Daeuber: There's something deeper in the food culture wars

The latest culinary controversy is about jollof rice, so The Forum's food critic went out for a Ghana version of the dish at a local restaurant.

Jollof Rice and Chicken at The Spice Grille in Moorhead. Eric Daeuber / Forum food critic

MOORHEAD — Not long ago, the minister responsible for information and culture in Nigeria was asked who made the best jollof rice. He said “Senegal.” Wrong answer.

And much outrage followed to the point of a great many in Nigeria demanding his resignation. For what crime? Treason.

So goes another exchange of cannon fire in the jollof wars, sometimes simmering on the back burner in the form of light-hearted banter, and sometimes boiling over.

As a matter of fact, simmering versus boiling is its own controversy. Lai Mohammed, the information minister at the center of that storm, could have made it much worse. He could have said Ghana.

I visited The Spice Grille in Moorhead to celebrate World Jollof Day (no kidding — it was Aug. 22). My granddaughter is a fan of jollof rice and still looks for a version as good as the one served at the (sadly) now-closed Afro Latino 18.


The Spice Grille, 28 Moorhead Center Mall Ave., serves the Ghana version of jollof rice, sort of. The details, and differences, having to do with jollof rice from Ghana, Nigeria and Senegal are technical, and you can judge for yourself whether or not the jollof wars are substantial enough to add to the list of unwinnable culinary battles.

Omatuo and Peanut Butter Soup at The Spice Grille in Moorhead. Eric Daeuber / Forum food critic

But there is something that goes deeper when it comes to these controversies. Foods the world over have demanded protected status. Inside the European Union, but outside of Bavaria, you simply can’t call your soft-twisty-salty bread thing a Bavarian pretzel. The prosciutto race rages, but every runner has its own name and stays in its own lane. And the regional names of cheese would make your head spin.

Do you like tequila? If it’s not made from tequilana Weber blue agave, call it anything you like, but not tequila.

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Why? Because food goes to the heart of culture. The jollof wars are fought with a little good-hearted ribbing tossed in, but only in Africa or among Africans.

When celebrity chef Jamie Oliver published a recipe for his own take on jollof rice that included cilantro and cherry tomatoes, those people for whom jollof rice means home and hearth took offense.


The fear? It’s one thing for someone to make jollof rice at home, enjoy jollof rice during an evening out or invite friends over for World Jollof Day. It’s another for a public figure to lay claim to an altered version of a cultural treasure that could well become the standard in the hands of English mass communication and seems just a bit too much like colonialism to let it slide.

You can call it a kind of cultural appropriation, if you like. Maybe it’s a case of not giving credit where credit is due.

But roots matter. In a culinary melting pot like American — yes, the pun is intended — lots of weird things happen. Remember fusion food? It seemed like a good idea at the time, but there just seemed to be something wrong with the idea of a sushi burrito.

Akawaaba Rice and Beef at The Spice Grille in Moorhead. Eric Daeuber / Forum food critic

The jollof rice at Spice Grille is good. Really good. Not as good as the jollof rice at Afro Latino 18. Gee, I miss that place.

A bit smokey, too. Something I always thought a bit more suited to Nigerian Jollof rice. But what do I know?

Maybe that’s the point. What do I know?


ARCHIVE: Read more of Eric Daeuber's restaurant reviews

Eric Daeuber is an instructor at Minnesota State Community and Technical College. Readers can reach him at

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