"Jollof rice is the heart of Africa," said Patience Ogunbanjo, a Nigerian chef at Lasgidi Cafe in Phoenix.
The dish is served throughout West Africa, from Senegal to Nigeria. Every country has its own version that has been influenced by colonization, and each country proclaims theirs is the best.
Jollof rice recipes can be traced back to 19th century Senegal. The red rice is said to have been created when Penda Mbaye, a Senegalese cook who worked in the home of a French colonial governor, ran out of barley. She made the dish by combining fish, rice and mashed cherry tomatoes.
The dish, then called Thiéboudienne, made its way through West Africa as people created similar versions. In Senegal and Gambia, it's still called Thiéboudienne, but in Liberia, Nigeria and Ghana, it's now known as Jollof and is an essential part of West African celebrations.
"For many, there isn’t a time when Jollof is not present – from celebrations to dinners. It’s always there," said Nigerian food writer Ozoz Sokoh.
When two Instagrammers noticed the proliferation of western food holidays and lack of attention to African food traditions, @westafrikanman and @asoebiafrica created World Jollof Day by posting about it on social media, according to Sokoh. Now, each year on Aug. 22, people celebrate the dish by either eating it or making it.
There are several great places to try Jollof rice right here in metro Phoenix. Expect to find slightly different versions of the spiced rice dish at each restaurant. Here's your guide to regional Jollof rice dishes in the Valley.
Where to find Nigerian Jollof rice in metro Phoenix
One significant difference between Ghanaian and Nigerian Jollof rice is the type of rice used. Nigerians use long grain parboiled rice, such as Uncle Ben's, which has less starch. Another essential ingredient is the use of bay leaves.
Naija Soul Kitchen
As far back as Hakeem Aedmolu can remember, Jollof rice has been a part of his life. He watched his mother, Feyi, make it at home and in her restaurant in Nigeria.
After living in the Valley since 2006, he started Naija Soul Kitchen, a food pop-up right before the pandemic in 2019. Aedmolu, his wife and his mother prepare pan-sized meals in a shared kitchen space in Cotton County James in south Phoenix. Aedmolu said that all the products that they use to make their meals are imported from Nigeria.
Naija Soul Kitchen pop-ups are usually held on Saturdays. Aedmolu posts a curated menu on social media before the event and gives customers a chance to preorder.
He hopes to grow the business into a food truck or secure a small commercial kitchen that allows them to cook daily. Customers can order his Jollof rice ($60) served with plantains and either smoked turkey or beef.
Details: Naija Soul Kitchen. 3801 S. Central Ave., Phoenix. 602-577-2285, naijasoulkitchen.com.
Nkechi Lawal‘s grandmother taught her how to make Jollof rice when she was 8 years old in Nigeria.
“We start out early in my country. You have little babies in the kitchen because we believe that when you give birth to a female, you give birth to a mother and you give birth to the nurturer of the world,” she said. “So your mothers usually take you under her wing, and they bring you into the kitchen.”
She started Nkechi’s Pot in 2021 as a way to share the “labor of love, culture and tradition” her grandmother instilled in her.
Right now, she operates out of her kitchen, but she plans to open a brick-and-mortar before the end of the year. Catering is the bulk of her business, she said, but customers can order to-go meals through her website for pick up or delivery through DoorDash.
From Tuesday to Saturday, people can try her Jollof rice ($18) which is served with fried plantains and either fried turkey, fried chicken or goat. Nkechi's Pot operates from 1 to 6 p.m. during the week and from 12 to 5 p.m. on the weekend.
Details: Nkechi’s Pot. 3400 E. Southern Ave., Phoenix. 602-429-8350, nkechispot.com.
Patience Ogunbanjo also learned how to make Jollof rice at 8 years old in Nigeria. When she moved to Flagstaff in 2014 from Philadelphia, she found herself calling her mother for recipes. When she relocated to Phoenix in 2016, she again noticed a lack of African food.
“The only African type of food in the state of Arizona was Ethiopian. Not Kenya, no South African, no East African and definitely no West African,” Ogunbanjo said, adding that she knew she needed to fill the gap and that's how Lasgidi Cafe was born.
She started catering small parties and grew her business to include Jollof rice cooking classes and a dining experience that she hosts every other month. Ogunbanjo has four dining experiences planned for the fall. For each event, she prepares a five-course meal with a name that references Nigeria along with curated cocktails that make use of ingredients like Chapman, a traditional ruby red non-alcoholic staple. At the end of each event, she raffles off an ancestry DNA kit for customers interested in learning about their roots.
“They might not be able to ever get to Africa. But if they can taste Jollof rice, if they can taste Egusi, if they can have that experience that I offer, I think it starts the connection for them back to their roots, back to their home,” Ogunbanjo said.
Lasgidi Cafe operates out of a commercial kitchen and holds pop-up events throughout the Valley. Customers can order Ogunbanjo’s Jollof rice ($18) or Jollof spaghetti ($16) for pick up or delivery Tuesday to Friday from 12 to 7 p.m. and on Saturdays from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Details: Lasgidi Cafe. Pick-up generally takes place at 626 W. Union Hill Drive, Phoenix. 602-800-9532, Lasgidicafe.com.
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Where to find Ghanaian Jollof in metro Phoenix
Ghanaians use basmati or Thai Jasmine rice, which brings out more starch. Another important ingredient for Ghanaian Jollof rice is shito, a chili oil.
When Kwesi Nyarko moved to the Valley in 2009, he always wondered why African cuisine, besides Ethiopian, was absent.
He opened West Hut in June 2022 with a vision to expose customers to various West African dishes. At the restaurant, he offers dishes from Ghana, Nigeria and Cameroon. Nyarko said he occasionally tries to pick an African country's dishes to feature. But the Jollof rice is always Ghanaian.
“It can’t be Nigerian Jollof rice, then I won’t be able to sell anything,” Nyarko joked, adding that he had to introduce the Valley to “the best” Jollof rice.
West Hut is open Tuesday to Sunday from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Customers can order the Jollof rice meal ($14) served with a side salad, plantains and either beef or chicken.
Details: West Hut. 3110 N. Central Ave., Phoenix. 602-595-4279, west-hut.com.
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Where to find Liberian Jollof in metro Phoenix
During the 19th century, formerly enslaved Black people migrated from the United States to Liberia. West African and American Southern recipes influenced the cuisine.
Now, Liberia's Jollof rice looks completely different from Ghana and Nigeria's and it more closely resembles Jambalaya. The rice is brownish yellow instead of red and contains either sausage, chicken or shrimp and mixed vegetables.
Authentic Liberian Cuisine
When Cynthia Nankay was pregnant with her two youngest children, she craved traditional Liberian foods, but said there wasn't a Liberian restaurant in town. So, in 2021, she and her business partner opened Authentic Liberian Cuisine.
"We just decided that it's time to represent us so other people can know about our food," Nankay said.
While growing up, Nankay said Jollof rice was always in her life. She said no one taught her how to make it, but it's something she learned how to do by remembering its taste and presentation.
"It's almost like mac and cheese. It's fulfilling yet enriches your soul. And it's simple. It doesn't need a lot of things," Nankay said. "The actual word Jollof means joy, and it brings joy to yourself; that's why I love Jollof so much."
The restaurant is located behind the 7-11 convenience store near 19th and Glendale avenues and is open Tuesday to Saturday from 12 to 8 p.m. Every Wednesday and Saturday, Nankay serves Jollof rice ($21.65) with mixed vegetables, fried chicken and shrimp along with a vegetarian option.
Details: Authentic Liberian Cuisine. 7017 N. 19th Ave., Phoenix. 602-296-7100, authenticliberiancuisine.com
This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Celebrate Jollof rice day at West African restaurants in Phoenix