A Taste of Home: How Jollof Rice has Shaped my Identity

Long before she learned English, my grandmother has always said that storytelling was her first language. As she neatly cornrows my hair, she reminds me that hearing the stories is just as important as telling them, because everyone can speak but not many people can listen. My favourite story from my grandmother is her recipe for jollof rice. Unlike traditional stories, recipes can never have a bad ending. Each time, the resolution is a bowl overflowing with a delicious blend of tomatoes, rice, spices and herbs. Her words have travelled from her dinner table in Abeokuta, Nigeria to my dinner table in Vaughan, Ontario and so the recreation of her jollof rice recipe is a sacred act. Scrawled within our pots and pans are the dreams, passions and emotions of my ancestors. When I prepare jollof rice with my grandmother, I can feel the heat of the sun in Lagos and the taste of unconditional love.

Where words fail me, the emotions I cannot express, echo loudly in the simmering of a cooking pot. Cooking not only nourishes my body, but it feeds my soul. Nigerians are a very passionate people, and our emotions, history and culture are felt most strongly through good food. Traditionally, Nigerians will serve jollof rice at parties and other celebrations. No baby shower, barbeque or wedding is complete unless the smell of freshly prepared jollof rice has filled up the room. Affectionately shortened to “jollof”, the rice dish is a traditional West African recipe that originates from the Wolof people of the Senegambia region. As industrialization swept through West Africa, countries across the continent began to trade economic resources but they also traded cultural goods. This led to the introduction of jollof rice to West African countries like Ghana and Nigeria. However, over the course of history, each country has developed their own unique rendition of the dish.

My grandmother’s Nigerian jollof consists of long grain rice, tomatoes, peppers, vegetable oil, onion and traditional seasonings while Ghanaian jollof also includes some sort of meat or mixed vegetables. Despite many years of heated debate concerning which country has the best jollof rice, it is an indisputable fact that Nigeria’s is best; or in the words of Prince Charles: “Naija no dey carry last” ! In 2016, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg travelled to Nigeria and complimented the jollof rice that he tasted, further internationalizing the “jollof wars” and officially crowning Nigeria as the winner.

Jollof rice has moulded and strengthened my identity as a woman, a Nigerian and a granddaughter. Growing up, the herbs and aromatics of thyme, bay leaves and curry were fused into my grandmother’s clothes and so irrespective of how far she is from me, every time I take a bite, I think of her and I smile. The strong red colour of jollof takes me to the red soil of my father’s village in Shaki, Oyo State where he grew up farming bitter kola and yam. The bright flavour reminds me of the beautifully coloured and uniquely designed aso ebi that has been in my family for generations. From ankara to traditional lace and gele, the soft fabrics remind me of the soft texture of the rice. The sound of my grandmother clanging pots and pans together as the stew bubbles on the stove is my favourite form of music, rivalled only by the likes of Davido and Burna Boy. Jollof rice has served as a stepping stone in exploring the nuances of my cultural identity. I am able to discover the intricacies of Yoruba values like hard work, patience and responsibility.

Jollof rice has also given me the opportunity to share my culture and identity with others. Last year, I created an album cover where I showcased some of the most integral elements of my culture including music, storytelling, family and fashion. This year, after reading the book Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto in English class, I created a blog where I published some of my favourite memories of cooking with my grandmother. Although I have not had the opportunity to visit Nigeria in many years, when I eat jollof rice I am taken to my motherland where I see a land overflowing with opportunities, hope and food that I would not trade for the world. With each bite, I feel like I have not only found what it means to be Nigerian, but above all, what it means to be Eyitade.

By Eyitade Kunle-Oladosu