I still remember the first time I had jollof rice. I was meeting my ex-boyfriend’s family for the first time during Thanksgiving. I was expecting to see the usual stuffing and gravy. Instead, I saw a big pot of red rice on the table. It came as a surprise (what is that?!), but I didn’t want to say anything, especially since I was trying to impress the family. His sister introduced it as jollof rice, and I didn’t dare repeat the name for fear of saying it wrong. I just smiled and shook my head yes.
The rice was a vibrant orange-red, and the aroma was incredibly inviting. I was met with a burst of flavors when I took my first spoonful. It was bold and fragrant, with a slight sweetness. It had crunchy onions and large pieces of lamb speckled throughout. The jollof was new to me, but it felt familiar, like something I’d grown up eating. It reminded me of home.
What Is Jollof Rice?
Jollof rice is a beloved West African dish with many regional variations. It’s made with a unique blend of spices, long-grain rice, and a tomato and red pepper base. It is often served as a hearty entrée by adding beef, chicken, goat, or fish, or as is as a side. Jollof rice can be made for any occasion from birthdays and holiday celebrations to a casual weeknight dinner.
Reflecting on my first experience eating jollof rice, I now see that the familiarity I felt was the thread between ancestral and descendant recipes. Jollof rice didn’t just evolve throughout Africa but also in the Americas. I grew up enjoying foods like jambalaya and red rice, which mirror jollof in their preparation and community—offsprings rooted in the transatlantic migration and the ingenuity of my ancestors.
I am comforted by these connective tissues. And I now make jollof rice often—this recipe represents my journey to a one-pot jollof rice that will leave flavor memories that live rent-free in your head.
Regional Variations of Jollof Rice
I’ve been glued to the social banter questioning who has the best jollof rice, a harmonious blend of rice, tomatoes, and spices beloved in West Africa and beyond. Jollof rice is believed to have originated from the Wolof people in Senegal and Gambia. It has since evolved into variations found across the African continent, but at its core it’s stewed rice in a concentrated broth of tomatoes, onions, curry powder, and peppers.
Nigerian jollof is prepared with long-grain parboiled rice. It has less tomatoes and is heavy on hot peppers. It’s simmered over a prolonged time to build a smoky, roasted flavor and aroma—it’s traditionally cooked over an open fire to add a uniquely irresistible smoky flavor.
The Ghanaian version calls for aromatic basmati or jasmine rice to perfume the dish and enhance the tomato flavor. Long-grain white rice is preferred, as the rice kernels stay separate when cooked, providing the perfect canvas for the bold tomato flavor to shine through. And while the spices in the rice are more subdued, it’s often topped with a chili sauce called shito that adds a satisfying kick of heat.
Tips and Tricks for Making Jollof Rice
The art of making jollof rice is like a complex dance of timing—you have to build flavor while preserving texture (no one wants mushy rice). I’ve learned that achieving both is key to creating the perfect pot of jollof. Here are my tips to help you along:
- Thoroughly rinse the rice. Rinse the rice under cool running water until it runs clear to remove all starchy residue.
- The deeper the red, the better. I intentionally pick out the deepest red bell peppers and tomatoes at the grocery store to create the reddest pepper stew base for the rice.
- Allow the pepper stew base to reduce uncovered. This allows the moisture to escape and concentrate the flavors. It will splatter quite a bit, so use a splatter guard or a lid set ajar.
- Add the chicken stock last. Cook the onions and pepper stew base, and then add the rice before you add the chicken stock. Depending on how much liquid the stew base has, you can decide to use more or less chicken stock so that you don’t end up with rice that’s too wet. Add enough stock so that it is level with the rice,
- Cover the pot with foil and a lid. Tightly covering the pot of jollof with foil to trap moisture that’ll steam the rice. I prefer to cook the rice in the oven, not on the stove top, for the even distribution of heat—you don’t need to keep an eye on it as you would on the stove top.
Delicious and Bold Rice Recipes
- Dirty Rice with Shrimp
- Tomato Rice
- Kimchi Fried Rice
- Jamaican Rice and Peas
Preheat the oven to 350°F.
Prepare the pepper stew base:
Add the bell peppers, tomato, onion, scotch bonnet or habanero pepper, ginger, and garlic into a blender, and blend until smooth. Set aside.
Fry the onions:
Heat the oil in a large Dutch oven (mine holds 3 quarts) or a heavy-bottomed pot over medium heat. Add the onions and fry for 2 to 3 minutes, until fragrant and the edges get a little brown.
Scoop out about a third of the fried onions on a small plate or bowl, and set it aside. You will use it to top the jollof rice at the end.
Cook the tomato paste:
Add the tomato paste and cook it for 4 to 5 minutes, stirring frequently. The oil should turn red and the paste should look grainy. Reduce the heat if the paste starts sticking to the bottom of the pot and burning.
Cook the pepper stew base:
Carefully stir in pepper stew base, and cook it uncovered for 20 to 25 minutes until reduced by about half. Stir the mixture occasionally with a wooden spoon and scrape up any bits that stick to the bottom of the pot.
The mixture will splatter quite a bit! Keep it covered with a splatter guard or place a lid on top slightly ajar so that moisture can escape. Adjust the heat as needed if you notice it burning or if it’s not simmering.
Add the rice and seasonings:
Stir in the rice, curry powder, bouillon cube, dried thyme, garlic powder, onion powder, nutmeg, bay leaves, and salt. Cook for about 3 minutes, stirring frequently. Then add the chicken stock, and bring it to a simmer.
Bake the jollof rice:
Turn the heat off and tightly cover the pot with foil and a lid. Transfer the pot into the preheated oven and bake, undisturbed, for about 40 minutes.
Add butter and peas:
If using the butter and peas (I highly recommend it!), remove the pot from the oven and dollop the pats of butter on top. Sprinkle the peas and the reserved fried onions on top too. Cover the pot again with the foil and lid, and bake for 5 minutes.
Gently stir the rice to incorporate the butter, peas, and onions. Discard the bay leaves and transfer the rice to a platter, if you’d like. Serve warm.
Store leftovers tightly covered in the refrigerator for up to 4 days. Reheat in the microwave in 1-minute intervals until heated through.
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