There are as many variations of Jollof rice as there are home kitchens in West Africa. As the Nigerian food writer, researcher, and historian Ozoz “Kitchen Butterfly” Sokoh says, few dishes showcase both the similarities and differences among the countries along West Africa’s coast as much as this iconic specialty. At its most elemental, Jollof is rice stewed in flavorful tomato broth, but whose variations range widely with types of rice, heat levels, seasonings, textures, and garnishes.
That diversity was clear as I grazed through nine African kitchens in Southwest Philadelphia and Delaware County alongside Shola Olunloyo, the Nigerian-born chef and consultant known for the past two decades in Philadelphia for his coveted StudioKitchen pop-ups.
Our Jollof rice crawl (see story this Sunday) led us through Liberian platters laden with grilled lamb dibi and tender goat, Mauritanian Jollof with tomatoey tripe stew, Wolof-style Thiéboudienne with broken rice and fried snapper, gingery Ghanaian-style renditions made from fragrant jasmine rice, and more than a few versions in the distinctive Nigerian style that warmed Olunloyo’s heart to invoke visions of home: “That’s like mom’s cooking,” he said between appreciative bites of rice and stewed beef at WaZoBia in Collingdale.
So it’s no surprise that when our tour finally landed inside his own home kitchen in Grays Ferry that we were treated to Olunloyo’s ultimate rendition of traditional Nigerian-style Jollof — blushing red with caramelized tomato paste, aromatic curry and fresh thyme, and fluffy with well-rinsed Uncle Ben’s parboiled rice that holds its shape without turning mushy.
“Fancy rice does not work. You’re making risotto,” he says.
If rice defines the texture, the “stew” defines the depth of flavors. And for Jollof that stew refers to the blend of fresh tomatoes, onions, and Scotch bonnet peppers that Olunloyo likens to an African sofrito that floods the rice in the pan and then gets fortified with rich chicken stock.
The meat from the whole chicken that went into his stock was picked and used for the basis of an egusi stew Olunloyo prepared as an accompaniment. The soup gets its name from the dried melon seeds that are pulverized, mixed with eggs and dropped in to thicken the broth, which also gets laced with fistfuls of fresh chopped greens. (Olunloyo suggests using less expensive pumpkin seeds.)
“Egusi is like the creamed spinach or saag paneer of Nigeria,” he said. “It’s comfort food. Egusi is everything.”
But Jollof is the star of the show, especially if you happen to have a charcoal-fired hearth like Olunloyo does in his backyard, where he was able to infuse it with smoke from smoldering fig branches and crisp the bottom — two characteristics that define it as “party Jollof.”
The recipe below stops just short of that “party” standard because few people have the gear to pull that off. But this homey, everyday approach is accessible and flexible enough to allow for garnishes to make it your own. And no matter how you choose to dress it (Olunloyo plucked hot peppers and squash blossoms from his own garden as a finishing flourish), when you remove the lid on this classic rice dish, it bursts with vibrant, fresh flavors that will conjure the aromas of Nigeria.
Shola Olunloyo’s Homestyle Jollof Rice
For the sauce:
3 red bell peppers, diced
3 plum tomatoes, diced
2 Scotch bonnet peppers, diced
1 onion, diced
For the rice:
¾ cup olive oil
1 medium onion, sliced
5 tablespoons tomato paste
4 cloves garlic, sliced
1 tablespoon fresh ginger, grated
2 bay leaves
1 tablespoon thyme
1 tablespoon mild curry powder
1 teaspoon salt, or to taste
White pepper or black pepper to taste
1 tablespoon chicken broth bouillon seasoning powder
6 cups long grain parboiled, preferably Uncle Ben’s
4 cups chicken stock
1 large tomato, sliced
1 medium onion, sliced
Make the sauce: Dice the vegetables and combine in a blender until smooth.
Make the rice: In a large pan, preheat the cooking oil. Once the oil is hot, add the diced onions and fry for about 3 to 5 minutes or till the onions become soft but not brown.
Add the tomato paste. Fry for about 5 minutes, then add the garlic, ginger, and bay leaves and let cook in the tomato paste for about 2 minutes. Add the blended pepper-tomato sauce and allow to cook until the water is reduced entirely and the oil is seen floating on the fried peppers, about 15 minutes.
Season with thyme, curry powder, salt and pepper to taste, and chicken seasoning powder. Cook for another 2 to 5 minutes.
Stir in the rice until it is evenly coated with the sauce. Add the chicken stock and cover it with a tight-fitting lid, then allow it to come to a boil.
Once it reaches a boil, reduce the heat immediately to medium-low and steam until the rice is done.
Turn off the heat and add the sliced tomatoes and onions, and stir together briefly. Cover it up immediately so that the heat remaining in the rice can steam up the vegetables a little bit.
Serve with stew or garnishes of your choice.
Shola Olunloyo’s Nigerian Egusi Soup
4 red peppers, chopped
2 red onions, chopped
1 red onion, sliced and reserved
6 tablespoons palm oil or vegetable oil
4 cups tomato puree
1⁄4 cup tomato paste
2 quarts chicken stock
salt, to taste
6 cups hulled pumpkin seeds ground fine in a food processor; or 6 cups egusi melon seeds, if available (or 4 cups of powdered egusi melon seeds)
1 cup water
1 teaspoon nutmeg
1 tablespoon salt
3 cups meat from a rotisserie chicken.
6 cups kale, roughly chopped (stems add texture)
6 cups spinach, chopped
Puree the chopped peppers and chopped onions in a blender.
In a large pot, melt the palm or vegetable oil over medium heat. Add the onion-pepper puree, sliced onions, tomato puree, and tomato paste. Stir fry until fragrant, about 2 minutes.
Add the chicken stock and cook over medium heat, about 15 minutes. Season with a pinch of salt.
Mix together the pumpkin seeds, eggs, nutmeg, water, and salt. Let rest for 10 minutes to set.
Drop the mixture in dollops into the simmering stew and let them cook gently till firm.
Add the chicken meat and warm through. Slowly fold in enough chopped kale and spinach to tighten the stew. Break up the pumpkin balls gently. Check seasoning.
Stew can be served immediately, but is best if cooled immediately, stored covered, and then served at least a day later. Egusi is traditionally eaten with white rice or starches.