FI L I P P O TAFI
Diami, as she is known, runs a onewoman business, cooking and delivering Senegalese meals. She prepares some of the area’s best ceebu jen — a traditional meal of fresh fish served over a cornucopia of vegetables in a tomato-based sauce, all atop rice cooked in the flavor-rich stock. You’ll find vendors selling it on almost any street corner in Dakar. One local ex-patriot says, “Each time I meet someone who has just arrived in Dakar, I offer two pieces of advice: Learn some greetings in Wolof and order some ceebu jen from Diami. The greetings will open the door for you to meet your neighbors, and the food will make you want to stay in Senegal forever.” From Mauritania in the north to Nigeria in the Gulf of Guinea, West Africa’s coastal waters are among the world’s most productive fishing grounds, with approximately 1.6 million tons of fish caught annually. Traditional artisanal fishing remains a key economic component in West Africa alongside larger industrial fisheries. Fish is an important protein source for West Africans, as many of their staple foods are carbohydrate-rich crops (think yams, rice and maize), dependent on unpredictable rainfall. Moving inland, the Senegal, Volta and Niger Rivers are also significant dietary and economical sources of fish. The Bozo people of Mali, some 1,264 kilometers (785 miles) from the coast, have lived in nomadic fishing villages along the Niger River for thousands of years, earning their title, “masters of the river.” Traveling around West Africa you’ll find different countries boasting their own traditional fish recipes. The local specialty in Bamako, Mali, is la capitaine sangha — Nile perch (fresh from the Niger river) with a hot chile sauce garnish, whole fried bananas and rice. In Togo, where ground maize porridge (akume) forms the base of many dishes, akume with ademe sauce combines maize and cassava dough balls cooked in a sauce of ademe, a native green, mixed with smoked and salted fish, crab and beef. In Senegal, ceebu jen is recognized by many names: thieboudienne, tiéboudienne, thiep bou dien, cep bu jën — variations of the Wolof words rice (ceeb) and fish (jen). Internationally, it’s akin to Spanish paella
and Creole jambalaya, a one-pot, multilayered dish where flavors build on each other during the cooking process. First, a whole, white fish is stuffed with roff, a savory mixture of garlic, salt, chile peppers, scallions and parsley. To further infuse the fish with flavor, slices are cut along its sides to make pockets for more roff. After frying in peanut oil until lightly browned, the fish is set aside to be steamed later with the vegetables. It’s important to use the same pan, now perfectly seasoned by the fish, to simmer chopped cabbage, potatoes, eggplant, carrots, onions (and usually hot chiles) in a tomato-based sauce. Pieces of guedge, a smoky, dried fish, are added for deep flavor. After cooking, the vegetables are removed, and short or broken rice steams in the now richly complex broth, hopefully forming some dried, crispy xooñ on the bottom of the pot that makes for a satisfying crunch. Like many Senegalese and West African dishes, the rice is topped with the hearty stew, crowned with the fish and often served on a large platter to be enjoyed communally. Diami’s ceebu jen is well worth the 10,000 CFA (US$20), because one order serves five people. She delivers personally, always with a fresh lime garnish, and even brings extra xooñ to her regular customers. Even they admit, though, that ceebu jen is incredible everywhere
in Dakar. If you’re looking for a dine-in experience, Chez Loutcha, on Rue Mousse Diop in downtown Dakar, serves up large portions at reasonable prices in a lively Senegalese atmosphere. If all this whets your appetite for fish, many traditional Senegalese recipes can be found online and are adaptable to whatever produce or fish you have available. Try your hand at poisson yassa (fish in a lemony onion and mustard sauce) or pastels (savory fish turnovers). Whatever the dish, you’re likely to find yourself falling for the piscine cuisine of West Africa — hook, line and sinker. Visit selamta.co/pastels to dive into another Senegalese recipe.
Ceebu jen — a mix of fish, rice and cooked vegetables — is one of Senegal’s most popular dishes. july/august 2013