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Jollof is the celebration dish of much of West Africa: a big pot of rice cooked in a spicy red stew full of tomatoes and onions, and possibly augmented by meat, shrimp, vegetables, and any number of garnishes and seasonings. “For a lot of my clients, jollof rice is mandatory at a wedding,” says Grace Odogbili, whose Brooklyn catering business draws on cuisines from Africa and the diaspora.
But the dish has also become a vehicle for competitive banter as people of West African origin quarrel over who cooks it the best. The #jollofwars rage online, stoking listicles and memes and often pitting Nigerians against Ghanaians. There was even #jollofgate, in 2014, when British celebrity chef Jamie Oliver advanced his own version, containing coriander and cherry tomatoes. He was met by howling derision, in a fleeting display of pan-African unity.
This weekend, the inaugural New York African Food Festival celebrates the emergence of African restaurants, celebrity chefs, and scholarship on African foodways in the city in a two-day program at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. One event is a “jollof-off” in which semipro cooks, each representing a different country of origin, will prepare jollof for blind-tasting by a panel of chefs.
“We just have to settle the debate,” says Ishmael Osekre, the festival’s organizer, with a laugh. “If you’re having an African food festival, there’s no better platform.” The contestants were chosen via Facebook vote from a pool of entries from around the New York region. Chefs participating in the festival, some of whom will serve as judges, include Odogbili, Brooklyn-based Pierre Thiam, Somali American Roblé Ali, and Paris-based Dieuveil Malonga.
If the multi-course tasting menus these chefs will offer in the V.I.P. tent are the festival’s gastronomic apex, the jollof-off is its strongest link to the zeitgeist. Earlier this year, for instance, rapper Sister Deborah released “Ghana Jollof,” an ode to her country’s jollof and a diss of the Nigerian version (“it tastes funny”), alongside a video showing Nigerian men converting to the superior style. It was just the latest salvo in an ongoing back-and-forth.
But the dish has existential stakes as well. “You’ll hear women in church praying to the jollof gods that their rice is not wet,” says the Bronx-based caterer Onika Bent. “Jollof should be dry, spicy, and colorful, like the people. It has to have seasoning to make the ancestors happy. They should know that it’s jollof if they come back.”
Jollof is a cosmopolitan dish, its history tied to colonialism and the Atlantic trade. One core component, rice, is native only to a small part of West Africa, from Senegal to Sierra Leone; another, tomatoes, arrived from the New World in the Columbian Exchange. And while the loudest battles pit Nigerians and Ghanaians against each other, with Liberians and Sierra Leoneans chiming in, people grudgingly admit that jollof probably originated in Senegal — though it has other names there, such as the version with fish called tieboudienne. The dish has strong echoes in America, too, in jambalaya and especially Lowcountry red rice.
As will no doubt be made clear at the contest, there are some stylistic differences: Ghanaians favor aromatic rices like jasmine or basmati; Nigerian cooks tend to use parboiled varieties; Liberians are likely to serve the dish with fish. A hard-boiled egg garnish is typically Ghanaian, as is a condiment called shito. The type of peppers, the choice of oil, whether to add smoked shrimp or meat, all come into play. “You don’t want to put your country down,” says Genevee Witherspoon, the Liberian contestant, who lives in Trenton. She doesn’t plan to tone down her recipe from her motherland’s fiery heat standard.
For Nadia Eke, a track-and-field athlete and avid cook who will represent Ghana, the dish has personal stakes: Her father’s side of the family is Nigerian. “I always get caught on the jollof battle scene,” Eke says. But her own choice is clear. “Ghanaian jollof is like an orchestra, an ensemble. Everything works together. The Nigerian one can still taste good, but the texture just doesn’t work with the flavors.”
As the contest approaches, Osekre, a Ghanaian American, talks a big game, claiming his Nigerian college roommates always begged him to bring his mother’s jollof back from his visits home. “Behind the scenes, they admitted that Ghanaian jollof is better,” he says. But will the judges in the blind tasting agree? “I’m a little nervous,” he admits. “But I’m still very confident.”
The African Food Festival takes place this weekend at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. For more information, visit nycafricanfoodfestival.com.