Ghana's ‘Year of Return’ marked an ancestral journey on the route to self-discovery and culinary connections.
Ghana's ‘Year of Return’ marked an ancestral journey on the route to self-discovery and culinary connections.
December 5, 2019
Civil Eats partnered with America’s Test Kitchen to develop this story, which today airs an audio version as part of their podcast, Proof from America’s Test Kitchen. Proof goes beyond recipes and cooking to solve food mysteries big and small. Listen here.
My first memories of jambalaya rice date back to my childhood. This signature Louisiana dish made appearances at my childhood home at holidays, large family events, and, occasionally, on the after-church Sunday dinner table. The juicy jumbo shrimp, peppered, earthy andouille sausage, and long grain rice, all blended with tomato paste in one pot, made a distinct, and incomparable meal; until I tried jollof rice on my first trip abroad to Ghana.
It was 2013, and I was in a quiet, unassuming restaurant in Accra. One spoonful of jollof immediately transported me back to the kitchens and restaurants of my youth. The seasoning, although different, were much like the ones my mother and aunts always use in jambalaya. The meat—goat, in this case—paralleled the seafood and andouille sausage; an example of Black people using regional ingredients to make a culinary masterpiece. What really stood out, however, was the combination of rice and tomato paste, which gave the dish a rich, red color very much like the streets of Ghana’s capital. By the end of the meal, I knew that these dishes had to be connected.[pico_box]
Six years later, Ghanaian President Akufo-Addo declared 2019 “The Year of Return”—a call for the descendants of those forced to migrate to the Americas (beginning in 1619) to endure several hundred years of racialized slavery to return to their homeland. So, this summer, I had the opportunity to mark the birth-right journey by returning to Ghana, both as a Black American and as a reporter.
My motivating question was, I thought, straightforward: Where does jambalaya rice come from, and can jollof rice tell us anything about its origin story?
My question wasn’t new. Academics and historians have long observed the obvious connections between the two rice dishes; not only are the ingredients similar, they’re both also cooked in a single pot. Ghanaians are eager to talk about how jambalaya, along with just about every other dish representative of African American culture, came from West Africa. And in many ways, they’re right. African American food culture—not to mention dance, art, and several of cultural rituals—embody many of the traditions and techniques used throughout West Africa. And yet, there are clear differences, many of which are reflected in jambalaya and jollof.
Jambalaya was first spotted in an 1849 magazine call The American Agriculturalist, just 14 years before Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. In the article, Solon Robinson, a white man, wrote about his jambalaya encounter during a trip to Alabama. There were no tomatoes in his recipe, and he also incorrectly refers to it as Hoppin’ John, which typically includes black-eyed peas.
After Emancipation in 1863, African Americans began to write cookbooks that reached the mainstream public. In 1881, What Mrs. Fisher Knows About Old Southern Cooking included a recipe called “Jumberlie” that looked a lot like modern-day jambalaya. As the dish evolved over time, it was commonly identified by the use of tomatoes or tomato paste, as well as a mix of shrimp, andouille sausage, and chicken, Cajun seasoning, and as well as onion, bell pepper, and celery. The dish varies throughout Louisiana and the South, with some versions using fewer tomatoes than others, or sometimes none at all.
My mother, Evelyn Stewart—a school teacher from Baton Rouge and my personal jambalaya expert—believes that the dish was as much a product of our ancestors’ immediate environment as it was a product of the African Diaspora.
“I was told that our grandparents and great-grandparents created some form of jambalaya because they lived on the waters of Saint Francisville, and they could grow things very well in that part of Louisiana,” she said as we prepped vegetables, deveined shrimp, and sliced andouille sausage while cooking jambalaya together. “The people who came before us didn’t waste and knew how to use their resources.” My mom had nine siblings, so the same rule applied in her childhood home.
As to the broader connections between West African food and South, my mom said, “I’m sure that my ancestors, your ancestors, probably figured, ‘Hey, we can do some of the same things we did back home. We may need to alter it a little bit here and there.’ But I believe they’re the same foods that were brought over.”
Jollof rice, similar to jambalaya, is a one-pot dish that varies drastically across West African nations, leading to one of the most all-in-good-fun national competitions in the world (see #Jollofwars).
It is said to be traceable to 19th-century Senegal. Thiéboudienne—a French transliteration of ceebu jën, from the Wolof words for rice (ceeb) and fish (jën)—is a dish that merges rice, fish, cassava, and carrot. It was the likely invention of a Senegalese cook named Penda Mbaye and is believed by some to be the predecessor to today’s jollof rice. Mbaye was a house cook in the coastal city of Saint-Louis, Senegal, working in the home of the French colonial governor. She created the dish by combining fresh fish with rice, which she used because of a barley shortage, and she also mashed cherry tomatoes into the dish. Other cooks around town heard of her recipe and began cooking rice with tomatoes and fish in all the big houses of Saint-Louis. The dish, which was called “Thiéboudienne Penda Mbaye” after the slave trade had ended, is today the national dish of Senegal.
Since then, versions of the dish have appeared in Nigeria, Ghana, and elsewhere, and each country claims their jollof as the absolutely best. Nigeria and Ghana often lead this argument, as both of their versions are quite similar; however, Nigerians typically use long-grain parboiled rice, while Ghanaians prefer jasmine or basmati rice. Since I was in Ghana, I decided to learn more about jollof from those who cook the dish on a regular basis. Local food writers I spoke with told me that I must meet with George Frederick Oddoye, a young home cook and pop-up restaurateur from the Great Accra Region on the country’s southeast coast, to cook the famed dish.
“[Jollof is] a celebratory dish” in Ghana today, Oddoye, who goes by the name “Chef Kiko,” said, “and a dish you could find as street food for much less money. Not everybody has the money to afford a meal that is 50 cedis [around US$9] every day. So, a dish like jollof rice is more accessible for the average Ghanaian.”
Chef Kiko, a member of the Ga-Adangbe people, proudly cooked with me on an overcast afternoon day near Osu, one of Ghana’s most exciting food neighborhoods. “You know a family is a good one if they know how to make good jollof,” he told me.
“I read a lot of recipes on jambalaya and I’ve done jollof so many times. They are one and the same,” said the chef. “The only difference is, when the enslaved people went to America, they had to use what they had there.”
I had heard this point before, and continued to eat at me. These connections and focus on regional items were transparent, but other aspects of their similarities were not. I knew the dishes reflected one another, but the ingredients used—especially the type of rice used in the Americas and the tomatoes in both dishes—made it more confusing. The timeline during which these items would’ve existed in both West Africa and the United States varied, and I hoped that tracking these ingredients might offer more specific answers.
As I grappled with multiple jambalaya origin stories upon my return to the U.S., I realized that I needed a deeper focus on the ingredients, and a better understanding of how information was transferred before, during, and after the Transatlantic Slave Trade. Adding to the complication was recognizing where in the Americas forcibly migrated Africans ended up. It turns out that neither Ghana nor Senegal were represented in those early forced migrations.
“[In] 1619… those folks were from Angola,” explained Jessica B. Harris, a noted historian and food scholar. “So, this Year of the Return is a lovely date to tack it on, and Ghana is a lovely place to tack it to, but that’s not necessarily the history of it.”
In the pre-transatlantic slave trade society, where recipes were transferred orally, Harris says that direct links between dishes don’t really exist with written recipes. That kind of work is nearly impossible, but a starting point might be looking at anecdotes, like where enslaved people from various regions landed. According to the Transatlantic Slave Database, more than 200,000 people were sent in slave ships from Cape Coast—one of the largest and most well-preserved slave-holding castles in Ghana. From there it’s likely that a portion of those people ended up in Louisiana.
According to Joanne Hyppolite, a curator at the National Museum of African American History and Culture, getting to the bottom of food origin stories is often easier said than done.
“We rely a lot on anecdotal information, on written narratives that were written by people during that particular period of time, like explorers,” said Hyppolite. “And those people don’t always know the truth either.”
She points out that enslaved people had access to vegetables from gardens and, depending on their masters, they might have had seafood from the Gulf Coast. They also often farmed Carolina Gold Rice, a variety of rice that originated in Africa and has been farmed in wetlands by Africans for thousands of years. The Carolina lowcountry offered an ideal atmosphere for this kind of farming, and Africans were the only people with the skills to farm them.
“They brought those skills with them and they passed it on to each other [and] for future generations,” said Hyppolite. “So you see a great economy of scale, great sophistication, and their ability to produce what’s called ‘wet-farmed’ rice.”
Tomatoes, the other key ingredient in both jambalaya and jollof, are indigenous to Central America, but appeared in Africa by the middle of the 19th century. A travelogue titled “Wanderings in West Africa from Liverpool to Fernando Po” describes tomatoes as an ingredient in palava sauce, a meal that is said to have originated in Elmina Town, Ghana during the 15th or early 16th century when the Portuguese first arrived to the Gold Coast.
What I’ve come to believe, after months of research, is that rather than jambalaya being a direct descendant of jollof rice, the two dishes may have emerged along the same timeline. While this speaks to colonialism’s role in the spread of ingredients that inform some of the world’s favorite dishes, it also embodies how aspects of Diaspora cultures, such as the level of spice in our food or our affinity for one-pot rice dishes, transcend time, border, tragedy, and triumph.
As Joanne Hyppolite put it, “I think part of the need to know [how jollof and jambalaya are linked] is because we want to make these very strong connections to our heritage. We want strong connections to Africa in particular. And African Americans want to be known as producers of things, because so much of our history has been wiped away.”
And that may be the case. But the fact that these dishes so closely mirror each other illustrates the inherent magic of Black and West African cuisine. Despite the series of tragedies that could have easily destroyed centuries of culture—and the inherent knowledge and skills that come with it—the cuisines across West Africa and throughout Black America have persevered.
This story was produced in partnership with Feet in 2 Worlds, a project that brings the work of immigrant journalists and journalists of color to public radio, podcasts, and online media. Kayla Stewart’s reporter’s notebook is available through Fi2W.org.
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