Food History is a new column in which Best of Vegan Editor Saqera Kokayi studies and shares the history of some of her favorite plant-based ingredients and dishes. Her second piece in this column is dedicated to the history of Jollof rice.
The history of Jollof rice
There is an ongoing cultural debate about which African country makes the best Jollof rice. This piece isn’t about weighing in on that debate (though I do have a preference for Senegalese stylization), but rather to shed light on the beloved dish’s origins. Whether eating Senegalese, Nigerian, Ghanian, Liberian, or Cameroonian Jollof, there are a few star ingredients that give this rice dish its signature taste; tomato, onion, and pepper. Every kitchen has its own way of preparing it as cookery is as fluid as the cook’s mood; some adding a variety of herbs, spices, meats, and vegetables.
You may find it surprising to learn that two of those three-star ingredients are New World foods. That is to say, they were not native to the African continent. Let’s start with the tomato and pepper.
Pirates, savagery and sea travel: the introduction of tomato and pepper
The tomato, a member of the nightshade family, is believed to have humble beginnings as a small yellow cherry-shaped fruit existing in the sunny, dry, and high altitudes of the Andes mountain range of South America. It isn’t known exactly when the fruit came into existence, but scientists have hypothesized that Indigenous peoples traveled with the tomato northward to present-day Mexico and Central America and began domesticating it by 500 BC. In Mexico, the tomatl, the name given to the fruit by the indigenous Aztec people of Mexico, used the flesh in their cuisine and the seeds for divination.
Peppers, also a member of the nightshade family have a similar origin story but their domestication can be traced back to 5000 BC. They managed to travel out into the islands of the Caribbean Sea as well as through Central America and Mexico.
Commissioned by Spanish monarchs, pirates C. Columbus, and later H. Cortes, both played a vital, albeit savage, role in the movement of both fruits to Europe. The trade routes established by the Portuguese ensured that they made their way to the African continent.
The dizzied pirate C. Columbus, while attempting a shortcut to Asia, found himself in the Caribbean. After seeking refuge with the indigenous Taino people of Xamayca (Jamaica), Columbus committed acts of genocide when Taino hospitality wore thin. The crops he and his crew were once generously offered, he now helped himself to and brought back to Europe. Of those goods, he brought with him the pepper. Later this movement of goods would be considered The Columbian Exchange.
In 1519, Spanish pirate H. Cortes, like his predecessor, set sail for Mexico in search of riches. In addition to bringing the tomato back to Spain, his murderous actions were also the cause of the downfall of the ancient Aztec empire. While the fruit was initially met with suspicion in Europe, it eventually proved to not be poisonous and flourished in Spain, France, Italy, and Portugal.
Hard to trace, easy to trade: onion and rice making their way to West Africa
Before Columbus and Cortes began their pillaging in Mexico and Central America, Portuguese traders began establishing maritime routes between Europe, Asia, and Africa. They learned a lot about the favorability of Senegambia’s ecology and increased trading activities. By the mid-1500s, the Portuguese were heavily involved in the rice trade in the Indian Ocean. From Asia, they brought varieties of wet rice suitable for the tropical environment of the region, and they carried the tomato from Europe. It is important to note though, the region south of the Senegambia River was an area already known to grow rice as well as other sorghum and millet. But the introduction of Asian rices boosted production to new levels. The rice that is commonly used now in the dish is of the Asian varieties.
The last staple ingredient in Jollof is the onion. Because the onion leaves little to no carbon footprint behind when degrading, it has been very difficult to pinpoint its origins. However, the use of onions has been documented in Ancient Khamit as far back as 3500 BC. Wild varieties have been documented in North America as well as China as early as 4000 years ago. How the onion found its way to West Africa is still a bit of a mystery. But I think I speak for all lovers of West African cuisine when I say “I’m glad it found its way!”
The genius behind Jollof rice
Those are some of the ways the star ingredients made their way to the region. But the genius behind this killer flavor combination lies with the creative minds of Senegalese cooks. As oral tradition tells the story, Penda Mbaye, a local hairdresser of Terenga and a cook, ran out of the European imported barley and opted for rice instead. She is credited with documenting this dish for the first time in the 19th century. What she was documenting is a dish that the Senegalese have come to call Thieboudienne, a recipe made of fish, vegetables, and a style of rice often referred to as Jollof rice. Thieboudienne is specific to Senegambia, Mali calls their version Zame, Ghana and Nigeria call it Jollof. It is also believed that the creation of Jollof rice and the movement of African peoples across the Atlantic via the illegal slave trade, is what paved the way for Jambalaya.
“Mother brought out a recipe for Jollof rice that I had sent her from Ghana. She unfolded the letter and read, ‘Cook about a pound of rice, sauté a couple or three onions in not too much cooking oil for a while, then put in three or four or five right-sized tomatoes.” – Dr. Maya Angelou
There is no one recipe to follow. Jollof rice preparation is truly an art form.
While researching the origins of these ingredients, I found myself repeatedly disturbed by the heinous acts of celebrated European colonialists. I’d like to imagine that we could have arrived at these versions of Jollof rice in another more peaceful manner. However, I am reminded of our (Black diasporic) culinary brilliance and our ability to take what is available and elevate it. As I opened with, all of the West African countries produce delicious versions. There is no one recipe to follow. Jollof rice preparation is truly an art form. I don’t think anyone will debate me there.
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