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‘Jollof Wars’ highlight how the West African dish brings the diaspora together

Jollof Festival demonstrates the common heritage of dishes from red rice to jambalaya

On a Saturday afternoon in August, people flooded the Promontory, an event venue in Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood, to celebrate the Jollof Festival, ahead of upcoming stops in cities such as Charlotte, North Carolina, Boston and Houston. Started by Ishmael Osekre, the festival uses jollof, a popular West African dish, as a community bonding device while educating people from other cultures about the significance and joys of jollof.

Jollof is a one-pot dish of long-grained rice cooked in a spiced tomato sauce, with variations according to personal preference and region. Osekre said he was inspired to start the festival because “I thought simply talking about who has the best jollof rice instead of experiencing it wasn’t the best way, so I took the opportunity to create a festival actually to taste and judge who has the best jollof.”

Regional differences are at the heart of playful “jollof wars,” where people debate which country makes the best version. At the Jollof Festival, participants are given different colored bowls of jollof and vote online for their favorites. Other tasters aren’t supposed to tell you which one they think is Nigerian, Ghanaian or Senegalese based on color or flavor. 

“I would take a jollof war over an actual war any day,” chef Pierre Thiam said with a laugh. “It is a fun war. The great thing about it is that it will never see a winner. Nigerians will always fight for jollof because it has a special level of heat. The Ghanaians have a smokiness that you don’t find in others. And in my country, [Senegal], you have that fermented flavor and the acidity that balances from the tamarind.”

Jollof Festival founder Ishmael Osekre (left) speaks with hostess Blac Haz3 (right) during the festival in Chicago on Aug 19.

Jonathan Jagiello

As I walked around the festival, I was fascinated by how many people across the diaspora, whose families were from the American South or the Caribbean, not only found jollof to be a familiar taste but the competition familiar itself.

The playfully fierce desire to win is integral to the culture of jollof and its siblings such as Charleston red rice, a dish from the Gullah Geechee, which chef Amethyst Ganaway grew up loving. “People have a very strong fondness for jollof, similar to red rice. There’s always a game of who makes it better, whether that’s Charleston or Savannah, Ghana or Nigeria, your grandma or my auntie. It’s about cultural pride, familial pride, and communal pride,” Ganaway said.

Baidawi Bhagi, a Trinidadian cook and writer, said that jollof’s cousin pelau will feel familiar to those who love jollof, Charleston red rice, or jambalaya. “We had a whole war on Facebook years ago,” he said, laughing. “For days, arguing about the right way to make pelau. It was a funny time.”

It’s easy to say that jollof feels special to so many in the diaspora because it’s tasty, and most people like rice. But the history of jollof holds more complex answers.

The son of a Ghanaian father and an African American mother, Kwame Amuh, a Drexel University culinary school graduate, said jollof reminds him of jambalaya, a Black Southern dish that originated in southern Louisiana. But he pointed out that the jollof rice most are familiar with — grains stewed in a tomato sauce — may not be as ancient as many consider it to be.

“The creation of jollof rice is part of the Atlantic slave trade and colonization of the Americas, where you had lots of North and South American produce introduced into the West African diet and vice versa,” said Amuh, who wrote his thesis for Drexel on the subject.

Festival attendees sample jollof dishes during a recent Jollof Festival stop in Washington on Aug. 6.

Mike Taylor

The tomato is a crop native to Mexico, Central America and South America and is now a staple of many cuisines, including those from Middle East, Europe, and South Asia. Portuguese traders introduced tomatoes to Senegal, where jollof rice originated, via their posts on the Senegal River in 1448, which aided rice cultivation. That combination created the dish we know today. The name jollof comes from the Wolof or Jolof Empire, located in parts of Senegal, the Gambia, and Mauritania. Thiam said jollof is considered the “national dish of Senegal.” But in Senegal, it’s called Thiéboudieun or Ceebu jën.

Senegalese chef Bintou N’Daw serves Thiéboudieun, goat egusi, and fonio-crusted wings at her restaurant Bintü Atelier in Charleston, South Carolina. She was born in Dakar and her family is from Saint-Louis in the north next to Mauritania. “It’s kind of an island port. It was in the middle of the Wolof Empire. Tomatoes were hard to transport, so they started drying it and making a paste out of it,” she said.

When N’Daw came to Charleston, she was amazed by the similarity between red rice and jollof, and that amazement deepened as she tried tomato-based rice dishes from throughout the diaspora, including Afro-Brazilian variations with seafood. That fondness for seafood in jollof descendants might be why one of her favorite parts of Senegalese jollof is the dried conch, whose fermented taste gives the rice an “umami bomb,” she said.

“We are all coming from that same region of the world: West Africa. Jollof is a dish that transcends geographical borders and time,” Thiam said. He contended that the connection is also innate in a place much harder to access but no less powerful. “We all carry taste memory with us. Through generations and in different forms, our African ancestors enjoyed this in the diaspora, so we reconnect with it.”

In the Lowcountry, where enslaved Africans worked on rice plantations using their knowledge from their homelands, red rice was born. The earliest recorded mentions of the dish, Ganaway said, referred to it as tomato pelau. “For us, it’s a tomato-based rice dish. It’s similar to perloo or pelau but essentially a one-pot rice dish cooked with other ingredients.” Those ingredients can vary from the holy trinity of celery, onion, and pepper to meat and seafood.

Chef Odunsi Adedolapo (right) wins Jollof Festival Chicago for his Nigerian-flavored dish.

Jonathan Jagiello

But it wasn’t until Ganaway was around 7 when she started attending a Sufi mosque in Charleston with her grandmother, that she became exposed to jollof. “It was predominantly West Africans in the mosque, and a lot of people were from Senegal. But it never registered as jollof in my mind because there was Black American food there mixed in with West African food, and you couldn’t tell the difference. So I just registered it as something like red rice.”

As she grew older and became interested in exploring African foodways as a career (Ganaway is the content manager of Thiam’s brand Yolélé Foods and a chef and food writer), she tasted jollof from around the diaspora. “One of my fondest memories is from Nana [Araba] Wilmot. She had a pop-up I went to last year and made goat jollof,” Ganaway said. “In chef solidarity, she gave me a pint of it to take home, which was my next day’s meal.”

The focus on connection is largely because jollof is known as a party rice, not necessarily a weekday staple. “Whether it was rice for birthdays, Christmas and even the first day of school, jollof was a meal for special occasions,” Osekre said. “It takes so much time and effort to perfect, so any time you see jollof rice, you associate it with special moments.”

Its cousins, such as jambalaya and red rice, are the same. “Red rice is what you’re going to find at somebody’s funeral, a wedding, a baby shower, or graduation,” Ganaway said. “Or maybe just because it’s Friday and you got some fish. But like jollof, it’s a dish made in large portions to be shared with people. And I think that has made it easy to embed itself into American culture.”

It didn’t take long for the Jollof Festival to turn into a lively day party, with attendees eating goat suya, jerk chicken, plantains, and jollof. The tasting competition was fierce, with constant debates over which one was the best. The white cup had more vegetables and chicken and the green cup had bits of caramelized onion and crispier rice. The orange cup was pale and the black and red cups were deeper red and tasted of smoke.

Uchenna Onyema-Jones and Stella Okeke-Common are Nigerian Americans and cousins, and they came to Jollof Festival with their kids. They both told me that the black cup of jollof and the white cup were their favorites. “Our kids only liked the black, which is why we think it’s the Nigerian one,” said Onyema Jones. “We’re first-gen, born in the U.S., and we just wanted to expose our kids to more cultural events. We grew up in the culture and wanted to keep it going. Growing up, we never had anything but Nigerian jollof, so it’s nice to come and experience different cultures.”

Osekre founded the festival, with the contest being an integral part. “The debate over jollof rice brings people and communities together in a healthy and friendly [way]. I’ve seen this rivalry bring together people who thought they didn’t have much in common besides their rice. Even though it may appear as a food war on the surface, this is a strong driving force for unity and enjoying a meal amongst different diaspora people,” he said. 

At the end of the festival, it was revealed which cup was from which culture. Nigeria was red, Liberia was white, Senegal was black, Ghana was green, and orange was Sierra Leone. Based on the votes, Nigeria won, which caused a lot of celebration and some disappointment in the crowd. But like Thiam said, this is the best kind of war because it only led to more laughter, fellowship, and eating. As the victors claimed their trophy, a united community danced the night away. 

Nylah Burton is a travel, lifestyle, and entertainment writer with bylines in New York Magazine, Vogue, and Travel + Leisure.