Growing up as a first-generation Liberian American in New York City in the 1980s and 90s I never imagined there would be a time when I would see a recipe for jollof in the New York Times.
The West African rice dish is now in the mainstream with festivals and Twitter wars. Earlier this year the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization — UNESCO — recognized Senegal as the official home of the iconic West African rice dish.
Chicagoan Perteet Spencer and her husband are the founders of Ayo Foods, a company that specializes in frozen West African meals that are available nationwide. From jollof rice to stewed cassava leaves to scorching hot pepper sauce, Ayo fills a void in the frozen food game with authentic and easy-to-prepare meals.
Like me, Spencer is of Liberian descent. And like me, she believes Liberians cook the best jollof.
The first thing I noticed when I stepped in Spencer’s white Hyde Park kitchen was her choice of proteins. She had set aside chicken and beef to roast off and add to the rice. Liberians on the east coast make the most of our proximity to the sea. While we do have chicken and beef to rice, there’s also a fair amount of dried fish, prawns and crab.
“That’s part of what makes Jollof so good,” Perteet cheerfully said. “There are so many different versions based solely on the meats, vegetables, and proteins you have available to you. Being inland you kind of have to do with what’s readily available to you and reasonably priced. Sometimes it’s oxtail but it ends up being a lot of chicken and beef, and sometimes smoked turkey also.”
The base of every great jollof is tomato puree. Bell peppers, onions and roasted garlic are pulsed with tomatoes and tomato paste, giving the rice its trademark orange color. Our puree, along with pepper sauce, broth, parboiled rice, vegetables and meat goes in the pot.
Spencer said it’s the magic of the slow-cooked layered flavor cooking process that makes a difference in output.
In West African culture, the tradition of long pot cooking is one that is taught over time and passed down from generation to generation. We take immense pride in the intuitive nature of our recipes. Very little is written down. One learns by standing shoulder to shoulder with elders.
Perteet loves the depth of flavor from roasted vegetables, so she roasts off garlic, onion and tomato before pureeing them together in a blender. A little tomato paste, thyme, sauteed white onion, sea salt, ginger and spice (pepper, adobo, madras curry) form our base. Spencer also adds carrots and peas which are distinct to Liberian Jollof. And chicken and beef as our protein.
The trick to this dish is layering and timing. Knowing when to add ingredients is key; if one element is overcooked, it throws off the texture and the whole dish is ruined.
Perteet and her husband Fred Spencer launched Ayo Foods in July 2020.
“Fred and I walked up and down the grocery aisles, and we didn’t see anything that reflected
the food we actually ate at home. We believe strongly that you should see yourself when you walk down the aisles of a grocery store. Mainstream grocery was just letting us down,” Spencer said.
Ayo Foods captures the complexity of our food story in a way that is modern and marketable. What would take six hours to slowly simmer on the stove can be whipped up in minutes in the microwave or oven. Is it a stand-in for those long-simmering, slow-cooked stews and soups made lovingly in a well-worn pot? No. But, what it does is provide access in a way that wasn’t possible before. You can have jollof on a Tuesday night without having to plan days in advance.
Cianna Greaves is a producer at WBEZ.
Where to get jollof in the Chicago area
Yassa African Restaurant
3511 S. King Dr., Chicago
1123 E. 47th St., Chicago
1363 W. Wilson Ave., Chicago
358 N. Schmidt Road, Bolingbrook
Qaato African Restaurant
7118 N. Clark St., Chicago
Jollof with fish, $15