About this time last year I was in Ghana, visiting some good friends and sampling the local cuisine. One day my host Fiona managed to arrange for me to visit Femi Adetola, who runs the restaurant Red Chilli in Accra and is setting up a chef school. Although Femi only reluctantly learnt how to cook from her grandmother and mother (”because a girl is supposed to know how to cook”), her passion for food eventually grew so big she decided to leave her career as a lawyer and return back to her home city from the US to become a restauranteur.
We were invited (or invited ourselves, to be honest) to her home one early morning to learn how to cook jollof rice. Jollof rice is a quintessential Nigerian tomato and pepper based rice dish, much like a Spanish paella or an Indian briyani. Femi is half Nigerian and half Ghanaian herself, so when I asked which country the dish really belongs to she diplomatically declared it ”West African.” When I’ve had had it in Nigeria it’s been so chilli hot it bites your tongue, and Femi’s version was no meek risotto either.
You can make it without quite so much pepper, but then ”it tastes as if it’s off,” according to Femi. I agree it’s not at all the same thing if it’s not quite hot, but I also don’t like it when it’s so hot it burns your tongue. Jollof rice should be made with fresh habanero peppers, which are the ones most commonly used in West Africa. You rarely find them in South Africa though, so I have been using a combination of fresh chilli peppers (medium hot) and dry chilli flakes. You could try African bird’s eye chilli too, and adjust the amount of pepper to your own taste.
It might seem odd to find an African rice dish, but apparently there is one type of rice that originates from West Africa and rice is in fact grown in many countries around the continent. In Ghana, Femi says people tend to use a long grain rice like basmati for jollof rice. When she showed me how to make the dish, she added corned beef towards the end. In the recipe below I add chicken during the cooking process instead, but essentially you can chose any meat you like and add it either during the cooking or at the end.
4 generous portions
- 8 deboned chicken thighs
- 2 cups long grain rice (eg Basmati)
- 4 large tomatoes
- 1 fresh habanero chilli pepper (or other fresh chilli pepper)
- 1 teaspoon dried chilli flakes (or more, if you like)
- 1 large red onion
- 2 large cloves of garlic, peeled
- 70 grams of tomato paste
- 1/2 yellow sweet pepper, diced
- 1/2 red sweet pepper, diced
- A handful of fresh green beans
- 2 small Maggi cubes
- 2 eggs, hard boiled
- Vegetable oil
- Salt and pepper to taste.
Peel the onion and cut in half, and put in a pot together with the tomatoes, garlic cloves and fresh chilli pepper. Bring to a boil and cook until the skin of the tomatoes starts peeling.
Cut the deboned chicken thigh fillets into smaller pieces, about 4×4 centimetres. Quickly brown them in a little vegetable oil in a pan and put to the side.
Put the boiled tomatoes and other vegetables in a mixer with a little of the hot water from the pot and mix until you have a smooth sauce.
Pour the mixture into a large pot, add the tomato paste, chilli flakes, Maggi cubes and some more of the hot water from the first pot and bring to a boil. Then turn down the heat.
Add the chicken and let it cook gently for about 15 minutes. Then add the rice. Cook until the rice is done. You might have to add some more water, depending on what kind of rice you use.
For simplicity I quickly steamed the diced red and yellow peppers and the green beans in the microwave and added once the rice was done, but you can also add them raw on top of the rice about 5 minutes before the rice is done and let them steam in the pot.
Once you’ve stirred in the vegetables and added the cooked eggs it is ready to serve. Enjoy!
PS – Fiona Leonard, my host in Accra, is the author of the captivating political thriller The Chicken Thief, soon to be published by Penguin South Africa. Read it!