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!