Thieboudienne holds a special place among the cuisines of West Africa. This one-pot rice masterpiece is often referred to as the national dish of Senegal, yet it’s presence and popularity extend beyond any national borders. Its influence is powerful.
So many of West Africa’s other great one-pot rice dishes — Ghanaian waakye, Gambian benachin and Nigerian jollof, to name just a few — are direct descendants of thieboudienne (pronounced CHE-boo JEN), named for the Wolof words for rice (ceeb or thiebb) and fish (jën).
Jollof rice’s popularity, especially in the diaspora, can be attributed to how quickly it comes together, essentially a sped-up version of thieboudienne. A great thieboudienne, however, resists all shortcuts. A great thieboudienne is practically an all-day affair.
“This is the diva of rice cooked in a tomato broth,” said Nafy Ba Flatley, a Senegalese cook and small-business owner in San Francisco.
Thieboudienne is what I like to call a “process” recipe because each step is essential to the finished dish. To my palate, a great rice dish, with its flavors layered upon one another, is like a puzzle to be solved. It is not enough to scarf down heaped spoonfuls, although I do plenty of that. I try to piece together the herbs, spices, stocks and pantry staples that went into its creation. I love decoding the process of a dish — how it goes from simple ingredients to a subtle riot of my senses — and this is why I love thieboudienne.
Originally developed in Saint-Louis, in the northwest coastal region of Senegal, where seafood is abundant, thieboudienne celebrates each ingredient in the pot.
Herb-heavy rof perfumes and seasons the fish (chioff or thiof, an Atlantic white grouper); nokoss — a blend of onions, bell peppers, chiles and fresh tomatoes — thickens the rich tomato broth. The end result is tender vegetables and fish layered over fluffy rice. It’s all garnished with xońe or xoñe, those bits of crunchy rice grains that, by proximity to heat, stick to the bottom of the pot. “We don’t let it go,” Ms. Flatley said. “It has to be scraped, all the way!”
To achieve sophisticated complexity, thieboudienne requires a confident hand in the technique of flavor development. It’s an approach that can be used with many other great West African dishes. Shortcuts cannot be made.
“They take their time,” said Ms. Flatley of the cooks who’ve made particularly memorable thieboudienne in Saint-Louis. “They start cooking at 9 a.m., and we won’t sit down to eat until about 1 p.m. That’s what makes it so special.”
In her San Francisco kitchen, it takes her a full two hours. She will make substitutions up to a point: Cauliflower can stand in for cabbage, but cassava and okra are required for her pot.
The experience of cooking thieboudienne can also be collaborative. Many cooks will barter with neighbors for ingredients and enjoy the dish together as a celebratory meal.
Late in my recipe testing process, I collaborated with my colleague Mia Leimkuhler in her kitchen in Montreal. She found some brilliantly fresh red snapper chunks from her local fishmonger, a bag of broken rice and a jar of tomato paste from the local grocery store. I brought a late-summer market selection of carrots, green beans, cabbage and chiles. We chopped, pulsed and cooked while a grueling tennis match played on the television in the background. The game cast a lively urgency over our preparations, and we eventually sat down to a deeply satisfying family-style meal.
“Thieboudienne is the queen,” Ms. Flatley said, adding, “It’s soul food.”