By AARON GETTINGER
Six contestants, including a caterer and two chefs from restaurants in Hyde Park–Kenwood, competed at the “Jollof Wars” competition Sunday at The Promontory, 5311 S. Lake Park Ave W., to see whose version of jollof rice, the quintessential West African dish, came out on top.
Though recipes vary by country and region, jollof rice always includes peppers and onions and is usually colored red by tomatoes; it’s heavily spiced, piquant and a menu mainstay at any West African restaurant. Brought to the New World over the Middle Passage, it transmuted in this country to hallmarks of regional African-American cuisine like Lowcountry red rice and, reflecting its ease with improvisation, Louisiana gumbo and jambalaya.
Judge Danielle Norris, a sommelier and hospitality industry veteran currently working for the Cream Wine Company wholesaler, said her favorite part of West African cuisine is the interplay between its herbs and spices, earth and heat.
“There’s a density and a levity to it at the same time.” she said, calling it “constantly compelling.” Fittingly, she said she was most after balance and highlighted flavors playing in harmony with the rest of the culinary palette were the things she was most looking for in the competitors’ dishes.
Contestant and Promontory Chef Carlos Cruz incorporated Cuban and other fusion elements into his jollof — each serving came topped with a relish made from fried plantains, shrimp and harissa, a North African chili pepper paste. He cooked in cast iron, crisping the bottom layer of rice as in Iranian chelow or Korean bibimbap, over his restaurant’s trademark wood-burning hearth.
It was Cruz’s first time making the dish, and he said it was a learning process. He said he may put it on the menu, though he wanted to incorporate some of the other competitors’ techniques first.
Contestant Yetunde Odusanya, who grew up back-and-forth between the Upper Midwest and Nigeria, started the AfroKitchenChi catering service in Hyde Park a few months ago and has been keeping her business small. The now-DePaul University accounting graduate student is a self-taught chef: “It was just a passion, and I continued doing it.”
“There’s a lot of ways to cook jollof rice,” she said; the grains in her pilaf didn’t stick together like the other contestants’ — the trick, she said, was using margarine. In addition to her jollof, Odusanya offered puff-puffs, a deep-fried yeasted donut-like pastry served soaked in syrup.
Contestant Adama Ba, a tailor who immigrated from Senegal 16 years ago, opened Gorée Cuisine in Kenwood, 1126 E. 47th St., after his initial clothing store was a success. He ascribed his native cuisine’s current fashionability to its spread across the United States.
“People are getting to know its flavor, the taste, the cooking, all the ingredients we put in,” he said. “People appreciate that. People are more interested in getting to know more and more.”
Other competitors came from South Suburban Lansing and Uptown, both centers of the West African diaspora in the Chicago area.
In the end, there could only be one winner: Kaffy Danyiwo, who immigrated 11 years ago and runs the catering service Kaffy’s Kitchen in Lansing, came out on top as both the people’s choice and critics’ choice awards. She described her cuisine as emphatically Nigerian and a treat to West Africans in the suburbs who would otherwise have to travel into Chicago for a taste of home. She hopes to one day open a restaurant.
While she won for her jollof, Danyiwo said her egusi soup, made with spinach and nutritious egusi melon seeds and eaten with fufu, a starchy dough made from mashed yams broadly analogous to Hawaiian poi, is her favorite dish among those that she served.
“I think a lot of people like that, because it’s such a typical African meal,” she said.