Someone told me last year that I should try Senegalese food. I’ve not yet found a restaurant serving the food of Senegal in London yet but imagine my delight when an article on the country’s cuisine appeared in last month’s Saveur. Flipping through the article, it all sounded good – black eyed pea fritters, peanut and chicken stew, an okra and seafood stew (that’s next)…but what I had eyes for was the Thiéboudienne, a rice and fish dish served communally. That’s what I chose to make one weekend.

Thiéboudienne

I’ll be honest with you – I knew very little about Senegal, let alone Senegalese cuisine. The official language in these western African country is French though there are other African languages that are also recognised. One is Wolof, the language of the Wolof people, and the name of this dish comes from the Wolof for rice (ceen) and fish (jën) and the Wolof name for the dish is Ceebu Jën. Kinda like Thiéboudienne if you mumble it and put a French accent on it. The country’s location on the coast means that seafood is a big part of their diet and this fish and rice dish is actually the national dish.

Apart from the fish and rice, there’s a whole selection of vegetables cooked in the same pot too. My thiéboudienne was missing the dried smoked fish that gives it a bit of funk; I just used some Asian fish sauce which I’ve read is used as a shortcut anyway in Senegal. The giant platter of spiced rice, boiled fish and vegetables was delicious and comforting. Despite the inclusion of quite a bit of tomato paste, it isn’t too tomatoey and was someone tangy from the tamarind. Thumbs up to my first Senegalese experience at home!

Fish

Thiéboudienne
serves 2 (with leftovers) – 4.

a thick fillet of meaty white fish per person – I used red snapper

for every two fillets
1 clove garlic
small handful flat leaf parsley
1/4 small onion
2 spring onions
salt
freshly ground pepper

3 tbsps sunflower oil
1 onion, chopped
1 green pepper, chopped
100g tomato paste
650 ml vegetable stock (I used bouillon powder)

3 small carrots, cut in large chunks
1/2 medium aubergine, cut in large chunks
10 okra
1 medium potato, cut in large chunks
1/2 small Savoy cabbage, cut in large wedges

1 tbsp fish sauce
2 tsp tamarind paste

1.5 cups basmati rice, washed

First prepare the filling for the fish. Chop the ingredients for the filling together very finely (I used my trusty mini chopper). Slash the fillets deeply on one side and stuff these cuts with the filling as best you can. Set aside.

Preheat your oven to about 120C.

Heat a large pot or casserole over medium heat and when hot, add the oil (palm oil is traditional but I used sunflower instead) and fry the fish fillets on both sides until almost cooked. Take them out and set aside.

In the same oil, fry the chopped onion and green pepper. When the vegetables are soft, add the tomato paste and fry, stirring constantly, until it has darkened – this will take a few minutes. Add the stock and bring to a boil.

Reduce the heat so that the mixture is simmering and gently lower in the fillets. When they are fully cooked, fish them out carefully with a slotted spoon and place in an ovenproof dish. Cover loosely with aluminium foil and place in the oven to keep warm.

Add the vegetables and cook slowly until they are tender – anywhere from 20 minutes to 40 minutes. Stir occasionally and fish out the vegetables when they’re cooked, placing them in the same ovenproof dish as the fish (and keeping them all in the oven to keep warm).

When all the vegetables have been cooked and have been removed, add the fish sauce and tamarind paste and stir to combine. Simmer for another 5 minutes. Add some water if it has reduced too much – you want about 500-600ml of liquid remaining. Add the rice, stir well and slap a lid on the pot.

Leave to simmer for about 15-20 minutes. After this time, your rice should be cooked and you probably have the makings of xooñ (the crispy bits at the bottom of the pot).

Fluff the rice with a fork and pile it all onto a large platter. Scrape any xooñ from the bottom of the pot and scatter it over the rice. Arrange the vegetables and fish on top and serve.

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