KC 145 - Jollof Rice

Why Hello there, and uuuuuuuugggggggggggggghhhhhhhhhhhhhhh. I’m your host, Jon O’Guin, and let me warn you: today’s post is RIFE with bad decisions. As I’ve mentioned multiple times, I’m in Oregon, working on a show. Last week, we powered through tech week, and, against many complications and failures, had a great opening weekend. Which, in the theatrical world, meant it was time to party. As such, this post SHOULD have been written by Sober Jon last week, but he, overworked, passed the ball to Drunk Jon this weekend, who promptly passed out on top of it deflating the ball, and my enthusiasm, like Tom Brady on a Thursday night. Leaving you all in the bumbling, slightly shaky hands of Hungover Jon. And if I’m going to suffer through this because of those dicks, so are you. So let’s start this post about a surprisingly simple rice dish with a discussion about Cultural Appropriation, and why this post has a surprisingly high chance of getting me dragged on Twitter. (Which will HOPEFULLY be more fun than it sounds, but that depends on when this aspirin kicks in.)

 

I Don’t Know if This is An Appropriate Starting Topic

Shut up, Title Jon. Alright, quick overview, in case you’ve never heard the term, or have heard it, but have never had it explained, so you’re working from an implicit definition instead of an explicit one.

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If you’re in desperate need for explicit definitions, however, I have a great resource for you.

Cultural Appropriation is the academic term for when a culture, upon or after meeting and interacting with another culture, uses or adopts elements of that culture. It is, theoretically, a neutral term, but you’ll most commonly hear it today in charged settings, typically as an insult. This is because, well, remember, there was a long while back in the day where the…let’s call them “paler” cultures didn’t particularly CARE if the other cultures we met wanted our ways and traditions, we were going to GIVE THEM to THEM if we had to BEAT IT into them.  (If you REALLY want to be depressed today, go read Captain Richard H Pratt’s speech “Kill the Indian[,] save the man.” Where he advocates for the utter elimination of Native American cultures as the MODERATE stance on “what should we do about all these Indians who keep getting mad when we break treaties with them?” along with a fun bit about slavery that really hasn’t aged well, that comes OH SO CLOSE to being okay toward the end…and then fumbles the ball, to continue my shaky football metaphor of two paragraphs ago.)

For a more fun and academically grounded discussion of all this, watch Lindsay Ellis’s “Pocahontas was a Mistake” video, which talks about these issues in regards to both Pocahontas and Moana. For a faster, even MORE fun, but purely non-academic experience of this, watch this music video, cited in the Ellis piece, which is a Bollywood dance number, filmed in Toronto, set in New York, and tell me that it doesn’t feel ‘weird’ seeing the Indian impression of America: flags everywhere, ethnically diverse break-dancers, open-top muscle car convertibles, and... is that a kid with polio? India, we don’t do that anymore. Also, the song ITSELF is “kind of” American since it’s an adaptation of Roy Orbison’s “Pretty Woman” from 1964 that added what I’m going to generously call a ‘rap’ verse in English midway through.

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I say with the confidence of a man who will almost certainly never be called on to rap in Hindi in his lifetime.

Now, having said that, do you think you would have ever put those two together, musically speaking, except for like, 6 seconds in the chorus? That’s is a part of why cultural appropriation can be upsetting to minority cultures: how ‘wrong’ the other culture gets what they’re trying to copy. AND THAT is where this recipe and why I’m probably going to get dragged on Twitter come in. So let’s wade out of Bollywood America, and hit up British West Africa.

 

Have a Holly Joll-of Christmas

Jollof rice is a West African dish, and that is as precise as I am allowed to be. See, there are three prominent West African countries (Ghana, Nigeria, and Senegal), that all claim either to be the originators of the dish, as well as the ones who make it BEST. Further, they all disagree on what, precisely is ‘appropriate’ to put in the dish. Choosing any side in the conflict is tantamount to the dreaded Team Jacob/Edward wars of 2009. GOVERNMENTS have had to apologize for missteps in this arena.

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Think about that. If the Vice President came out to defend American Fried Chicken after the Secretary of State mentioned he liked Kara-age the most. That’s the level of investment we’re talking here.

As such, it should come as little surprise that, into a fraught series of international conflicts in West Africa that England came bumbling into the mix to make things even more complicated. Of the three nations involved in the ever-mounting Rice Wars of West Africa (a name that some journalist was probably really proud of themselves for coming up with), two of them, Ghana and Nigeria, are former British colonies. So England has had a Ghanaian and Nigerian populations for decades, having come from Africa either willingly or not over the years, and those households have been cooking jollof rice, making it a very small, kind of secret British dish.

And England’s had problems with this before. Chicken Tikka Masala, a popular Indian dish in England and the US, is believed by most historians to have been invented by Bangladeshi or Indian immigrants to England or Scotland, and then SPREAD to India. A little like how Egg Fu Yung is an American Dish, as I covered just over 2 years ago. Complicating things further is the fact that there are 3-4 distinct nations in the United Kingdom, and THEY can argue over who invented what, and you’ll find very quickly that England tends to bully the others out of the way to get what they want.

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I tried to make a spice-mix England, and instead accidentally made a Jersey number.

This became relevant to our current conversation in 2014, when famed British chef Jamie Oliver put out his version of a Jollof Rice, which had a couple ingredients that Ghana, Nigeria, and Senegal could all come together and say “No” to. This was called, due to American cultural dominance in the land of political scandal and media messaging, “#jollofgate”. Twitter posters were outraged at the addition of lemon and cilantro (or “coriander”, as they call it) to their treasured family dishes. And then were further outraged when their allies tried to ‘correct’ the recipe in the wrong way.

This ended up generating a lot of interest in the dish in the UK, as it was the first time many Brits had heard about the dish, and various restaurants, whether Nigerian, Ghanaian, or Senegalese, introduced their versions to meet demand. None of which is how I learned about the dish, so let’s jump to my personal journey, and make some actual food, yeah?

 

Edible Digital Distinction

 One weird quirk of my brother Nathan and I is that we’re something of Anglophiles, in that we consume a lot of English media: I watch a lot of the BBC, one of Nate’s favorite Youtube Channels is British, and I watch multiple Irish Youtubers (which, while it FEELS connected, actually isn’t, as Ireland is, rather firmly, NOT part of the United Kingdom/Great Britain). Due to this, I was recently motivated to make Jollof Rice. The reasoning is…interesting. Here’s how it went: Back in…August, I want to say, my mother, brother and I were watching season 2 of Somebody Feed Phil, and Jollof Rice was featured. It was a dish I hadn’t really heard of, but Nate mentioned he’d heard about it several times, as two of the contributors to that channel he watches are of Nigerian descent. This combined with the fact that Nate’s diet prohibited him from eating many starches, particularly rice. So I thought “what a cool thing it would be, to make him some Jollof Rice on his cheat day, so he can relate a little more with the YouTubers he likes!” There was probably an element of guilt to the decision as well, as at that juncture, my birthday present to him was roughly 5 months late, due to me not buying it yet.

So I looked up Jollof Rice, and discovered that it’s…actually pretty easy to make. It’s basically the same kind of idea behind Spanish or Mexican rice here in America: You make a red sauce out of tomatoes, peppers, and onions, and then you boil rice in it so the rice comes out flavorful and colorful. Add some veggies, and you’re good. The only real distinguishing point is the creation of the tomato-pepper sauce, and the style of pepper used. Jollof Rice is supposed to be SPICY. For a mixture of about 6 cups of rice, you use half of a habanero pepper to punch up the flavors involved.

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It is a strange fate that we should suffer so much fear and doubt over so little a thing.

The other thing that was weird for me was the slightly irritating preparation step of the puree. When I said “you make a sauce out of tomatoes, peppers, and onions”, I was speaking pretty literally: you just throw those ingredients in a blender, and puree them. THEN, you pour out half of the puree, add in some bell peppers, and blend THAT mixture…before stirring it back in with the other half. I honestly do not know why you need to separate out half the mixture. Normally, such a step would be to maintain texture, or to avoid combining ingredients with bad reactions before they’re ready, but the recipe calls for both batches to just be pureed, and it’s not like there’s a heat differential to accommodate. I straight up don’t know why you have to do this.

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There’s very little pure about Purees,

Even broader, I don’t know IF you have to do this, as most pictures I’ve seen of Jollof Rice show a pot with a mix of veggies studding the rice, which this recipe does NOT produce. It kind of seems like we’re pureeing just because the cook on this recipe wanted a smoother end product, more like ‘Spanish Rice’. I also have no idea WHICH of the Jollof Rices I’m imitating here, so it’s likely some unholy abomination of all three, which is why I expect to hear from my Nigerian readers very strongly.

The next step should be pretty obvious to anyone who’s done a lot of Indian cooking: now that we have a liquid base, we add the spices, and cook the paste to enrich the flavors, like with most curries.

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You can see how even a bit of cooking changes pale puree into a robust sea of red tones.

The exact spices involved are variable, of course, and are particularly volatile in my recipe: see, the original recipe I was using to make the dish came from the New York Times, which, as it turns out, has a pay-wall on its site. So I was mid-way through making the spice mixture when my phone locked itself due to me having my hands full for too long, and when I got back to the page, it refused to tell me anymore. As such, I had to cobble together a mixture based off of what I had, what I remembered, and what ANOTHER recipe suggested, because as  ever, this couldn’t be a Kitchen Catastrophe without me having to fumble blindly for SOMETHING to make it all work at the last minute.

The blend I went with was mixture of salt, curry powder, cayenne, onion powder and garlic powder, dried thyme, ground ginger,  a couple bay leaves, and the piece de resistance: a Chicken Bouillon cube.

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An emotionally stirring vision,

I don’t know why, but recipes that call for things like Bouillon cubes always FEEL more legitimate to me, because it feels like something a grandmother or aunt does when they haven’t got the time, space, or money to buy whole quarts of chicken broth, or make it from bones. Nah, just toss that cube in with some water, and you’ve got what matters.

Speaking of what matters…I, uh…don’t have something that matters a lot to me here. See, while I was measuring the rice for the recipe…my phone died. And at the time, my phone charger was purely USB-based, as the Edison-plug converter had gone missing (I wouldn’t find it for another month and a half) meaning my phone could only be charged at a computer, which my family doesn’t keep in the kitchen. So I don’t have any pictures of the recipe after I toss in the bouillon cube. I can TELL YOU how it went, however.

As noted, you just simmer this sauce a bit until it darkens a little, and then add rice. Cover and simmer, and walk away for 30-40 minutes. And while, YES, you’d think that would give you enough time to charge your phone, this is actually when I DISCOVERED my phone was dead, and had a bigger panic of “shit, what are the last steps supposed to be again?” So I had to log in on a family computer upstairs, find the right recipe, etc. By the time I had it all sorted, given how slow my phone was charging, I didn’t think I’d get enough power to boot up and take a pic in time before it died again. Look, if either of the Past Jons had been enough of a forethinker, we’d have cooked something last week, and we’d have never had to talk about this shameful chapter in my personal history. I just want a Sprite, and a quiet dark room to lie in for the next 4 hours.

Once the rice is cooked, and the water mostly gone, you’re supposed to intentionally crank up the heat, and let the rice burn ever so slightly on the bottom, just 3-5 minutes, to get some smoky flavors in the mix.

I served it with some sour cream because I knew it would be spicy, and because I was busy freaking out over the recipe to use the 30 minutes to make, you know, an actual entrée. The general review was that the rice was good, but the lack of different textures and, you know, entrée made the ‘meal’ fairly disappointing for my family. So…A for Effort, F for Execution. WAIT, NO. Umm. “Looks Like I went for a two-point conversion and failed”? Damn it. I wanted to bring the football metaphor back, but I don’t know Sports very well. Throwing together a decent effort and failing in the final stretch? Sure sounds like I Coug’ed it.

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THURSDAY: OH, SO SOBER JON GETS TO FOIST ANOTHER THING ON ME TO DO? OH NO. I AIN’T MAKING THAT CALL. WAIT, SHIT. THAT’S THANKSGIVING, ISN’T IT? UMMM. ANOTHER CARTOON REVIEW. YEAH. THAT SOUNDS LIKE FUN.

MONDAY: I AM LITERALLY OUT OF THINGS I’VE PREPARED, SO I GOTTA COOK SOMETHING PRETTY QUICK. LUCKILY, NOW THAT WE’VE OPENED THE SHOW, I’VE GOT SOME TIME TO KILL. LET’S TRY AND SWEETEN UP OUR DISPOSITION WITH A FALL DESSERT.

 

Recipe

Jollof Rice

Serves 5-6

 

Ingredients

2 medium tomatoes, roughly chopped

½ medium Scotch bonnet/habanero pepper, stemmed

½ medium onion, roughly chopped

2-3 red bell peppers, roughly chopped (aim for around 10-12 oz of chopped pepper.)

½ cup vegetable oil

1 ½ tsps salt

1 tsp curry powder

1 ½ tsps cayenne chili powder

1 ½ tsps garlic powder

1 tbsp + 1 heaping tsp onion powder

2 bay leaves

½ tsp ground ginger

1 tbsp dried thyme

1 tsp paprika

 1 chicken bouillon cube

2 ½ cups medium-grain rice

 

Preparation

1.       For a smooth sauce: combine tomatoes, habanero, and onion in a blender. Puree, then pour out half of the mixture into a bowl. Add the red peppers to the blender, and puree again until smooth. Stir with reserved mixture.
For a chunky Sauce: Dice habanero very finely.

2.       Heat oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add tomato-pepper mixture (or, if chunky sauce is desired, add chopped tomatoes, diced habanero, peppers, and onion) as well as all spices, herbs, and bouillon cube. Bring mixture to a boil, stirring to incorporate.

3.       Add rice, stirring to combine, reduce heat to low, and simmer 30-40 minutes.

4.       Once rice is fully cooked, remove lid from skillet, and either serve hot, or, for added flavor, increase the heat to medium/medium-high, and let sit for 3-5 minutes, to create some smoky char on the bottom layer of rice, before removing from heat, stirring, and serving hot.