Regina Agu is a dear friend whom I met in Houston many years ago. We share a common connection to Louisiana as well as a diasporic heritage: Regina's father is Nigerian. Regina is an artist who works in a number of mediums: drawing, photography, collage, installations, performance, text, and, of course, the art of food. The beautiful fruits of her Houston garden are featured through her stunning photography, and during a recent gathering, she brought her delicious Nigerian jollof rice. She agreed to share her recipe and memories for our blog.
Since living in Harlem, I have discovered the riches of West African cuisine. "Little Senegal," as it is commonly known, centers around the west end of 116th St. Alongside the Senegalese restaurants and shops are also those from Ivory Coast, Mali, Guinea, and others - many of which also feature their version of the signature jollof rice dish. Some say "Jollof" is from the Wolof language, primarily spoken in Senegal, where the dish is also known as "Benachin," which means "one pot." Regina tells me, however, that people from Nigeria and Ghana claim they invented the dish and that in fact there has been a debate raging on Twitter since 2009 on who is the originator - it is, after all, a source of national pride! They also playfully compete in other things, she says, but as for who truly originated jollof - who knows?
Regina continues: Jollof rice can be an everyday food, but any social gathering such as weddings will definitely involve large foil trays of Jollof, or "party rice," as it is sometimes called. For fancier occasions, fancier meat, vegetables and spices are used. "I am not sure if I have ever been to a Nigerian function without Jollof rice." For her, it is a very nostalgic dish. She began eating it as a very young child and now she connects it to her father and his culinary traditions. Her first time to Nigeria at age nine is a special memory for her, and it involved her aunt and grandmother making a special Jollof rice for their festive homecoming.
Regina shares her recipe sans measurements (because she does not measure, she says). In the coming weeks I will attempt her recipe, noting the amounts that I use and the results, for a future blog post. For now, here is Regina Agu's Nigerian Jollof Rice recipe:
First, parboil the rice. Bring rice to boil in a pot of water. Reduce to low heat and simmer for about 5-7 minutes. Rice should be firm, but not hard. Remove the pot from heat and pour out the water and rice into a sieve. Rinse the rice with cold water to stop it from cooking.
Prepare the sauce by blending plum tomatoes, tomato paste, onion, scotch bonnet peppers and red bell peppers. Heat vegetable oil over medium-low heat in a pot. Add the tomato sauce blend and stir to cook until sauce thickens and is streaky with oil, and all water is evaporated. This will take several minutes.
Add the rice to the tomato sauce. Fill the pot with chicken/veggie broth to just over the level of the rice. Season with salt, pepper, spices (like curry, garlic, thyme), ground oporo, Maggi/Knorr cubes (bouillon), and bay leaves. Stir to combine, cover and cook over medium-low heat. Stir occasionally until all liquid is absorbed. Rice should not be mushy or over-scorched. Enjoy!