Find out how thieboudienne became the pride of Senegal

By LeAnn Nguyen
April 9, 2018

Thieboudienne from Bahati Restaurant. Photo by Bao Nguyen.

Every nation has a short list of a few dishes that’s universally loved and it’s not often that you see one stand out so much as to be considered an icon of national pride. But that’s just the case with thieboudienne, or ceebu jën, in Senegal.

By far the most popular dish in the country and, as such, expectations can run high. Literally translating to “rice and fish” in the Senegalese language of Wolof, this dish seems modest at first glance. However, once you get to know its flavors, ease in preparation, and versatility, it’s clear why this dish is so beloved throughout Senegal and beyond.

According to Senegalese oral traditions, thieboudienne’s origins can be traced back to one woman, Penda Mbaye, from the coastal city of Saint-Louis. She was a cook in the home of the French colonial governor at the turn of the 19th century and created the dish by combining the city’s abundant fresh fish with rice newly imported from Asia. She also had the idea to add mashed cherry tomatoes to her cooking which, according to legend, pleased the taste of the colonial higher-ups. The dish subsequently spread throughout Senegal and nearby countries like Côte d’Ivoire and Guinea, where it’s known as riz graz. In Senegal today, it’s also often called thieboudienne Penda Mbaye in honor of its creator.

Thieboudienne from La Teranga. Photo from Yelp.

The base ingredients of thieboudienne are simple: fish, rice, and tomato sauce. These ingredients are easily adaptable to individual taste and go well with other ingredients you might have on hand. You can use nearly any kind of fish (white, firm varieties like bass work best) and rice (broken jasmine rice works well). The fish is first stuffed with seasonings like salt, pepper, parsley and garlic, then boiled or fried and cooked in tomato sauce with your vegetables of choice. Root vegetables like carrots, cassava, and potatoes are a good complement. Softer veggies like cabbage and bell peppers also do well. Smoked fish is sometimes added to infuse the dish with an additional kick. Cooked rice is added last, and everything is mixed to give the dish its traditional bright red color.

Thieboudienne is easily made in one pot. The main investment in preparation is time, since it takes a while for all the ingredients to simmer and cook fully. While it is definitely worth the wait, if you find yourself short on time to prepare thieboudienne yourself, don’t worry – you can still enjoy it by heading to one of several Seattle restaurants serving this dish. La Teranga and Bahati Restaurant both proudly serve the national dish in Columbia City.