The memes that flood Instagram and Twitter usually feature two similarly themed pictures side by side, one significantly better-looking than the other: The contrasting image is often an exaggerated inferior version, and depending on who made and shared the meme, one side will be tagged “Nigerian jollof,” the other side “Ghanaian jollof.”
On YouTube, there are both amateur and professionally produced music videos and diss tracks containing hyperbole describing one as the best and the other inferior. There is even a Star Wars-themed video showing a lightsaber fight between Ghanaian and Nigerian jollof (the fight goes on for a while). The rivalry over jollof rice, a dish typical to Ghana, Nigeria, and other West African countries, is a feud of passion that often ends up being less of an argument and more a battle of wits and repetition — who can use the best hyperbole to describe the superiority of their jollof.
Jollof is a piquant seasoned rice dish that’s a medley of rice, tomatoes, and spices. It is eaten generally as a main dish in most West African countries and is also a staple at parties and family gatherings. At its base, it is stewed rice with tomatoes, onions, vegetable or olive oil, habanero (or scotch bonnet) pepper, tomato puree (or tin tomatoes), stock cubes, thyme, curry powder, ginger, and garlic. Spices, ingredients, and cooking methods slightly vary between households, but the basic elements of rice, tomatoes, and onions remain the same.
However, jollof is more than its ingredients. The cooking process is intricate, the order in which you add the ingredients matters, and the person making it matters the most. Just like a good New York City slice, jollof rice in Nigeria and Ghana is ubiquitous, yet highly sought after. It’s robust and hearty with a mellow texture and blend of spices that gives it a savory taste with a hint of sweetness. Each plate is as flavorful as the next, yet, like a snowflake, each jollof meal is a unique work of art. If you’re at a party in Nigeria or Ghana, you don’t have to search too long for jollof rice. It finds you. In some cases, you have to be proactive and go after it, because it’s usually the first dish to get maxed out.
The most common method of cooking jollof rice starts with seasoning the meat, which determines the quality and maturity of the meat stock and the ultimate flavor and taste of the rice. And just like the perfectly grilled medium-well steak, jollof does not need any garnish or condiments. However, if you must, you can garnish with fried plantains (dodo), coleslaw salad, chopped veggies, or fruits like banana.
Cooking methods vary between Nigerian and Ghanaian jollof, but the main difference is the type of rice used. In making jollof, Nigerians use long-grain rice, which is sturdier and provides good flavor absorption, while Ghanaians use the more-aromatic basmati rice, which itself adds an extra flavor to the dish. “There are very real differences between jollof cooked in both countries,” says acclaimed Nigerian food explorer Ozoz Sokoh, mostly “in the rice and in the seasoning, which ultimately define the flavors.” Among Nigerians, there’s a consensus that the rice should be burnt just a little to allow for crispiness at the bottom. As a kid, getting some of that crispy burnt part on your plate was how you knew your parents truly cared for you. And if it’s party jollof, which is cooked over firewood, that burn gives a distinct smoky flavor. (Ghanaian jollof, even at parties, tends to be less smoky.) Party jollof in particular “takes me back to the parties my parents hosted when I was young,” Sokoh says, “where cooking started before sun [was] up, and eating went on past sundown.”
Jollof’s origins can be traced to Senegal’s ancient Wolof empire and medieval state in the 1300s, where it first surfaced as a dish called thiéboudienne. As the Wolof empire grew and dispersed along the West African coast and region, so did the recipe, which was named after one of the biggest Wolof states, Jolof. The rising popularity of rice (introduced into the region from Asia but now grown locally) led to the spread and adaptation of the recipe. As new cultural enclaves emerged across the West African region, so did different jollof interpretations, with recipes that continued to evolve into what it is now.
Today, every West African country has some variation of the dish. The similarity between the Nigerian and Ghanaian recipes is a symptom of the fluidity of West African borders and overlapping cultures that can be traced back to the same origins. Dishes like fufu, palmnut (banga) soup, suya, and melon (egusi) soup are also shared by both countries with small variations in the recipes, which were often passed down orally and from observation. As a Nigerian, I have an in-depth knowledge of Nigerian recipes only from watching my mum and brothers cook. I don’t remember learning how to cook jollof, but I could never forget how.
While the supposed feud rages on social media, for many chefs, the debate takes a backseat in their approach to the dish. Top Chef alum Kwame Onwuachi, who is Afro-Caribbean, is a little more lax about the presence of any real differences. “Jollof is to West Africa what gumbo is to Louisiana. There are very slight differences in how it’s made, and it varies from person to person,” he says. He believes that the jollof rivalry is a “playful” one, though notes that he prefers Nigerian jollof. Before he departed the Washington, D.C., restaurant Kith/Kin earlier this summer, he made the restaurant’s jollof how he learned to growing up, with general base ingredients like tomatoes, onions, scotch bonnet, and stock cubes — Maggi cubes specifically. But in a personal twist, Kith/Kin’s version used ingredients like crab meat along with jerk spices, and small changes to the recipe happen seasonally.
Chef Zoe Adjonyoh, a British cook with Ghanaian roots who is known for her contemporary Ghanaian food, has a similar opinion of the rivalry. “The banter is good. The banter is great, even. It can be fun, though I’ve heard stories of school kids in the United Kingdom getting into fights over it, which is ridiculous.” But she’s also wary of it, believing phrases like “jollof wars” can be reductive, simplifying African cuisine to just one dish. “It’s time for the conversation on jollof to be stepped up… using jollof as the only frame of reference for West African food is problematic and limiting for me, because West African cuisine is so much more than that.” And on the difference between both dishes, she says, “The differences are nuanced and small in the end, as many Ghanaians cook their jollof the Nigerian way and vice versa.”
Nigeria and Ghana have a lot in common. The British colonized Nigeria and Ghana up until 1960 and 1957, respectively, when the countries gained their independence. They are both English-speaking West African countries carefully separated by two slender French-speaking countries — Togo and Republic of Benin, which were colonized by the French. The similarity in language, traditions, and shared cultures, some of which are a combination of European practices, has led to Nigeria and Ghana becoming sister nations.
Yet the feud over who has the best jollof is continuous and prevalent between Nigerians and Ghanaians. Both online and offline, people get riled up over the comparison of two dishes that are quite the same. The jollof war appears to be more prevalent in the Nigerian and Ghanaian diaspora, a way for people to hold on to their national identities. Africa is a very diverse continent, with each of its 54 countries containing a plethora of cultures, languages, and ways of life. Yet outside the continent, Africans are usually grouped with little to no regard for their nationalities. In a world where sparse attention is paid to cultural identities that are specific in their beauty, robust in their history, and wildly colorful in their different facets, such a world is bound to give birth to hashtags like #JollofWars.
In that same world, both countries will come together to protect the dish. In 2014, British chef Jamie Oliver’s interpretation of jollof rice included ingredients like parsley and lemon, sparking a backlash from both Ghanaians and Nigerians that gave rise to a different hashtag: #Jollofgate. Many condemned his made-up recipe and warned against misrepresenting a rice dish with coriander and parsley as “jollof.”
The opinion about who has the better jollof rice changes from person to person, but one constant is that West African cuisine has continued to increase in popularity. Whole Foods’ annual prognosticating of the Top 10 Food Trends for 2020 listed West African foods as one of the fastest-growing food trends, highlighting indigenous superfoods like moringa, teff, tamarind, and fonio, which are gaining prominence. This increased popularity is more than a trend. It’s a favorable and long overdue proliferation into the global food scene that could serve to change how the world sees not just African cuisine, but Africa as a whole.
In many ways, the jollof war is a gift that keeps on giving. Am I too optimistic in my outlook? Perhaps. But this rivalry continues to catalyze to elevate the presence of West African cuisine to the global scene. As we argue about who has the best jollof, maybe the answer doesn’t matter, because a plate of any type of jollof rice will always be a treat.