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Jamie Oliver’s jollof recipe goes against the grain

UNDER FIRE: Jamie Oliver

FOR YEARS, I’ve been waiting to see an African dish embraced by the mainstream. I told friends that jollof rice would be the dish to win over acquaintances who did not eat “foreign muck”.

However, I never thought it would enter popular consciousness through Jamie Oliver’s #jollofgate but more on that later. Jollof rice is a flavourful dish, cooked in a rich tomato sauce seasoned with herbs and spices.

It is characterised by its redness and key ingredients: onions, tomatoes, tomato purée, chilli and stock.

Some say it is the national dish of West Africans, which is something given the various characteristics of each region.

Africans love their food and, as well as being an everyday dish, jollof rice is party food, celebration food and food of remembrance. Each cook has their own unique way of preparing it, which can include smoking – a particular skill.

At Christmas, many families cook their version of the dish and take their time, like cooking a Sunday roast, and it is key at Nigerian weddings. It sits with Jambalaya, paella, and fried rice dishes found in many of the finest restaurants around the world. I’ve only seen jollof rice in a world food cafe near Tower Bridge and that closed down.

Jollof rice is rich in history. It is said to have its origins in the Jollof Empire, hence the name, and is linked first and foremost to Senegal and Gambia. In fact, the Farra brothers who specialise in AfroBrit cuisine, mention it is called Benachin or one-pot in Wollof.

It may have travelled across the sea during the transatlantic slave trade to find its way into red rice and other dishes found in the American south.

Food historian Jessica B Harris once told me that food is history on a plate. I buy into this and maybe that is one of my issues with Jamie Oliver’s recipe. He could be changing that history in a direction it does not need to go.

ICONIC: Jollof rice is loved all over West Africa

Authenticity is important and recipes should not lose their base even though we recognise recipes change over time.

It comes down to respect for the food and some knowledge especially if the dish is unfamiliar to a cook.

Notes should be clear so there is no misunderstanding about what is authentic and what is not. Otherwise, the danger is that accompaniments will creep in that is misguided fusion.

I remember approaching a hotel for a party and saying that I’d take their menu but they had to have jollof rice. They would not yield on a qualified caterer of my choice and said they’d get the recipe from the Internet! I did not use them.

The biggest fear is that a celebrity chef can tell people who do not know better, how to prepare a prime African dish and the next thing you know it’s the only way to go.

But Oliver is not alone. The Hairy Bikers, to their credit, have a recipe that is hard to fault but there is another that raises eyebrows.

Coriander creeps in and the accompaniment is naan bread. Nigella Lawson’s site suggests serving jollof with yoghurt and raita. It is not Asian.

The accompaniment is a tomato-based stew or barbecued/grilled/fried/or roasted meat, fish or poultry.

For anyone rejoicing that Jamie Oliver’s version of the rice was linked to Ghana, don’t stay happy too soon. A community recipe on the Nigella Lawson website features Nigerian jollof rice with tomato ketchup added.

We’ve been waiting a long time for African food to arrive. Is it too much to ask for consideration and think ‘A’ for appetizing and authentic?

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