As a young lady whose formative years were nurtured in the west, and an adult who has lived in Ghana, western influences have almost taken over our culture. Most kids born after the late 90s who have grown up in a rather affluent home speaks English. We live as the Jones’ do, we aspire to work in an air conditioned office, drive a nice car, and live in a gated home in the town centre. The villages where are parents and grandparents grown up are history or their story. We would rather sit at the mall or a burger bar than go and visit our places of heritage. Now I am not saying that we should all go back and live a farm life, the world has progressed and we have to move with the times. However, we have a rich culture, a strong history, and it feels at time in our aim to move forward we are forgetting our past.
The one thing that we have, that it is still truly African, is our food. The one thing that still connects us to times that are past is our fufu, banku, kenkey and the big one, jollof rice. Which is why when I found an article on BBC regarding #jollofgate, I was intrigued to move on. On Jamie Oliver’s website, he put his “twist” on our classic jollof. However, it was more of a spicy rice and chicken then jollof and our people were in uproar. It’s been in the newspapers and on twitter, I get it Jamie, you are who you are because you take dishes from all over the world and put your stamp on it and well for me, when I see Ghana on a platform which transmit beyond the shores of the west coast. It makes people curious to come over, i.e. tourism. However, before you start twisting anything, you need to go back to the root and understand the logic behind it.
First of all Jamie, you cannot tell an African that jollof rice is a concept. It is like telling a Spanish man that Paella is just a concept, an Indian man that a Biryani is a concept or telling a Jamaican man that using green peas in their rice complements curry goat. I ask you to take that back, yes there are different variations depending on where you are in Africa, the Nigerians spice theirs different from the Ghanaians and although these two nations have long fought over its origins we know that it was actually Senegalese. However jollof to a Ghanaian (I am narrowing it down because I can only speak from my prospective), it’s bigger than fish and chips.
As a baby, whether born in Ghana or born in UK, jollof rice was the first introduction to our culture. Even if we were never to eat any other Ghanaian food in our lifetime, if we never spoke or understood our language, we knew we were Ghanaian from jollof. Today, it is the one source of “Ghana” that binds us all together, I don’t think I know of a Ghanaian who doesn’t like Jollof. Then there is the whole parsley and lemon thing. Parsley is a herb that has only been introduced to Ghana in the past 5 years, 10 at a stretch. So now it’s like you are messing with the formula. The spices, go for your life, I don’t believe in restrictions. From household to household you will find variations with the spices, which is the great thing about this dish. However parsley, that’s just not on. I have no problem with the cherry tomatoes but you have to understand cherry tomatoes, well it’s new to us, this type of tomatoes over here is seasonal and mainly imported, plus the standard plum tomatoes binds the rich and the poor. Plus blending the tomatoes gives it that rich red/orange colour, cutting cherry tomatoes, well that’s more for a salad. Lemons, well we use it to clean our meat not really for cooking. I understand the whole acidity thing, I have spent many a day emulating recipes from the food network channel, I even have your app (although I have to admit I prefer Gordon Ramsay’s recipes, sorry). The whole acidity from a lemon or a dash of vinegar does give it that kick and I do add it to my pepper sauce for that extra bite. However, once again, lemons just mess up the basic formula.
Now another point which I can see, which I think is probably the underlying issue here is that although we have a sense of pride in this food of our nation. Well, it is not so well known. You don’t see it on the menus of any Michelin star restaurants. You don’t hear of anyone around the world flocking to the local Ghanaian restaurant. I have been to a few in the UK and I can see why, however, jollof has always been our underground pride. You Jamie on the other hand, everyone knows you and so this “twisted” version will be seen as the norm. In the event that a non-Ghanaian tries your recipe and then tries our traditional recipe, it’s going to be different. Then what happens, everyone messes with the formula and our jollof rice becomes a thing of the past. Just like KFC, burgers and chips, fried rice and curries, this new version of our classic food will be forced onto us.
I believe, and this is my thought, had our traditional pride and joy, been on the forefront, then your twist on this dish would be seen as a compliment, but now it feels like another piece of our culture being taken by the west, twisted around and thrown back on us to adapt.
Me personally, I don’t think it was wrong, maybe just a bit too early. Just like the curry, it would be great if the masses fell in love with the traditional version before you put your spin on it.
However, apart from calling it a “concept”, I can’t really fault anyone who will promote curiosity in our national treasure and I hope that one day a Ghanaian chef is promoting our dishes in the same way the Latino’s, Indians and Chinese are gracing our screens and restaurants around the world. On that day, you can put your twist on any dish you like.
What I will say to all the haters of Mr Oliver though, rather than look at it negatively, turn it into a positive. He’s cracked a window open, I dare you to challenge him and bring our dishes to the forefront. A well-known Ghanaian restaurant in Mayfair or Manhattan is waiting for us. Rather than using the energy to blow air on twitter, Mr Oliver mentioned Ghana about 3 times in his article. A chance to use this platform to grow the economy in Ghana, I would think rather than opening a restaurant similar to Starbucks or McDonalds in Ghana, why not open up one that sells really good traditional foods which can be adapted to the tourists taste. A chance to move into our progressing times while still retaining our values. If Mr Oliver can put a modern twist on our traditional dish, why can’t we do that with all our dishes? Well just a thought…
In any event Mr Oliver, I want to take this time to say thank you, whether the feedback from your recipe was negative or in defence, it has got people talking about West Africa (for something other than Ebola). It has also got people talking about jollof rice.