Gambia wins jollof cooking competition


Jollof rice dish with accompaniments.

Photo credit: Pool

Ghana, Nigeria and Senegal have always bickered in public on who is the true originator of jollof, a West African rice delicacy often spiced with chilies and other herbs.

This week, however, a group of Gambian chefs were declared winners in a cooking competition for the best jollof rice in West Africa. That could add a spanner in the works, or settle an age-old the tiff between the three West African nations.

The competition was organised as part of the West Africa Food Festival (WAFFEST), which is hosted by the Associations of Chefs in West Africa to celebrate the rich and diverse culinary heritage of the region.

The event usually entails exhibition of indigenous culinary prowess, tours, master lectures, contests, and cultural performances by the participating countries.

This year’s edition, held in Lagos, Nigeria, was the fifth since the festival started in 2018. It was hosted by the Association of Professional Chefs in Nigeria in collaboration with the Federation of Tourism Associations of Nigeria (FTAN) with the theme: “Preserving West African Flavours: The Chef’s Roles in Sustainable Food Tourism.”

The food and beverage company Maggi Nigeria Plc sponsored the event.

The cooking competition comprises several sub categories, including Jollof Rice and Master Chef Challenge.

Gambia beat Liberia to second place, ahead of 13 other West African countries in the Jollof category. The Gambian team, headed by popular chef Saikou Bojang, also won in the vegan category.

Liberian chef Femi Joyous Wilson won in the Master Chef Challenge category.

WAFFEST, described as the biggest food competition in Africa, takes place annually, with the hosting rotational. Ghana hosted the 2022 edition.

The highlight of this year’s edition, which took place from August 9 to 14, has been on the Jollof category. 

Jollof, a dish made of rice and fish in its most basic form, can be accompanied by vegetables and most often tomatoes and chilli.

The dish consists mainly of cooked rice and tomato stew, all prepared in one pot. The tomato gives it the characteristic red colour, and other combination of ingredients adds to its characteristic sweet aroma and spiciness.

Jollof is believed to have originated from the Senegambia region, which today comprises Gambia and Senegal. 

While the Senegalese call it Ceebu jën, their cousins across the border call it Bena Chin (One Pot).

But a jovial rivalry between Nigerians and Ghanaians about who prepares the best version of the dish has helped popularise it beyond West Africa.

Many Gambians took to social media to celebrate what some say is a testimony of the true origin of jollof.

Senegal, where jollof is truly believed to have been founded, in February secured a declaration by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) as the home to the dish.

It was listed in the UN cultural organisation’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

The organisers of WAFFEST hope that the event will help in efforts to preserve traditional cuisines like jollof in the region. They say that it also serves as an access point for potential investors in the tourism sector value chain of member countries.

Apart from promoting cooking skills, it also encourages food tourism, cultural exchange, and music and workforce development.

The international event began as individual country event by Nigerian chefs. After the Nigerians convened the first event in 2016, the Ghanaians did theirs in 2017. And in 2018 it was opened to other West African nations.

The organisers say the event has grown to even accommodate chefs from beyond the sub region.