In 2014, the British celebrity chef Jamie Oliver published his recipe of experimental jollof rice on his website which the site said was just a “Jamie’s twist” of the dish. This twist resulted in outrage among Africans in the continent and diaspora with thousands of comments on social media and Twitter hashtags such as #jollofgate.
The outrage was that Oliver included ingredients that are traditionally not associated with the dish. Jollof rice is an essential part of the culture in west Africa and one of the biggest cultural exports from the continents which the people are very proud of.
No topic has been as fun a source of west African drama as the jostling over which country makes the best jollof. The #jollofwars have turned Nigerians and Ghanaians from friends to foes, but also united them in their vexation at British celebrity chef Jamie Oliver’s twist of the famous rice and meat dish. Senegal’s listing this past week of thiéboudiène under Unesco heritage protection, might finally put the contentious debate to rest.
Though the biggest rivalry has been between Nigeria and Ghana with both sides debating the topic on social media, as well on radio and television, Jollof rice has its origin in Senegal among the Djolof (in Arabic) or Wolof people. In Senegal and Gambia, it is also called Benachin which is the Wolof word for “one-pot” after the traditional practice of cooking all its ingredients in one pot.
On Dec. 15, 2021, the Senegalese version of this one-pot dish called ceebu jën (Wolof) or thiéboudiène (French) was included in the list of Unesco’s Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. With this listing, the dish will have better protection and be more known abroad.
“At one point, we saw that we were starting to devalue this dish because currently, ingredients are added, chemicals that do not stick with the real thiéboudiène that we have here in Saint-Louis,” said Amadou Diop, president of the Friends of Heritage Guides association in Saint-Louis, the Senegalese fishing town where the dish originated from. “This is why we fought so that it is classified, that we can promote and preserve this dish which is close to our heart, or that at the international level, it is known.”
Ceebu jën is the national dish of Senegal, which according to local traditional stories is a creation of a 19th-century cook in Saint-Louis called Penda Mbaye. Mbaye was once a cook at the governor’s residence during the French colonial rule in the country and her Ceebu jën dish is credited as the precursor of the various versions of Jollof rice.
Ceebu jën, which means “rice and fish” is made exclusively with fish and vegetables, but Jollof rice generally includes fish, meat, or chicken. The way this dish is made in west Africa varies from country to country and the dish has been a subject of a never-ending debate about whose own is the best.
The Senegalese Ministry of Culture submitted a request for the listing of the dish into Unesco’s Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in October 2020. The listing was defended (link in French) by the Permanent Delegate Ambassador of Senegal to Unesco, Souleymane Jules Diop. Ceebu jën joined other African food in the list, such as Couscous, a staple food in the Maghrebi made from wheat, and Nsimaa, a Malawian staple food made with maize.
While the debate on whose version of jollof rice is best, might never end, for now Senegalese can sleep easy knowing that their beloved thiéboudiène is theirs to share with whoever they invite to the table.
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