Thieboudienne: Traditional West African Fish and Rice Dish
When I lived in Senegal, West Africa while I was volunteering in my early twenties, I was introduced to a local dish called Thieboudienne (pronounced “Djieboudjen”).
Thieboudienne is considered Senegal’s “national dish,” and the people there (especially in the more rural, coastal areas like where I lived), eat a pretty steady diet of it.
It traditionally consists of fish (Grouper or Snapper usually), rice, tomato sauce and regional West African veggies such as carrots, sweet potatoes, cassava (yuca), eggplant, cabbage, okra, onion, garlic and hot peppers.
It’s then seasoned with various other regional herbs and spices such as parsley, tamarind and a couple others that require a bit of an acquired taste. Specifically dried fish for flavouring and nététou or “sumbala”: a type of local seed that is fermented and gives off an odour and flavour that I liken to stinky feet… Not that I know what stinky feet taste like! Well, actually now I think I might.
But stinky feet aside, Thieboudienne is a hearty, healthy dish that keeps the Senegalese people going through good times and bad. And while the fermented seeds that taste like the inside of a gym bag are actually packed with nutrients, they’re not actually necessary to make this dish at home (thankfully).
Now, I don’t mean to offend anyone with the comment about nététou. Plenty of other people really enjoy it and I heard no complaints out of any of the other westerners I was with, so it could just be me. But I much prefer this dish without it, which works out because I can’t find nététou in local stores where I live anyway. Depending on where you live, you might be able to find it in specialty shops that sell African foods. But it ain’t here, so I omit it when it comes to my interpretation of the recipe.
I also use jasmine rice instead of the traditional “broken rice” that is used in Senegal.
What’s broken rice, you ask? It’s exactly what it sounds like: grains of rice that have been broken during the harvesting process and are then separated out from the long grains of rice, packaged and sold at a cheaper price to working class people in areas like West Africa and Southeast Asia. Broken rice is typically used because it is cheaper, but any non-sticky rice like jasmine or basmati will work well in this dish.
For the fish, any white fish with firm flesh will work well, like grouper, snapper, hake, pike or tilapia. Whole fish with skin-on is the traditional way, but I use fillets and they work just fine.
The fish is stuffed with an herb mixture of parsley, garlic, salt and crushed hot pepper (I use chilli pepper flakes). Then it is fried and stewed with the vegetables in a broth seasoned with onions, garlic, tomato paste and tamarind paste (I use tamarind sauce because I couldn’t find paste where I live… Again, this is optional. If you can’t find tamarind at all just omit it).
The veggies are then removed and the rice is added and cooked in the broth. Once the rice is cooked, the fish and veggies are spooned overtop and the dish is typically served on a large, communal platter that everybody eats off of together.
It has been almost 10 years since I last ate this dish in Senegal, but when as I was writing about my time in Africa the other day, I suddenly had a hankering for some Thieboudienne. So I gathered the ingredients and made my own “westernized” version of the dish.
My interpretation of Thieboudienne
As I said before, I used jasmine rice instead of broken rice, omitted some of the harder-to-get spices and veggies and used whatever I had on hand instead. For the veggies I used carrots, sweet potatoes, regular russet potatoes and cabbage. If you can’t get okra, you can use bell peppers although I omitted the peppers altogether because I didn’t have any on hand when I made this. And I used dried red chilli flakes instead of whole hot peppers and dried parsley instead of fresh for the same reason.
I also used cod in this recipe because I love cod and I got a really good deal on it, but while it tasted really good, the flesh was too flaky to stew it the proper way without it falling apart. So I just added the fish to the dish once the rest was cooked and it still came out really nice.
I’m all about making do with what you have on hand, and this dish traditionally makes use of what the Senegalese people have on hand themselves. So don’t hesitate to add or omit certain ingredients depending on what you have easy access to. In general, any white fish will do along with some rice (or even couscous or quinoa), tomato paste, parsley, garlic, onion, cabbage and assorted root vegetables, plus some diced peppers if you’ve got ‘em.
Start by blending or mashing up a mixture of parsley (fresh or dried), fresh garlic (or powdered if you don’t have fresh), salt and a few chilli flakes depending on how spicy you like it. If you use dry ingredients like dried parsley or garlic powder, add a little oil or water to the mixture for moisture. I use a mortar and pestle to mix my paste up but you can use a food processor if you like.
Then, either stuff the centre of your whole fish or cut a hole into the end of one of the fish fillets and then stuff each piece of fish with some of the parsley mixture.
Fry the fish to cook it (I use peanut oil in a cast iron skillet as peanut oil is traditionally used in West African cuisine do to its availability in the region). But any cooking oil will do fine.
Transfer the cooked fish to a plate and cover. Add the onions and garlic and cook until soft. Then, add the tomato paste, dried chilli flakes and tamarind paste (if using) and stir over medium heat until well mixed.
Transfer tomato paste mixture to a large pot and add 2 litres of water. Add veggies and fish and simmer on medium-high heat with the lid on for roughly 35-40 minutes (or until veggies are tender).
Remove the veggies and fish with a slotted spoon and reserve them in a bowl or container. Measure out 4 cups of broth and pour remaining broth over veggies if desired (or discard). Transfer the 4 cups of broth back to the pot and add 2 cups of rice. Bring to a boil and then reduce heat to low and cover for 20 minutes.
Once rice is cooked, transfer to a large serving platter (or individual plates or bowls work fine;), top with fish and veggies, serve and enjoy!
I was actually amazed at how easy it was to make this dish at home with familiar ingredients and how much it resembled the traditional dish in both look and taste. Feel free to play around with the ingredients to suit your own individual tastes.
What about you? Have you ever tried West African cuisine before? What exotic recipes have you adapted to cook at home? I’m always looking for inspiration when it comes to food and there s so much inspiration to be found in other cultures. I’m always eager to learn more so don’t hesitate to share!
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