She made him the kind of jollof rice he liked, flecked with bits of red and green peppers, and as he ate, fork moving from the plate to his mouth, saying, "This is pretty good," as he always had in the past, she felt her tears and her questions gathering.
Americanah, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Last month, I spent Valentine's Day weekend on a bus to and from Liverpool (with a long day in a kitchen in between). I quite like long journeys - especially those on trains - but eight hours on a National Express bus on a gloriously sunny day feels like some kind of horrible punishment. Thankfully, I had Americanah with me. The trip up the M6 flew by, as I found myself completely invested (even on my second read) in Ifemelu and Obinze's story. I'm not sure I saw much of the English countryside at all - I was too busy travelling with them through Nigeria, the States, and England in the years either side of the turn of the millennium. It's a truly brilliant book, with characters who feel so rich and fully realised that I've spoken to friends about them as if they're people I know.
There are references to food dotted throughout the book, but I kept coming back to the description of this homely, comforting dish. Having not made jollof rice before, I needed some help. Every recipe I read seemed completely different, so I sought out the advice of a friend. Before I could get a list of ingredients out of her, she noted the following: her family would put different things in it depending on what was in the cupboard, her mum used to chop vegetables into tiny dice and add them to the sauce (to sneak them past her younger siblings), she couldn't possibly offer specific measurements, and the stock cube should be Maggi if at all possible.
This recipe isn't from my family. Rice in our kitchen was in risotto, fried with egg and soya sauce or sitting alongside curries. But my friend's stories are ones I can identify with - I remember my mum hiding vegetables from my fussy sister in pasta sauces, her confident ability to open our pantry and adapt our favourite dishes to suit what she found, and the comforting regularity with which we'd recreate the same meals, over and over again. After a week eating different variations of the recipe below, this is one that's going to be added to my regular repertoire.
Serves 4 as a meal, or more as a side
4 small tomatoes (or one tin chopped tomatoes if you can't find ones that smell like tomatoes)
2 small red peppers
2 scotch bonnet chillies (this is very much to taste - add more or less as you fancy)
1 red onion
Large pinch flaked sea salt
3tbsp rapeseed oil
250g basmati rice
4tbsp tomato paste
2tsp curry powder
1 stock cube
1 small red pepper (chopped into small dice)
1 small green pepper (chopped into small dice)
Food processor/stick blender/mortar and pestle
Large frying pan
1. Remove the seeds from the peppers and chillies and chop into large chunks. Slice the tomatoes into quarters and remove their seeds. Top and tail and peel the onion, and slice into large chunks. Place these, along with the salt, into the processor/mortar and blitz or pound to a paste. This can be messy. I refer you to Obinze:
He had already told Nigel many times that Nigerian cooking was not cosmetic, with all that pounding. It was sweaty and spicy and Nigerians preferred to present the final product, not the process.
NB. I have had more than one scotch bonnet/eyes incident. I can't stress enough - wash your hands well once you've finished chopping the chilli.
2. Warm the oil in the frying pan, and tip in the paste. Lower the heat and reduce it until thick, which should take around ten minutes, stirring regularly to prevent it sticking.
3. Meanwhile, you should cook the rice. Rinse it three times in cold water, and then add enough fresh water to cover the rice by 2cm. Put it on to boil, reducing to a simmer once the water is bubbling. Allow to cook (with the lid on) until the water has evaporated to the level of the rice. Turn the heat off and leave the rice to steam in the pot while you finish the sauce.
4. Add the tomato paste, crumbled stock cube, spices and chopped peppers to the paste mixture. Continue to cook for the next five minutes on a low heat, until the pepper has softened to your taste. Remove from the heat, stir the cooked rice through and serve immediately with meat, fish, or on its own.