Nothing says home to a Senegalese quite like thieboudienne. This one-pot rice and fish dinner certainly knows how to bring a family together. The meal is served from an enormous, shared bowl around which diners sit or squat, scooping out palmfuls that are rapidly poked and prodded and rolled into bite-size morsels. About the only thing thieboudienne doesn’t know how to do is spell its own name as it willingly goes by thiep bu dinenne, ceebu djen, and a host of other phonetic spellings.
No matter which way it is spelled, this aromatic family meal, which originated with the Woolof people, has become so ubiquitous that many Senegalese consider it the national dish. With a dozen spellings and a dozen squared variations, there’s no wrong way to prepare thieboudienne. The ground floor always contains rice, preferably short-grained or sticky rice, as well as steamed, fried, or dried fish. Tomatoes or tomato sauce, fried onions and garlic, and either palm or peanut oil put on the finishing touches for an everyday home-cooked meal.
Some cooks use the opportunity to include whatever vegetables are available. Especially popular are cabbage, yams, and potatoes. When they are in season, eggplants can jump in and play as well as chopped greens such as parsley. A good splash of burn-your-mouth Scotch Bonnet hot sauce is considered de rigueur in many households.
Thieboudienne is as relaxed about the how the fish is prepared as it is about the spelling of its name. Traditionally, just enough dried fish to infuse the dish with flavor was used. Today, cooks who live close to the ocean have greater opportunity to prepare whole fish or fillets either by frying over an aromatic, wood-burning grill or by steaming them.
This rice and fish dish has roots in Spanish paella. Like that older cousin, thieboudienne can be prepared with the addition of other meats as well as seafood. A version in which the protein is restricted to beef is called ceebu yapp and is nearly as popular.
Regardless of the ingredients that ultimately make it into the pot, the cooking method is the same. Onions and garlic are sautéed and combined in a pot together with the fish. Diluted tomato paste or sauce jumps in next along with several cups of water and the veggies. Once everything is cooked, it’s removed so that the remaining liquid can welcome the rice with open arms.
The next part isn’t exactly tricky, but timing does count. The moment to pull the rice from the cooker is after the water has cooked off and the bottom layer of rice has begun to toast. It mustn’t be allowed to burn, however, or the dish is ruined. The toasty rice should be spread in a thin layer all around the bowl, and the vegetables and fish or meat are tucked tenderly on top.