Tuesday 7 August 2012

Mercy’s Jallof Rice

Typical Ghanian Food stall selling Jallof

It’s always the simple things in life that make life worth living. In the case of most Ghanaians, one of these simple things comes in the form of Jallof rice, a classic accompliment to most meats and vegetables. Sold pretty much everywhere it’s a workingman’s food, using simple cheap ingredients to make the country’s staple, rice, more exciting. The red rice, which is sometimes specked with Green peppers and yellow maze, mirrors the colours of the Ghanain flag and patriotically stands as the National dish.  

My first taste of Jallof was a few years back at a Nigerian take away in Hackney. I liked it, but didn’t really make all too much of a fuss about it. The second time was at a Nigerian wedding, and in my ravenous state I chomped down two portions worth. When first coming to Ghana I was happily surprised to find Jallof on most menus… this is when my true love affair with Jallof started. I sampled jallof from different establishments, from stalls to fine restaurants, jallof with shrimp, with vegetables, with chilli peppers… I tried them all. When my farther’s housekeeper, Mercy, heard about my new obsession, she said to me, “Eh! Dipa, you eat too much jallof rice, you’re tummy will burst. If you are going to eat Jallof rice, you should do it properly, eat mine, and you will not eat another Jallof again.” Big statement, but I wasn't going stop her.


She set about cooking, but was adamant I didn't watch her cook. I sat impatiently in the dinning room. First the smell of onions and garlic came wafting through the house, then the sound of sizzling fresh tomatoes. Soon after a distinct aroma of Rosemary then the sharp pungency of Shitto (a shrimp, soy, chilli and palm oil sauce used by Ghanains in cooking and for dipping). Then everything went quite for a bit. The smell became more complex as time went by. I knew I was in for a treat. As I drifted away with the aromas and thoughts of what was too come, I was suddenly snapped back into reality by a sharp burnt smell. I ran to the kitchen and Mercy turned around to me with a huge pot of red rice: “Here, my Jallof is ready.”

The tangy, shrimpy, tomato rice was delicious. The sides were a little burnt, but this brought out a really nice combined charred taste of the tomatoes, onions and startch. The jallof was dotted with peas and diced green peppers that gave the rice another sensory dimension. Most of the Jallofs I had had before were stodgy and slightly over cooked, but Mercy’s rice was light and fluffy. It was delicious, and distinctly different from my previous Jallof experiences.

Mercy's Jallof and Chicken

So now every time I go back to Accra, I ask for Mercy’s Jallof. She’s more then happy to make it and thankfully doesn't mess around with the recipe too much. Although, the underlying taste of the rice differs depending on the meat it is served with. In the case of the above picture, Jallof rice and Chicken, Mercy steams the chicken first before frying it, then in the same pan uses the juices and fat to cook the rice in. These flavours pass through the rice, which is almost like cooking the rice in stock. When cooking vegetarian Jallof, Mercy adds a branded flavour sachet when cooking of the tomatoes. Although I’m not allowed to look, I have been told the tomato “gravy” in which the rice is cooked is essential to giving the right Jallof flavour. This flavour can only be described as tangy, salty and a little bit charred.

I have tried to make Jallof back home, but there is something about African tomatoes. You just don't get toms like them back home. They have an intense earthy, truly tomato flavour unique to Africa. I think this is exactly the reason why when I first tried Jallof in the UK it didn't really sing to me the way Ghanaian Jallof sings to me of the flavours of the country. I must add though, Mercy’s warning about my tummy bursting is very much so true. Eating Jallof is bad for the waistline, not only is it made with copious amounts of palm oil, but it also tends to be laced with Ajinamoto. For that reason, I truly advise trying home made jallof, there is no better jallof then that made by the hands of a true Ghanaian Mammy.  

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