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Africans Have Heated Views About Rice, Just Ask Mark Zuckerberg

20 Aug 2017 6:04 pm
By Joe Parkinson 

Across West Africa, one of the world's spiciest food fights is getting hotter, snaring politicians, pop stars and even Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg: Who makes the best jollof rice?

From Senegal to Sierra Leone, Ghana to Nigeria, households have for centuries boasted of their nation's pre-eminence in preparing bowls of jollof -- a sticky orange-colored delicacy made from fluffy rice and a chili-infused stew that has strong echoes in Louisiana jambalaya.

Each nation treats the dish as a cornerstone of national identity. Sweethearts refer to one another as "my jollof rice" and "jollofing" means "partying." To host a wedding or celebratory occasion without jollof would be unthinkable.

But in recent years, a gentle sparring over the staple has exploded into a torrent of trash talk so fiery it has become known as "the jollof wars." Battle lines have been drawn in hit songs, political campaigns and diplomatic sideswipes.

"The jollof wars are both comic and deadly serious," said Sisi Yemmie, a food and lifestyle blogger in Lagos. "The battle has become particularly fierce online; it's about way more than food," she added. "When the jollof talk becomes too heated, I just leave the conversation."

In March, an election campaign event in Northern Ghana had to be canceled after supporters faced off over which party had made the best jollof, local media reported. In Nigeria, protesters called for the resignation of Information Minister Lai Mohammed after he said on television that Senegal's version was superior. Vice President Yemi Osinbajo released a statement the following day calling for calm: "We all know that Nigerian jollof rice is the best; we beat the Ghanaians and the Senegalese hands down," he said.

Mr. Zuckerberg's apparent endorsement of Nigerian jollof while visiting Lagos last summer set off a storm of celebrations in Nigeria and howls of protest elsewhere in the region. "I was told not to compare the jollof rice of neighboring countries," Mr. Zuckberg said, after tasting the Nigerian variety. "But my god, it was awesome."

Now a new TV show, "The Jollof Rice Challenge," will try to settle the dispute once and for all, putting chefs from 10 nations head to head in a Lagos contest being billed as Pop Idol meets MasterChef.

"This is the Super Bowl of jollof rice," said Felix King, the show's producer, who plans to screen it on Aug. 21, World Jollof Day, and show it in 42 countries. The show's judges will be blindfolded to stop national pride from influencing their palettes. "Enough of the talk -- it's time to crown the real king," he said.

Other than including rice, tomatoes and spices there are is no agreed upon standard. Each country has very different iterations and within that, regions have their own versions, too.

Ghanaians say their insistence on basmati rice, which better absorbs their slower-cooked tomato sauce, gives their iteration more sophistication. Nigerians say cooking their jollof in cast-iron pots over firewood gives it a more a smoky, umami flavor. Senegalese say adding tamarind and pouring extra palm oil at the base of the pan gives their jollof a cro cro -- or rice crust -- and a crunchy competitive edge.

The largely good-natured "rice rage" has become a proxy clash over national identity, rivalries, and pretensions of regional leadership.

The debate has been supercharged by diss tracks from the region's top Afrobeat stars. Ghanaian rapper Sister Deborah's "Ghana Jollof" extols her country's superiority over Nigeria, with a video showing crowds of Nigerian men tearfully converting to Ghana's recipe.

"Ghana jollof, Ghana jollof -- Yummy!... Nigerian jollof -- hmmm, it tastes funny," she sings.

Regional jollof combat has even begun reaching diaspora communities in London, New York and Washington. In Washington last month, Nigeria struck an early blow in the city's inaugural jollof-off, winning first prize in a festival that drew hundreds of rice aficionados and entries from several other countries.

The largely jovial tone of the jollof tussle contrasts with culinary politics in parts of Europe and the Middle East: The so-called falafel wars among Palestinians, Israelis and Lebanese have become a proxy for regional conflicts. Turks, Greeks and Armenians have for centuries sparred bitterly over a host of foods once eaten in the Ottoman Empire, including baklava, a syrupy pastry, and the preparation of their coffee.

Senegalese chef Pierre Thiam, who runs restaurants in Brooklyn, Dakar and Lagos, says the "jollof wars" are more like sibling rivalry than internecine conflict: "Yes the different jollof recipes divide us but it's also what unites us as Africans," he said.

Mr. Thiam said one particularly piquant aspect of the debate was that neither of the most vocal protagonists -- Ghana and Nigeria -- even invented the dish, which originated from the Wollof tribe in what is now Senegal and Gambia.

"There's no doubt, Senegalese jollof is the original and best!" Mr. Thiam added. "We're laughing at Ghana and Nigeria fighting over a dish we created."

The warring West African camps even agreed to a short-term cease-fire in 2014 in response to the jollof recipe of British celebrity chef Jamie Oliver, who took the sacrilegious step of adding coriander, parsley and lemon juice to the dish. The episode -- which became known as #jollofgate -- was met with howls of derision and forged a fleeting moment of West African unity.

"Our plates will not be colonized!" said one Twitter user. "Jamie Oliver's jollof rice hurts my soul," said another.

Mr. Oliver's publicist issued a statement saying the chef was just "putting his spin on the dish" and meant no offense.

On the streets in both Accra and Abuja, the different recipes can draw very different emotional, and physical, reactions.

"The Nigerian is more natural, but the Ghanaian is so spicy that you end up on the toilet," says Onyeche Saliu, chef at the Omo Obokun Canteen in Nigeria's capital, who estimates that she has made 150 portions of jollof daily for 20 years. "We get plenty of Ghanaians here. They sometimes complain."

What Ms. Saliu calls "natural," many Ghanaians translate as "flavorless." A growing list of Ghanaian artists and commentators have mocked Nigerians for using a Maggi-brand stock cube as a substitute for a natural jollof sauce borne by a slower-cooked infusion of the ingredients.

Ghanaian Afrobeats artist Fuse ODG summed up the clash in his hit track, "I Need Jollof."

"Ghanaians fighting over, Nigerians fighting over, Sierre Leonains fighting over, Liberians fighting over... oh I need jollof jollof jollof, you know I need jollof jollof jollof," he says.

Nigerian blogger Ms. Yemmie says she has a special message to people across the region, whatever their jollof preference.

"Whenever anyone is down from anywhere in this region, I tell them this: "Don't let anyone treat you like white rice; you're jollof rice."

Write to Joe Parkinson at joe.parkinson@wsj.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

August 20, 2017 14:04 ET (18:04 GMT)

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