Saturday, August 27, 2016

Nigeria: Jollof Rice

In my last post, I shared the experience of going to Peckham to eat Nigerian food. My last stop before leaving Peckham was Cafe Spice, located at 88 Rye Lane, London SE15 4RZ, where I not only learned about jollof rice, but also bought it. A small container was 5 pounds, while the larger one was 6 pounds. The rice is priced so that there is basically no option but to buy the larger size, which was fine by me.  

I ate the rice shortly after I arrived home.  The first thing that I noticed when I took the lid off was the smell of burned food! But the rice was not burned - it just had a smoky scent.  Apparently this is common with Nigerian jollof rice.  I didn't mind at all. The color was light red as a result of the tomatoes and Scotch bonnet peppers used to season it.  I could taste some kind of smoked seafood -- either fish or shrimp.  And it was very spicy, which I quite liked. 

I was inspired to try my hand at making my own jollof rice, which I did with a recipe taken from  I had made jollof rice once before but it didn't come out well, at all, and I couldn't understand why until I read this recipe. The secret is to parboil the rice first, which the other recipe that I used did not suggest!  Parboiling involves letting the rice come to a boil for a few minutes and then draining it and rinsing it with cold water.  I did this twice.  The point is to remove the starch from the rice in order to allow the seasonings to penetrate.  It made a really big difference and is a step that I will follow before making any rice dish that calls for additional ingredients beyond just water.  

I should also point out this recipe calls for ground crayfish.  I bought a bag when I was in Peckham. You should be able to find it in any store that sells West African food.

Nigerian Jollof Rice

2 cups (approx. 500 grams) long-grain rice, parboiled
5 Tablespoons tomato paste
4 whole tomatoes

1 red bell pepper
2 scotch bonnets peppers (you can remove some of the seeds if you don't want it to be too spicy)
100ml vegetable oil
About 600ml Meat or Chicken stock
A small onion (sliced)
1 tablespoonful ground crayfish(optional)
½ teaspoon each of Thyme and curry

 2 small Bay leaves (optional)
1 teaspoon salt to taste
1 stock cube
Water, as needed

1. Blend the tomatoes and peppers together.  Place the mixture into a saucepan and boil for several minutes until the excess liquid evaporates.

2.  Add the oil to a separate, large pot and heat.  Add the chopped onions and saute until soft. Then add the blended tomato and pepper mixture and cook over low to medium heat for about 10 minutes. Add the tomato paste and cook until the tomato loses its tart taste and the oil rises to the surface.

3. Remove about 1/4 of the tomato mixture and set it aside.

4. Add the meat or chicken stock (I used chicken) to the tomato mixture and bring to a boil. Let it boil for 5-10 minutes.  Add the thyme (use fresh if you can), curry, stock cube and salt to taste. Boil for an additional 5 minutes. 

5. Add the parboiled rice to the pot and mix well. 

The liquid should be the same level as the rice.  If not, then add additional stock or water.

6. Add the bay leaves, cover the pot and let the rice cook over a low flame. Cook for about 12-15 minutes. There should still be some liquid.  Add the ground crayfish and the set aside tomato mixture. 

Do not mix.

7. Cover the pot and simmer until the liquid is absorbed.  Now mix.

Your jollof rice is ready to eat. 

I had already made chorizo with onions, mushrooms and peppers and ate the jollof rice with it.  The rice was wonderful! It was seasoned to perfection and the ground crayfish added a pleasant fish flavor to it.  I could easily see this becoming my go-to rice dish.  


Nigerian Food in Peckham

Last week's exploration of okra inspired me to do a series on West African cooking.  I decided to start with Africa's most populous country: Nigeria.  Culturally it is home to over 180 million people, more than 250 ethnic groups (the largest and politically influential are the Igbo, Yoruba and Hausa), and a varied, rich cuisine.   One of the best-known dishes from Nigeria -- and particularly the Lagos region -- is jollof rice.  It has become identified with West Africa in general, with different countries putting their own twist on it. I decided to start the series with this famous dish.

It was clear to me that I needed to try Nigerian food before attempting to make jollof rice. In preparation for my adventure, I did a Google search: "Nigerian neighborhoods London."  The first entry was a website,, that featured an article entitled "Top Ten Nigerian Neighborhoods in London," with Peckham listed as the first one. In my enthusiasm, I forgot to use the "plan your journey"  feature on the Transport for London website. I could've looked it up on my cell phone but I didn't. That was ok, though; at my train station I spotted a rail employee whom I just knew was of African descent (based on her accent).  I asked her how to get to Peckham and she said, "Take the train to Clapham junction and change for the overground to Peckham Rye." She touched my arm and gently pushed me in the direction of Platform 1. I smiled, not offended by her incursion into my personal space.

My son and I arrived in Peckham, curious about what the neighborhood would be like.  Like Brixton, gentrification was in evidence, though not nearly as advanced. 

I walked down the main street, passing black hair care stores, supermarkets selling the foods of West Africa (lots of okra, Scotch bonnet peppers, ground fish, stockfish, palm oil, etc.) and the Caribbean, and other shops. My eye was first caught by Cafe Spice, a cafeteria-style eatery selling Nigerian food.  I had committed to eating at Lolak, but took the opportunity to ask the owner at Cafe Spice whether I could come back and do an interview with the cook about jollof rice.  With a positive response in hand, Brooks and I went to Lolak, located at 38 Choumert Rd, London SE15 4SE.

Lolak feels less like a restaurant than an extension of someone's home kitchen. There is not much space, the tables are close together, and the lighting isn't great. We ignored all of that!  We weren't there for atmosphere, but to taste home-cooked Nigerian food.  I asked the waiter whether I could do a bit of filming and he referred me to Said, who would return after making prayer at the nearby mosque.  Upon his return, I explained to him what I wanted to do and he was amenable. He told us about various items on the extensive menu. I chose ego riro (stew made with spinach, tomatoes, onion, and some kind of smoked fish), fried fish and rice, while Brooks chose Egusi soup (made with pumpkin seeds, tomatoes, hot peppers, onion, vegetables, peanut oil, and seasonings) with beef.

Brooks commented that he had never eaten fufu when we lived in Liberia, so he opted for this mound of pounded cassava, best eaten with one's fingers.

Between discussions about various dishes, we talked about where we were from.  Said was from northern Nigeria.  When he asked us about our African ancestry, Brooks told him with pride that a family member had traced our heritage to the area now known as Ghana.  My son also let Said know about our Virginia, New York and in his case, Boston heritage. Said was amused.

It didn't take long for the food to arrive. Brooks initially seemed to enjoy eating the fufu. 

After a few bites, Brooks decided that he didn't actually like it and asked for some of my rice.   I had enough to easily feed three people, so sharing wasn't an issue. He was pretty excited about the finger bowls that accompanied the food and made a point of cleaning his hands numerous times.

His Egusi stew was very flavorful and hot from the pepper. After a few minutes of fighting the burning sensation in his mouth, Brooks gave up! He enjoyed the stew, but just couldn't manage the heat. My efo riro was a a tad bit on the salty side but was delicious and very hot, which I quite liked. 

It was a nice complement to the red bream, which was fried to perfection before being smothered in a tomato (and, I suspect, palm oil) sauce that was spiced with chili pepper. My guess is that Scotch bonnet pepper was used, as this seems to be the most common hot pepper sold in the area.  (I'm certain that it is no coincidence that Jamaican and Haitian cuisines feature Scotch bonnet pepper, given the movement of slaves from West Africa to the Caribbean.) 

We thanked Said for his time and tutorial, paid the bill, and then found our way back to Cafe Spice.  As we walked to the main street, I noticed that next to Lolak there was a hipster cafe that looked out of place with the rest of the mom and pop shops selling goods catering to the area's African population.  I told Brooks, "This place will look like Brixton in about five years." He responded with a question: "Where will the Africans go?" (Remember his question a few weeks ago about the fate of the okra?) I had the same question. My social scientist's training would not allow me to not see the signs of gentrification, as well as other inter-ethnic dynamics that seemed to characterize the neighborhood.

We walked back to Cafe Spice

and asked about all the dishes in the warming trays, even though my focus was jollof rice. 

Jennifer explained that Nigerians near the coast add fish to their jollof rice, while those inland add meat or poultry.  Our conversation caught the attention of Elizabeth, a woman who made her contribution to the discussion by informing me that Nigeria is the originator of jollof rice. She said that she was the daughter of a former Nigerian ambassador and was accustomed to putting on programs about Nigeria's various foods and cultures.  

We left Peckham less ignorant about Nigerian cuisine than we were when we boarded the overground. I know that I haven't even scratched the surface.  I will return to Peckham to eat more of this West African nation's rich, highly seasoned food.  I was impressed not just by the food but by the rightful pride that Nigerians take in it.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

"Mommy, what will happen to the okra?"

For the past few weeks, I have been obsessed with the idea of making pickled okra, seasoned with fresh garlic, dill, and hot pepper to give it a kick. In my pursuit of okra, I visited the major supermarkets in my southwest London neighborhood.  I was disappointed that there wasn't any okra when I went to my local Whole Foods, which for some reason I expected to carry it.  A week later I returned and asked the produce manager, who told me that the supermarket used to stock okra.  When I inquired as to why it no longer did, she told me that, "Our customers don't like the taste of okra." This statement was accompanied by a slightly wrinkled nose.  I was surprised.

Her comment was a very good illustration of the ways in which food and culture are mutually constituted. In my mind, any self-respecting supermarket would stock produce as diverse as lemongrass AND okra!  Apparently the Whole Foods in my neighborhood had not gotten that memo.

After two weeks of disappointment, I sat down and really thought about the elusive okra that I was seeking.  I started with a basic question: What are the origins of okra, culturally and geographically?

The slaves who came to the southern United States brought okra with them from their homes in West Africa (okra is well-known throughout Africa, Asia and the Middle East).  Hence, okra is a southern table's staple.  Pickled okra is just one manifestation of that region's cultural embrace of this vegetable.  Other forms include fried okra and of course the famous gumbos of New Orleans.  My mother was from Virginia and I remember eating okra on a regular basis as a child growing up in New York City.  She would saute it with onions, garlic and tomatoes.  Sometimes it would appear in stews.

These anthropological and personal reflections served me well as I sat in my kitchen.  When the answer came to me, it felt obvious and self-evident: find Africans and I would find okra.   Nigeria and Ghana are former British colonies, and these populations are found in significant numbers in the greater London area. So without having any particular market in mind, I set off for Brixton. Historically, the area had been London's Caribbean and African stronghold and still hosts members of these communities, although in recent years gentrification has diluted their presence as hipsters seeking affordable housing slowly displace them.

Brooks, my astute 11-year-old son, had gone with me to Brixton before and we had discussed the neighborhood's demographic changes. When we arrived in Brixton to look for okra Brooks asked me, "Mommy, what will happen to the okra?" For him, Brixton's gentrification meant not just the loss of West Africans and Caribbean people, but also okra, stewed oxtail and patties,which are foods associated with the neighborhood's Caribbean population. His question was tinged with sadness at the prospect of people being displaced, as well as real concern about where we would find produce that is so bound up with particular geographies and culture.  I responded, "If we find black people, then we will find okra."

We got off at Brixton tube station, went left, and then took the first left down Electric Avenue (It's also the name of a song by Guyanese-British recording artist, Eddie Grant.  Check out the song and video here: The song came out after the 1981 Brixton riot).

I found okra at the very first market. There it was, outside next to Scotch bonnet chilies!

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I bought about 3 pounds of it. The first thing that I did when I went home was to prep the okra for the pickling process.  This  meant washing and trimming it.

Then I made the pickling liquid, which is a combination of white vinegar and water, boiled together. The fresh dill, garlic, hot pepper and okra are put in sterilized jars and the pickling liquid is poured over them. Then the jars are processed in a water bath for 10 minutes, which serves to make an airtight seal and kill any bacteria.

The end product was quite pretty!

You can eat pickled okra as part of a relish tray, with barbecue, on a grilled cheese sandwich, or in tuna or chicken salad.  Some use it in place of olives in martinis, or celery in a Bloody Mary.  You could also just eat them out of the jar!

My okra adventure  made me think more deeply about West Africa's culinary palette, and has inspired to me explore its foods more deeply.  It has been nearly a year since I visited Liberia, where I lived for nearly two years.  I find myself pining for Liberian pepper sauce, fish gravy and jollof rice, which is found all over West Africa.

Stay tuned for a series on West African food!

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Curried Chicken Thighs

I looked in my refrigerator, trying to figure out what to make for dinner.  I had already defrosted chicken thighs.  I pulled out potatoes,


onion and cilantro -- perfect for making a nice curry. 

Not all curries are the same, of course. And the taste depends on the combination of spices used in the curry powder. Over the years, I have learned to make my own curry powder by dry-roasting the spices, grinding them in a coffee grinder and then combining them.  Typically, dry curry powders (as opposed to the wet ones common throughout Southeast Asia) feature turmeric, chili powder, coriander seeds, cumin seeds, cardamon seeds, some kind of pepper, fennel seeds, and other spices.  I tend to like hot curries, but you can make mild curry powders with ease.

I took a few minutes to look online for recipes and came across one on the Food Network site that received very positive reviews:

Since I had some leftover coconut milk, I used that instead of heavy cream.  You could probably just as easily use plain whole-milk yogurt, which I find adds a nice tang.  I also increased the amount of cumin, decreased the amount of cinnamon, and added a bit of chili powder and ginger. I didn't have fresh peas and was offended by the thought of using frozen peas, so I just omitted them.  You could add spinach for green color and added nutrition.



  • 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 1 tablespoon butter
  • 6 chicken thighs
  • Salt and pepper
  • 1 cup chopped onion
  • 3 teaspoons curry
  • 1/2 teaspoon cayenne
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1 teaspoon cumin
  • 2 carrots, peeled and sliced on diagonal
  • 1 1/2 cups low sodium chicken stock
  • 1 cup broccoli florets
  • 1/4 cup heavy cream
  • 3/4 cup frozen peas


Heat oil in large skillet and stir in butter to melt. Season chicken thighs with salt and pepper. Cook thighs skin side down until golden brown. Flip chicken and continue to cook until golden brown. 

Remove chicken to a plate. 

Stir in onions and cook until tender. Stir in curry, cayenne, cinnamon and cumin and cook until aromas are released. 

Stir in carrots and toss to coat. 

Add chicken stock and bring to a simmer. 

 Place chicken thighs back into skillet and stir in broccoli. Cover and simmer for 15 minutes to cook chicken. Stir in cream and peas. Season to taste. Serve with basmati rice 

Monday, May 7, 2012

Molasses Crinkle Cookies

There is something to be said for no-frills simplicity.  You can tell from many of the recipes that I post that  there are often many details that are time-consuming.  The end result is well worth the effort, but the process of getting there can be arduous.

Every now and again, I like to whip up simple confections that do not require lots of time, thinking, or ingredients.  Guess where you can find such recipes?  On the back label of the ingredient!

For a while now, I have been craving something sweet made with molasses, but I did not want to make gingerbread.  I wanted something with crunch to it.  I looked in the cupboard and pulled out the bottle of Grandma's Molasses.

The back label had a very easy recipe for molasses crinkles, which took about 10 minutes to make.

I had run out of vegetable shortening and had to use butter.  Whatever.  I mixed the softened butter with the brown sugar, egg and molasses.

As you can tell, I was feeling very lazy.  I didn't bother to sift the dry ingredients (flour, baking soda, salt, cloves, cinnamon and ginger) together first.

The batter needs to chill in the refrigerator.  I left it in there for about 45 minutes or so.

After rolling the batter into walnut-size balls, i dipped them in sugar and sprinkled water over each one.

I baked them a little longer than the recommended 10 minutes, as I wanted them to be very crisp.

They're simple, tasty, and go well with tea.


Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Eating in Monrovia, Liberia

My work is leading me more frequently to West Africa.  I posted about Accra late last fall, and this time, I'll be reflecting on Liberia.  The country is small in size, but has a rich and diverse cuisine that reflects the influence of various groups that interacted with the local population.  Arabs brought cinnamon, mint and other spices, while the Americo-Liberians made their contributions, as well, bringing pound cake to the country's dessert table.  This evolved into a cake that is spiced with ginger and cinnamon, a nice variation on the theme!

Still, there are some things that Liberia has in common with other West African countries.  Ingredients such as tomatoes, palm oil, sweet potatoes, cassava leaves and a wide variety of seafood (including dried fish) are common in many recipes, often accompanied by massive portions of perfectly cooked rice.  Liberians eat mashed cassava (fufu), but they are very serious about their rice!

My time in Monrovia -- which is Liberia's capital -- was pretty short.  I was fortunate to be accompanied by Liberians who knew the best places to eat.  I made sure to stress that I wanted to eat in locally owned restaurants that served Liberian cuisine.  The hotel where I stayed caters to the international, Western crowd.  I went the night that I arrived, expecting to find Liberian dishes on the menu, only to discover that 90% of the offerings were continental.  I asked if my choices could be Liberianized in some way.  That didn't work so well.

So I understood that I had to venture out to find local food.  When I asked people for recommendations on where to eat, invariably I was told to go to Evelyn's on Broad Street.

It's a pretty simple place -- definitely not fancy.  But bear in mind that Liberia is still recovering from two brutal civil wars.  Because a place is simple doesn't mean that its food isn't delicious!  People directed me to Evelyn's, which is a favorite with both Liberians and ex-pats.

It's good, solid Liberian food in a down-home, comfy environment!

The menu

is chock full of local favorites, which are usually spicy stews made with some kind of meat or fish cooked in a thick mixture of cassava leaves, palm oil, stock, and aromatic spices.

The menu is organized around daily specials.  I went on Monday and ordered the cassava leaf.  I was between meetings and my lunch companion made sure that the wait would not be long!  About ten minutes after placing the order, the stew arrived.  I wanted something that was all seafood, but that would have taken more time.  So I contented myself with the beef-fish concoction that was way too big for one person to eat!

A large plate of perfectly cooked rice accompanied the stew

as did the ubiquitous, homemade pepper sauce, a variation of which is found throughout West Africa.

I love pepper sauce and devoured the entire plate.  It is not for the faint of heart -- or for those who forget their Tums.  Not kidding.

The stew was flavorful, heavy and filling.  I left nearly half of mine.  I wanted to leave room for dessert!  My eye was captured by Liberian rice cake, which looks like a variation on an American carrot cake. But the texture is thicker, grainier, less sweet.  And it's made with either bananas or sweet plantains.  The waitress brought me a warm piece that was just crispy on the outside and softer on the inside.  I smelled nutmeg and ginger as the spices.

I stupidly volunteered to share my dessert with my lunch companion.  I could have eaten the entire piece myself!

A slightly more upscale place was located in The Rose Garden Plaza, a spanking new building that housed a travel agency.

Restaurant at der Platz is definitely more upscale than Evelyn's, and it had a much more extensive menu.

 Unfortunately, the time we had for lunch was even more compressed!  So instead of choosing based on what I really wanted to eat, I was guided by what was already ready!!

I chose fried fish (grouper), which came accompanied by a mountain of rice, onion sauce and . 
sweet plantains.  This one, however, was accompanied by palm oil-- which is very, very rich, aromatic and flavorful--and bean gravy.

I got a little carried away with the palm oil, forgetting about its richness.  In Liberia, it's poured over the rice, which is then topped with the bean gravy.

One thing that struck me about Liberia's restaurants was how expensive they were!  I saw little difference between the prices in Monrovia as compared to the United States!  And consider that fact that the country is very poor.  One wonders how average Liberians afford to eat out!

Most probably don't.  They go to local markets like this one, located along the main road that goes to Sierra Leone:

This open-air market, like others in West Africa, sell spices, meat, fish, and produce.  I wish that I had had more time to explore this one, but alas, I was on the way to the airport and had time for only a quick drive by.

I look forward to returning to Liberia.  I hope to actually get into a kitchen and cook local food!!!