Recipe #20: Party-Perfect Jollof rice (with chicken)
"Jollof rice" (aka jolof or djolof or benachin) is one of the better-known classic West African dishes. It's always amusing to read that this is the "national dish" of any specific West African country, since it belongs to the whole region, with many versions and variations in name and ingredients. It's sometimes credited with originating among the Wolof people of Senegal and Gambia, but is now claimed by many other West African nations, including Ghana, Nigeria, Liberia, and Sierra Leone. Senegal's famous "ceebu jen" (from Wolof words for rice and fish, aka thiebou djenne) is a similar rice paella, but it is not the same. Ghana's jollof rice has a distinctive red color from the tomatoes and tomato paste used, not red palm oil as versions from Nigeria might. It is somewhat reminiscent of Spanish rice. Sometimes another one-pot in Ghana, "gari foto," is called gari jollof.
Jollof is a rice one-pot with infinite variations. I'll be posting several versions from Ghana: today a chicken version, later meat and vegetarian ones. Of course, in West Africa, these distinctions are not always meaningful, and meat, poultry and seafood can also be combined in the same recipe. Once you get the idea, you can adjust ingredients and spices to meet your preferences. Remember, Ghanaian cooking is very flexible and forgiving. Be sure, however, to include tomatoes and tomato paste, onions, and rice.
This is also a dish that I've generally found to be served mildly spiced, but with shito (that recipe will also be coming up later) or a spicy "tomato gravy" (also coming up in future postings) on the side. When I first lived in Ghana in the 1970s, the protein source such as chicken or meat was always cooked into the rice. Increasingly in Ghana, the rice is cooked separately with the meat or seafood or chicken served on the side, unless it is being served in a buffet. I believe this likely influenced by Western ideas of proper plating of food and protein serving sizes. I still prefer to cook my meat/poultry mixed into the food.
Similarly, many recipes outside of Africa say to use boneless chicken pieces. Traditionally the chicken bones are chewed and provide welcome calcium to the diet. Suit yourself in this recipe. To be honest, if you're cooking for an (American) crowd, using boneless chicken is less messy and easier to eat and cook, but it's right up there with seasoning cubes in my mind (you gain something in convenience, but lose something in health). In Ghana nowadays I cannot imagine you will be served jollof without Maggi or Royco cubes, but I prefer stock and "real" seasonings like garlic, pepper, fresh ginger, etc. I do, however, remove the chicken skin first, so I, too, have my preferences that differ from tradition.
The biggest problem I always used to have when making jollof rice was keeping it from becoming too mushy. I've solved that now by cooking it in the oven where the heat is evenly distributed and not just on the bottom. Today's recipe is adapted from one I developed for Penn State's Touch of Africa dinner for several hundred people in February 2009.
Party-Perfect Chicken Jollof Rice
2 cups long grain white rice (not parboiled)
4 cups water or broth or a combination (including up to a cup of drained juice from tomatoes)
3 good-sized cloves of garlic (about 1 Tablespoon), minced or crushed
2 cups fresh grated tomatoes, seeded (discard peelings) (OR 2 cups well-drained well-chopped tomatoes, OR 2 cups pureed tomatoes)
1 medium onion, finely chopped (a good cup)
fresh vegetables, about 2-3 cups, such as 1 carrot peeled and diced, frozen green peas, and other vegetables such as bell peppers or green beans (OR substitute frozen mixed vegetables) 1 bay leaf (optional)
1/2 teaspoon black or white pepper (optional)
1 Tablespoon freshly peeled, grated ginger
5 Tablespoons (1/3 cup) of tomato paste
about 1/2 teaspoon of dried ground cayenne pepper (or chopped fresh chili peppers, but be careful because the hotness may vary)
1/3 - 1/2 cup (5 - 8 Tablespoons) peanut or other vegetable oil
2 teaspoons salt or to taste (plain or Adobo or other seasoning salt)
1 teaspoon curry powder (OR thyme, about 1/2 teaspoon)
2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken cubed, or 3 pounds with bones and cut into small pieces, breaking the bones with a heavy cleaver (for example, cut a thigh or drumstick into 2 pieces)
Realistically, you'll probably use frying chicken, but free-range or roasting chicken would be
This version is more of a party version which is easily doubled or tripled.
1. First prepare all the ingredients: remove the skin and fat from the chicken and cut it into pieces, gather the spices, chop the onion, grate the ginger, drain and prepare the tomatoes, etc.
2. In a bowl, mix about 1/4 cup of the chopped onions with a little (maybe 1/4 of the garlic and ginger, about 1/2 teaspoon salt and 1/8 teaspoon black (or white) pepper and 1/8 teaspoon red pepper and stir well. Allow it to marinate for a few minutes.
2. Heat 3 or 4 Tablespoons of oil in a heavy skillet, add a couple of tablespoons of onion and brown the chicken on medium high heat in 2 batches (so you don't crowd them), adding another 1/4 cup of chopped onions and another Tablespoon of oil if necessary with the second batch. As the chicken browns put the pieces into a large roaster or casserole dish (I usually make this in quantity and you may notice that in the first picture above I started with small enameled roasting pan, but had to switch to a larger one before I added the liquid. Make sure your pan will hold all of the chicken, rice, liquid and vegetables!)
3. While you're browning the chicken, put the 4 cups of broth/water/tomato juice into a saucepan with a bay leaf if you're using it and heat to a boil, then keep warm until you need it. Turn the oven on to 350 degrees Farenheit to preheat, and make sure your oven rack is low enough to place your covered roasting pan on it.
4. After all the chicken is browned, add another 3 - 4 Tablespoon of oil, the remaining onion, garlic, ginger, and curry powder or thyme (if using either), and stir fry together for a few minutes, then stir in the tomatoes, tomato paste and pepper, and salt.
5. Add the 2 cups of rice to the roasting pan with the chicken.
6. Pour the heated liquid (broth/water/tomato juice mixture) into the skillet with the tomato paste and tomato and stir to loosen the onion from the pan, then pour then liquid from the pan into the roasting pan, stir well, cover and place in the oven.
7. Cook covered for 15-20 minutes. Remove from the oven once to check rice for doneness and to see if a little more liquid is needed. If so, add a little water or broth. Stir the rice from the outside in as the outside edges will brown faster than the inside. Return to the oven for another 10-15 minutes while you prepare the vegetables.
8. Peel and dice the vegetables and cook separately, either in a microwave or on the stove top.
9. Remove the rice and stir in the vegetables.
10. Garnish as desired.
NOTES: Alternatively, this may all be cooked in a large pot on the stovetop, but beware of burning the rice on the bottom and/or stirring too often and making the rice mushy. Also, the vegetables may be added directly to the rice while it is cooking, or stirred in during the final minutes before it is done.
This is one of those wonderful recipes that tastes even better the day after it was made, and also freezes nicely. In Ghana it is often served with braised cabbage on the side and/or Ghana-style gravy, or shito (hot pepper sauce).