Chef Awo Amenumey
by Asha Ellison | photographs by Jack King Media
Jollof rice is a staple across West Africa, especially in Ghana. The dish, a cultural representation of the more than 100 ethnic groups that make up the region, is an all-occasion delight found at just about every event in the country. Its roots run wide and deep.
The debate between which African country makes the best jollof rice is akin to that of Carolina barbecue. While the battle is not about eastern or western, it does focus on how the dish — which originated during the West African Wolof Empire (1300s to the mid-1500s) — has uniquely transformed and spread to other West African countries such as Cameroon, Ghana and Nigeria. Regardless of which country truly does it best, Charlotte chef Awo Amenumey, 36, stands firm that Ghanaian jollof holds its own. The mom, wife, caterer and cultivator of elegant dining experiences feels this way for a reason: Jollof rice is comforting and approachable.
“When I think of jollof, it reminds me of community and togetherness,” says Awo, who is from Accra, the capital of Ghana. “It is a dish that you can make with very basic ingredients that most people have in their kitchens and still come out with [something] flavorful.”
And Chef Awo would know. She credits both her maternal and paternal grandmothers and her mother as her inspiration to begin cooking, teaching her the foundation of Ghanaian cuisine at just 8 years old. Today, she finds inspiration in a passion to bring Ghanaian food to the forefront of the culinary scene.
“I have memories of my aunt making a smoked herring version,” Awo says, reminiscing on fond childhood experiences. “All of my cousins and I would gather to devour heaping bowls of jollof rice. Now, I’m able to put my own twist on classics I grew up with,” she adds.
Awo, who initially went to school for fashion merchandising, found her way back to the kitchen in 2015 when she left her 9-to-5 job for culinary school with a nudge of encouragement from her husband. For Awo, sharing the Ghanaian food experience brings immense joy, especially when she is first to introduce newcomers to the cuisine. She pairs or plates her dishes in a way that allows even hesitant dinner guests to make a connection with their meal.
And because Awo believes food has the power to bring people together, she shares her Ghanaian jollof recipe for all joy to enjoy. What’s better than having a winning recipe for jollof rice? Inviting a few friends to join you around the dinner table.
“One who eats alone cannot discuss the delicious taste with others,” Awo says.
by Awo Amenumey
serves 4, cook time: 45 minutes
2 cups basmati or jasmine rice
1/4 cup coconut oil
1 red bell pepper, chopped
1 carrot, chopped
1 red onion (1/2 sliced)
1/2 stalk leeks, sliced
4 diced roma tomatoes
1/2 inch ginger
2 cloves garlic
1/4 cup tomato paste
1 tablespoon ground rosemary
1 tablespoon ground anise seeds
1 teaspoon ground calabash nutmeg
1 tablespoon curry powder
2 bay leaves
3 habanero peppers (for a less spicy sauce, use 1)
2 cups chicken stock
1 chicken bouillon cube (optional)
Salt to taste
Rinse rice under running water until it runs clear, and allow to drain in a sieve.
Blend vegetables (bell pepper, carrot, roma tomatoes) with habanero, half onion, garlic and ginger and set aside. Heat oil in a saucepan over medium heat and add sliced onions and leeks. Fry for 2 minutes and add tomato paste, stirring to combine. Fry for an additional 3 minutes. Add vegetable mixture, stir to combine, and cook for about 3 to 5 minutes, allowing tomatoes to cook down.
Add bouillon (if using), rosemary, anise seeds, calabash nutmeg, bay leaves and curry powder and bring to a boil, stirring occasionally. (Be careful when stirring and ensure to cover the pot, as sauce will splatter.) Reduce heat and allow spices to infuse the sauce for about 10-15 minutes. Add rice and stir in 1 cup of stock. Add just enough stock to cover the rice, and, if needed, add remaining stock. Don’t add too much, as this will lead to a soggy rice, and you want your jollof to come out nice and fluffy.
Taste and adjust seasoning if needed, and bring to a boil until liquid is halfway absorbed. Turn the heat to low and let the rice steam until tender and fluffy.
Serve jollof with your choice of protein and fried plantains.
You can substitute barley, quinoa, fonio or sorghum for the rice, and add any other vegetables or legumes of your choosing to the rice when cooking (green beans, peas, corn, black-eyed peas, garbanzo beans, kidney beans, etc.) For a vegan option, omit the chicken stock and use vegetable stock or coconut milk. SP