of cilantro or parsley (to garnish)


  1. Add oil and butter in a heat resistance pot, then add the chicken breast, paprika, cayenne, onion, celery, green pepper, garlic and ginger. Sauté for about three minutes.
  2. Add the chopped carrots next and sauté for a minute with a little salt.
  3. Add the tomato paste, tomatoes along with curry powder, bay leaf and thyme. Cook until tomatoes get slightly soft, about three minutes until you see the oil getting red. Then add frozen vegetables. Add the rice next. Sauté for another two minutes or so.
  4. Add three cups of vegetable stock/water, bouillon cube, required salt; close the lid and cook until 90% cooked (about 30 minutes).
  5. Allow the rice to continue cooking until the rice is soft. If it is not dry at this point, then switch the heat to low to allow it to dry the excess water without making the rice much softer.
  6. If the rice is still little hard, add 1/4 cup of water and cover with foil, which will allow the rice to steam through. Check back in five minutes. It should be ready. You want your rice not too soft.
  7. Garnish with cilantro/parsley and serve.

[1] Jollof Rice – GhanaNation.Com. (n.d.). Retrieved January 13, 2015, from

[2] Green Sahara – National Geographic Magazine. (n.d.). Green Sahara – National Geographic Magazine. Retrieved June 25, 2014, from

[3] Wolof Empire, West Africa. (n.d.). Retrieved January 8, 2015, from

[4] Ibid.

[5] Encyclopedia of the Nations. (n.d.). Retrieved January 8, 2015, from

[6] Countries and Their Cultures. (n.d.). Retrieved January 8, 2015, from

[7] Yaidoo, R. (2011, August 10). Jollof rice: The African dish that everyone loves but no one can agree on. Retrieved January 12, 2015.

[8] Ibid.

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