I hold the minister of Information, Lai Mohammed, personally liable for this disaster. In April 2017, he was interviewed by CNN journalist, Richard Quest, on who has the best jollof rice in the world. He responded to the trap question without thinking and said it was Senegal… Back to UNESCO, when Nigeria’s Information minister said Senegal’s jollof rice is the best, the question was settled.
Today, I am recycling my article on jollof rice published in August 2015. The occasion is the announcement by UNESCO yesterday that they have enlisted Senegalese jollof rice, called Ceebu Jen in Wolof, on the world heritage list. Ghana and Nigeria have been involved, for decades, in a fratricidal war on who has the best jollof rice, but Senegal went quietly and received the international accolade. I hold the minister of Information, Lai Mohammed, personally liable for this disaster. In April 2017, he was interviewed by CNN journalist, Richard Quest, on who has the best jollof rice in the world. He responded to the trap question without thinking and said it was Senegal. Quest explained later that he had in mind the contest between Ghana and Nigeria, and was surprised when the minister said Senegal. Back to UNESCO, when Nigeria’s Information minister said Senegal’s jollof rice is the best, the question was settled.
Last week, the two Congos – Kinshasa and Brazzaville – won their campaign to enlist Congolese rumba on the list of UNESCO’s cultural heritage. Rumba, as is well known, has a transatlantic history: It originated in central Africa, was exported to Cuba by enslaved Africans who fused it with Spanish sounds, it came back to Congo with a Cuban touch, and Congolese icons like Le Grande Kallé, Franco, Dr Nico, Pepe Kallé, Papa Wemba and Koffi Olomide developed and gave it a distinctly African feel. Le Grande Kallé, the father of modern Congolese music, led the way with the big hit, “Indépendance Cha Cha”, which ushered in African independence.
It is Christmas and therefore a time to relish jollof rice. For my foreign readers, according to Course Outline – 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 Ceebu Jen. It is cooked in a red, tomato-based sauce and its classic form must be peppery. Unfortunately, non-peppery versions have been emerging in recent years. The most important thing about jollof is that over time, it has come to denote a state of enjoyment, probably because it is a necessary part of every religious celebration, marriage or party. Jollofing has therefore entered West African English as a synonym for enjoyment.
There is a legend on the invention of Ceebu Jen by one woman from Saint Louis, Senegal. Penda Mbaye, a cook in 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.
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. There is a legend on the invention of Ceebu Jen by one woman from Saint Louis, Senegal. Penda Mbaye, a cook in 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 a national dish status. The rest of us then copied this great dish invented by the Djollof woman. So maybe Lai Mohammed has read his history and was simply being objective.
My good friend, Mamadou Diouf, professor of African history at Columbia University has a different legend on the origins of Jollof rice. He told me that it was invented as a nutritious dish to feed the Senegalese colonial army and that is the reason why everything – rice, vegetables, oil and fish is thrown into one big pot, to meet the exigencies of barrack cooking for large groups. Through the world wars, the recipe was popularised around the region and today we West Africans are so proud of our African culinary invention – the Jollof rice.
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 of the pot to provide the right taste. It is precisely for this reason that there was an earth-shattering event in 2014, when a British celebrity chef called Jamie Oliver dared to cook Jollof rice on 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. 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. Subsequently, Tesco brought it back after the anger cooled down.
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.
Now that we know that this invention under French colonialism in Senegal is our West African contribution to the world culinary 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. The food you eat depended on the staple in your zone. For us in Kano, the food we 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, as it’s reserved for horses she explained; tuwo is now made from maize 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 made with Thai rice, Portuguese tomato puree and poisonous Swiss maggi cubes and become angry when Oyibo try to steal “our” Jollof rice.
We are not alone in this quandary, if that is any consolation. Over the last one hundred years, 75 per cent of the world’s plant genetic diversity has disappeared, as humans have 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, says 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 it’s much more nutritious than milk. Now that we have lost the jollof war, let’s all denounce imported foreign food, even if we spend billions of dollars importing rice, wheat, sugar and fish into Nigeria. It is time to popularise our own local super foods.
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