By Jibrin Ibrahim
According to my numerous twitter followers, Saturday was #WorldJollofRiceDay. Please don’t ask me who declared that Saturday must be devoted to Jollof rice, I don’t have a clue. All I know is that as a serious social media junkie, I spent Saturday receiving and sending out tweets about the greatness of Jollof rice. For my foreign readers, please note that according to Jollof Rice 101, the food is a red, spiced rice dish loved in every city and town in West Africa. It is also called Djollof, Benachin in the Gambia and of course in its historic ground zero Senegal, it is called Thiéboudienne. It is cooked in a red, tomato-based sauce and its classic form must be peppery. The most important thing however is that over time, it has come to denote a state of enjoyment probably because it is a necessary part of every marriage or party. Jollofing has therefore entered West African English as a synonym for enjoyment.
The word itself has its origins in the Wolof (pronounced Jollof) Empire, which was a medieval West African state that ruled parts of Senegal and the Gambia from approximately 1350 to 1890. By the end of the 15th century, the Wolof states of Jolof, Kayor, Baol and Walo had become united in a federation, with Jolof as the metropolitan power. It was therefore not surprising to see such an important dish named after the ‘power’ – Jolof. The important point from history is that the region from the Gambia River to Liberia was also known as the Grain or Rice coast because of high local production of rice, millet and other grains.
There is a legend on the invention of Jollof rice, known by the Senegalese inventors as Thiéboudienne. One woman from Saint Louis, Senegal. Penda Mbaye, a cook at the colonial governor’s residence, is reputed to have created the dish with fish and vegetables, first using barley. Following a barley shortage, she decided to use rice, at the time still a luxury good having just arrived in Senegal by way of Asia in the 19th century. Eventually it became a favoured dish throughout Senegal and was elevated to national dish status. The rest of us then copied this great dish invented by the Djollof woman.
My good friend, Mamadou Diouf, professor of African history at Columbia University has a different legend on the origins of Jollof rice. He argues that it was invented as a nutritious dish to feed the Senegalese colonial army and that is the reason why everything – rice, vegetables and fish/meat is thrown into one big pot, to meet the exigencies of barrack cooking for large crowds. Through the world wars, the recipe was popularised around the region and today we West Africans are so proud of our African culiniary invention – the Jollof rice. I use the capital letter advisedly as the tweet from @am_delly explained clearly “Spelling Jollof rice with a small letter J is an insult. Jollof rice is not just a food. It’s a feeling, sign of hope and a way of life.” Still on deep twitter philosophy, another tweet worth draying attention to is that of @jilltxt who informs as that as Confucius knows, “He who eats Jollof with stew has trust issues” and as I as a student of Confucius I always eat my Jollof, pure, that is without stew.
Original Jollof rice is of course cooked in a cast iron pot over firewood and one of its characteristics is that it must burn at the bottom pot to provide the right taste. It is precisely for this reason that there was an earth shattering event last year when a British celebrity chef called Jamie Oliver dared to cook Jollof rice in his television show. There was a massive torrent of online insults against poor Jamie for destroying Jollof rice in his show. After 4,500 nasty comments and insults on what came to be known as #JollofGate, Mr. Oliver hastily removed his “fake” Oyibo Jollof rice recipe from his website and has since stayed away from experimenting with West African food. West Africans, especially those in the diaspora, were not only enraged by an Oyibo stealing their recipe, but even more by his innovation of adding coriander, parsley and a lemon wedge and just imagine, even 600 grams of cherry tomatoes on the vine, as ingredients for preparing Jollof rice. As Vera Kwakofi, from BBC Africa, argued at the time, “The danger is that in five years his version will become the official one.” The blogger Motley Musing also agreed: “We have to ask ourselves who actually benefits from Jamie Oliver’s ‘appreciation’ of Jollof rice. This doesn’t necessarily translate into value for Africans. For so long, different African cultures have been appropriated without any direct benefit to Africans themselves, and people are particularly sensitive to this.” Shortly after the JollofGate incident, the British supermarket chain Tesco removed its Jollof rice recipe from its website after numerous complaints.
Now that we know that this invention by French colonialism in Senegal is our West African contribution to the world culiniary tradition, we need to reflect a bit on what it means to our underdevelopment. For people my age who grew up before the oil boom, Jollof rice, or rice for that matter, was certainly not our staple food. Growing up in a Hausa family in Kano, the food I knew was “tuwo da miyan kuka”. The tuwo was, of course, made of guinea corn. To my eternal shame, I can’t remember when last I ate my staple. I recently called a friend who runs the best Hausa/Fulani eatery in Abuja called the “Masa Place” to request whether they could prepare my staple as a special request. She laughed as she explained to me that Hausa people no longer eat guinea corn, it’s reserved for horses she explained; tuwo is now made from miaze or wheat. Yes indeed, the world has changed. As children, we grew up on locally grown food staples. Meanwhile, we impose on our children the culture of eating imported food such as Jollof rice made from Thai rice, Portuguese tomato puree and Swiss maggi cubes and become angry when Oyibo talk about “our” Jollof rice.
We are not alone if that is any consolation. Over the last one hundred years, 75 percent of the world’s plant genetic diversity has disappeared as humans stopped eating local food. The world has 300,000 thousand known edible plant species and 200 of them were commonly eaten not so long ago. Today, the world eats mainly only four plants, rice, wheat, maize and potatoes. With age, I have become interested in healthy foods and the wealth we have in that regard is incredible. In expensive health shops round the world, some of our foods are revered. Acha is today regarded as one of the healthiest grains for the human race. Moringa, which the Hausa call zogale, and is considered food for the poor, is recognised by health experts as a super food extremely rich in nutrients, vitamins and anti-oxidants. Finally, the famous miyan kuka of my youth, produced from leaves of the baobab tree is also recognised today as a super food that is extremely useful in fighting malnutrition. Even more important say the experts, the baobab fruit is even richer in vitamins and anti-oxidants. My recollection from my mother is that we must never drink “tsala”, light yoghurt from Fulani women because they cheat by substituting real yoghurt with baobab fruit known in Hausa as “kwalba da nono”. Today I am learning that its much more nutritious than milk.
Jibrin Ibrahim is a political and development theorist and expert.