Christmas in Nigeria: The Story of Jollof Rice

In Nigeria, Christmas is a time to put on fine new clothes and travel to spend time with family. Most Nigerians start their joyous celebrations on Christmas Eve and they last well into Christmas morning, when Christians attend church and then return home to celebrate more.

Remitly employee Amy L. recalls playing games like Ludo and AYO/NCHO during Christmas Eve growing up in Nigeria. “Christmas was more about us gathering as a family. Gift exchange wasn’t a huge part of our Christmas,” she says. “As kids, we looked forward to wearing new outfits and shoes for Christmas service.”

Along with new clothes, enjoying a feast with friends and family is an important part of holiday traditions in Nigeria as well. Amy remembers listening to the Nigerian Christmas song Mary’s Baby Boy Child by Boney M. as her family gathered and cooked up the Christmas feast.

One dish in particular stands out as a true Nigerian Christmas classic: jollof rice. Here, we look closer at this delicious dish and examine a few special Jollof recipes by Nigerian cooks that you can try this Chrismas—no matter where you are during the holidays.

What is jollof?

Enjoyed in Nigeria and other countries like Senegal, Gambia, and Ghana, jollof is a one-pot dish with many variations. Most feature long-grain rice cooked with tomatoes, vegetables, meat, onions, and spices.

Preparing jollof the traditional way involves cooking over an open flame, but many recipes allow you to cook it on a stovetop too. How you serve jollof also matters. After you’ve spooned out the top, don’t discard the “socarrat” or “bottom pot,” the seemingly burned rice at the bottom of the pot—it’s often the most flavorful part of the batch.

Nigerians

Is jollof rice Nigerian or Ghanaian?

Jollof is a rice dish that originated in Western Africa. Its exact birthplace is a controversial topic, though.

Historians have traced the dish back to the Wolof, or Jolof, Empire, which ruled the Senegambia region of West Africa from the 14th to the 16th century. The dish grew popular across the region and is believed to have influenced the Cajun dishes of jambalaya and gumbo as well.

Since a number of modern-day African countries were a part of this region, there’s a lot of debate about which country is the true birthplace of the dish. In 2014, the #JollofWars broke out on Twitter between Ghanaians and Nigerians as Africans argued over the true inventors of jollof.

While we may never be able to say for certain whether jollof is Nigerian or Ghanaian, it is clear that this dish is integral to the culture of both countries—and to people of Nigerian and Ghanaian ethnicity living in other parts of the world.

In the US, there’s a Jollof Festival where chefs participate in culinary battles to see who can create the tastiest version. Attendees get to try it all and then vote on the winner. FreemeTV also put out an EP of holiday music called “A Jollof Christmas,” and you can find it on Spotify to play while you prepare jollof for your own Christmas meal.

What does jollof taste like?

Jollof typically has a smoky taste with slight acidic, sweet notes due to the tomatoes. Many people add chili powder, habanero peppers, or scotch bonnet peppers to bring some heat to the dish.

What is the secret ingredient in jollof rice?

The secret ingredient that gives jollof rice its bright red color is the tomatoes. Recipes that call for tomato paste tend to be the brightest.

You can purchase a high-quality, store-bought paste or make your own to get the color of jollof just right.

What are the best spices for jollof rice?

The best spices for jollof rice are the ones that please your palate. Some of the spices used in jollof include:

  • Allspice
  • Bay leaf
  • Cayenne or black pepper
  • Chili powder
  • Coriander
  • Cumin
  • Curry powder
  • Garlic
  • Ginger
  • Nutmeg
  • Onion or onion powder
  • Thyme
  • Turmeric

Jollof rice recipes for a Nigerian Christmas dinner

There is no single way to make jollof rice. From home cooks to executive chefs, everyone who whips up a batch of the traditional dish takes their own approach when it comes to ingredients, spices, and methods. A perfect plate of jollof is one that your family loves to eat—a meal special enough for the holiday season.

To set you off on your own jollof journey, we’re serving up four unique recipes—try one as written, or draw inspiration from each one to create your own recipe.

Awaken your taste buds with Chef Tunde Wey’s spicy jollof

For Chef Tunde Wey, mastering jollof is all about seeking a balance between smoky and spicy and getting every grain of rice to just the right consistency. “It is a fun dish to make, but it requires some practice to get it exactly right,” ” he explains on his blog. “The perfect plate of jollof rice must be slightly smoky, deeply flavored, al dente, and bright red. It’s a challenge but definitely worth it!”

Get Tunde Wey’s Jollof Rice recipe on AramcoWorld

Wey was born in Nigeria and then moved to the US when he turned 16. As a chef, he’s especially interested in the connections between food and culture. He’s gained fame for his traveling dinner series, which allows diners to literally get a taste of history and cultural experiences.

Called “From Lagos,” his first tour highlighted traditional Nigerian cuisine while exploring the political and socioeconomic challenges facing his birthplace. His second tour, “Blackness in America,” is meant to spark conversations about what it is like to be Black in the US, and how the Black experience is reflected in food.

With his recipe for jollof, Wey brings plenty of traditional flavor from spices like turmeric, ground coriander, cumin, allspice, African dried chili, ginger, thyme, and bay leaves. Although his technique is complex, he provides some troubleshooting tips for cooks who end up with rice that is too wet or too dry, making the recipe accessible to beginners.

Market in Nigeria

Enjoy jollof in less than an hour with Chef Immaculate Ruému’s quick jollof

Chef Immaculate Ruému proves a traditional jollof doesn’t have to mean hours spent in the kitchen. Her recipe is a great choice for those who are  pressed for time during the holiday season. This recipe is one of many that Ruému has developed during her career. She is constantly coming up with new twists and even has an extra-quick version of the dish made with jarred pasta sauce.

While explaining her love of experimentation, she says, “As a Nigerian, I can say that aside from the taste and flavor, a beautiful thing about the Nigerian jollof rice dish is how it varies.”

Get Chef Immaculate Ruému’s Classic Nigerian Jollof Rice on her blog

Experimental recipes are a cornerstone of Ruému’s work, and it seems that her life story is what inspires her. She was born in Nigeria and then completed her Michelin training in London. Today, she works in Milan as a private chef, creating fusion meals that incorporate elements of Nigerian, Italian, and more cuisines.

From start to finish, Ruému’s jollof takes only 45 minutes to complete. A food processor handles the ingredient prep and blending in one simple step, and her instructions make cooking the rice to the right consistency virtually foolproof.

Turn any meal into a celebration with Eleanor Ajoku Henry’s festive jollof

Blogger Eleanor Ajoku Henry doesn’t wait until the holidays to prepare her jollof. For her, the traditional dish is a way to bring a joyful, celebratory mood into a meal. Over the years, she has perfected her method of packing the smokey flavor she’s accustomed to into the dish.

She says, “Most people feel the unique taste comes from preparation using firewood, but that isn’t always necessarily the case. For me, it’s impossible to make rice with firewood, since my apartment complex doesn’t necessarily allow one to grill, let alone smoke anything. But [my] recipe comes close to the wonderful taste of party jollof without any firewood.”

Get Eleanor Ajoku Henry’s Jollof Rice Recipe on her blog

Ajoku was born in Igbo, Nigeria, and moved to the US when she was a teenager. She holds a degree in chemical engineering from the University of Toledo. While she was in college, she began recording podcasts and blogging as a way of self-discovery. Her honest, insightful posts and episodes struck a chord with many people her age, turning her reflective project into a career. On her blog, she covers everything from food to professional development to wellness.

For her recipe, Ajoku includes traditional spices plus Knorr or Maggi bouillon cubes for extra flavor. She warns that her dish brings the heat and advises readers to adjust the ingredients as needed. Her take on jollof also includes optional crayfish for those who want to make their meal even heartier.

Nigerian food

Make it a meatless holiday with Afia Amoako’s vegan jollof

Traditionally, jollof isn’t vegan, but Afia Amoako has changed that with her version of the traditional dish. She created her recipe to continue to enjoy one of her favorite foods without sacrificing her commitment to an animal-free diet.

Her love for the dish is apparent, as she says, “Jollof Rice has a special place in my heart! If someone asked me what meals I will live on for the rest of my life, I will say Oatmeal and Jollof Rice. I think it is the perfect way to prepare rice; it is absolutely fragrant, rich in color with different texture.”

Get Afia Amoako’s Vegan Jollof Rice Recipe on her blog, The Canadian African

Afia Amoako was born in Ghana but has since moved to Canada, where she is a full-time doctoral student in epidemiology. She began food blogging after going vegan. When she first made the change, she found that one of the most difficult parts of giving up meat, seafood, dairy, and eggs was going without the foods that reminded her of home. This led her to come up with vegan versions of traditional West African dishes and to share the delicious results.

Amoako’s recipe uses veggie bouillon. She also includes a few unique spices like rosemary and the Indian spice garam masala. In addition to the recipe, she provides tips on how to modify the dish by changing up ingredients and how to choose the right pot to prepare the meal.

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