Whenever Esi Impraim’s mother made jollof — a rich, tomato-laced dish of meats, rice and sometimes seafood — the time it took to bubble away on the stove was always excruciating.
“I always got excited when we had it,” the 32-year-old Chicago executive assistant says of the ubiquitous West African staple. “Sometimes she liked to experiment with her dishes, but this one was always the same.”
Impraim’s parents came to the U.S. from Ghana, and her mom served jollof alongside fish or chicken and went light on the oil. But the dish, popular in countries such as Senegal, Nigeria, Ghana and Liberia, has as many variations as cooks. A one-pot meal, jollof’s basic ingredients include rice that turns bright umber in the tomato sauce, spices that range from nutmeg to chili peppers, and sometimes vegetables.
Sound like jambalaya? Not a coincidence.
“If you look at gumbo, jambalaya, hoppin’ John, these are all derivatives,” says Frederick Douglass Opie, a scholar of foodways of the African diaspora at Harvard University. “As you listen to the definition of what jollof rice is — a red-based rice — it’s the same thing. As my mother would say, ‘They’re all kissing cousins.’”
Jollof rice is thought to have originated in the Jollof empire, a kingdom that controlled wide swaths of western Africa from the 14th through the 19th centuries. Many American slaves came from this part of the continent, part of Africa’s “rice belt.” They brought with them their agricultural knowledge and their rice-based food traditions.
Like the American dishes it influenced, jollof has endless variations. It is made differently in different countries, and even by different people in the same country. A story in the British newspaper The Guardian called jollof “the African dish that everyone loves but no one can agree on.”