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" and brought with them their agricultural knowledge.
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.
Most versions begin by frying onions in oil, adding tomatoes and stock, then cooking the rice in the resulting sauce. But which rice, which spices to add and whether to serve the meat on the side or mixed into the dish can make grandmothers feud. Vegetables — whether or not to include them, let alone which ones to use — are another point of contention.
Start to finish: 45 minutes; Servings: 8
For the rice:
4 tablespoons canola or vegetable oil, divided
1 large yellow onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon grated fresh ginger
3 tablespoons tomato paste
15-ounce can crushed or diced tomatoes
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon curry powder
1 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon ground black pepper
1 teaspoon dried thyme
½ teaspoon red pepper flakes (more or less to taste)
2 cups basmati rice
5 to 6 cups (1½ quarts) unsalted chicken stock
For the vegetables (select 2 to 3):
1 red bell pepper, cored and diced
1 green bell pepper, cored and diced
2 stalks celery, diced
2 carrots, diced
¾ cup fresh or frozen peas
¾ cup fresh or frozen green beans
For the protein (select 1 or 2):
1 pound large peeled shrimp
1 pound boneless, skinless chicken thighs
1 pound sirloin steak, cubed
1 pound tofu or seitan, cubed
For the garish (select 1):
Chopped fresh parsley
Chopped fresh cilantro
In a large, heavy bottomed pan such as a Dutch oven over medium-high, heat 2 tablespoons of the oil. Add the onion, garlic and ginger, then cook until softened and beginning to brown, about 6 to 7 minutes. Add the tomato paste and continue to cook until the mixture becomes brick red, about another 6 to 7 minutes.
Add the crushed tomatoes, coriander, cumin, curry, salt, black pepper, thyme, red pepper flakes and rice. Stir to mix. Add 5 cups of the chicken stock and bring to a simmer, then cover and cook for 15 to 20 minutes, or until the rice is tender and has absorbed most of the liquid. Check the rice; if it is still firm, add another cup of stock and cook until absorbed.
In a large sauté pan over medium-high, heat 1 tablespoon of the remaining oil. Sauté your choice of vegetables for 5 to 6 minutes, or until beginning to brown and starting to be tender. They do not have to be completely cooked through. Add them to the rice and stir in.
Repeat the sautéing process with the remaining tablespoon of oil and your choice of protein, searing it over medium-high heat for 5 to 6 minutes. Stir that into the rice mixture, as well.
Cook until the rice has absorbed all the liquid and the vegetables and protein are cooked through. Season with salt and pepper, to taste, and garnish with herbs and/or hot sauce.