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What Is Thieboudienne?

Cynde Gregory
Cynde Gregory

Nothing says home to a Senegalese quite like thieboudienne. This one-pot rice and fish dinner certainly knows how to bring a family together. The meal is served from an enormous, shared bowl around which diners sit or squat, scooping out palmfuls that are rapidly poked and prodded and rolled into bite-size morsels. About the only thing thieboudienne doesn’t know how to do is spell its own name as it willingly goes by thiep bu dinenne, ceebu djen, and a host of other phonetic spellings.

No matter which way it is spelled, this aromatic family meal, which originated with the Woolof people, has become so ubiquitous that many Senegalese consider it the national dish. With a dozen spellings and a dozen squared variations, there’s no wrong way to prepare thieboudienne. The ground floor always contains rice, preferably short-grained or sticky rice, as well as steamed, fried, or dried fish. Tomatoes or tomato sauce, fried onions and garlic, and either palm or peanut oil put on the finishing touches for an everyday home-cooked meal.

Cabbage is an especially popular ingredient when making thieboudienne.
Cabbage is an especially popular ingredient when making thieboudienne.

Some cooks use the opportunity to include whatever vegetables are available. Especially popular are cabbage, yams, and potatoes. When they are in season, eggplants can jump in and play as well as chopped greens such as parsley. A good splash of burn-your-mouth Scotch Bonnet hot sauce is considered de rigueur in many households.

Thieboudienne is as relaxed about the how the fish is prepared as it is about the spelling of its name. Traditionally, just enough dried fish to infuse the dish with flavor was used. Today, cooks who live close to the ocean have greater opportunity to prepare whole fish or fillets either by frying over an aromatic, wood-burning grill or by steaming them.

Chopped tomatoes and onions are often added to thieboudienne.
Chopped tomatoes and onions are often added to thieboudienne.

This rice and fish dish has roots in Spanish paella. Like that older cousin, thieboudienne can be prepared with the addition of other meats as well as seafood. A version in which the protein is restricted to beef is called ceebu yapp and is nearly as popular.

Regardless of the ingredients that ultimately make it into the pot, the cooking method is the same. Onions and garlic are sautéed and combined in a pot together with the fish. Diluted tomato paste or sauce jumps in next along with several cups of water and the veggies. Once everything is cooked, it’s removed so that the remaining liquid can welcome the rice with open arms.

The next part isn’t exactly tricky, but timing does count. The moment to pull the rice from the cooker is after the water has cooked off and the bottom layer of rice has begun to toast. It mustn’t be allowed to burn, however, or the dish is ruined. The toasty rice should be spread in a thin layer all around the bowl, and the vegetables and fish or meat are tucked tenderly on top.

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Discussion Comments


I’m from west Africa natively and of course have grown up trained in the methods and origins of our traditional native cooking techniques from birth.

Thank you for writing this commentary

on our traditional food. We appreciate your efforts.

However, it’s important when commenting on someone else’s culture that is foreign to you to approach it with appropriate modesty since it’s not your native culture & there are many things you may not know.

As such, some corrections need to be made.

Whereas you stated,

✅ “This aromatic family meal, which originated with the Wolof people, has become so ubiquitous that many Senegalese consider it the national dish. “

You then attempted to state

❌ “ This rice and fish dish has roots in Spanish paella.”

My question to you would be, Why do you feel the need, urge, & tendency to want to attribute & appropriate everyone else’s culture to being of “european roots,” a continent which in itself has been influenced by and borrowed from so many other cultures?

The origins of our west African dish, Ceebu Jen does not “have roots” from Spanish paella or any other Spanish cultural tradition.

Senegal wasn’t colonized by the Spanish.

Almost every culture in the world eats variations of rice dishes. Even though they may be similar, it doesn’t mean they automatically originated “from europe” just because europe may also cook rice dishes.

Furthermore, the historical origins of so called “Spanish” Paella is that the crop of rice along with the Paella dish itself was brought to Spain by the Moors who settled Spain from North Africa between the later 16th-19th century which was around the recent 1500s, with It’s modern version having been developed as recently as the 19th century.

This would indicate the total opposite—that Paella actually has its origins & roots in African cooking having been brought by the African Moors to Spain more recently based off the millennia-old traditional west African rice dishes, including the usage of the snail.

Whereas, In Africa we have an indigenous rice cuisine culture and have been cooking and eating rice dishes from domesticating rice cultivation for at least as early as 1500 B.C.E, where we cultivated various kinds of rice in our village gardens and cooked them with vegetables, meats, & native sauces into tasty dishes to feed ourselves—well before the African moors introduced & brought paella to Spain in the 1500s.

The first thing you stated is what is correct:

✅ Ceeb & Jen originates from the Wolof empire.

The word “Ceeb” in our native Wolof tongue there means rice, and “Jen” means fish.

It was a rice dish modified & developed in the 19th century by native Wolof cook & chef Penda Mbaye based off the traditional rice cuisines of The Wolof empire of the 14th century which spanned Senegal, Gambia, & Mauritania (African Moors) and was based off the common ingredients and principles that have governed so much of traditional west African cooking of our rice dishes for millennia.

Rice was cultivated & eaten traditionally for millennia in the southern regions of Senegal. Whereas Barley was eaten more in the north.

Penda Mbaye was cooking for an event and ran out of barley, so she substituted rice in her one-pot dish of tomatoes, meat and vegetables.

Within the Wolof empire, rice often had sacred ceremonial value, often figuring into the traditional religion of west African cosmology & was seen as a luxury in some regions of the Senegambia.

This is what we’ve always been taught passed down in our culture orally by way of preserved tradition from our ancestors.

So a lot of cultures have been eating rice based dishes with vegetables & meats well before europeans.

Being native & trained in the traditional cuisines of my culture from infancy, although spanish paella is, yes, a rice dish based off African cooking, I notice that its ingredients and method of cooking are still very different in some ways from how Ceebu Jen is cooked, with 1) Ceebu Jen including A LOT more ingredients that are different from Paella, 2) being based off greater blend of flavors, & 3) overall being more complex in how it’s made, something that has always been common to the principles & rules governing African cooking throughout our entire continent—and it tastes different from paella as well.

We have variations of these same rice dishes like Ceebu & Jen all over Africa that are indigenous.

When Penda Mbaye developed Ceebu & Jen, it was just another variation of these same old rice/vegetable/meat dishes we’ve been cooking following the same ancient cooking techniques & principles for millennia.

It has no roots in Spain or so called “Spanish” Paella.

Ceebu Jen’s only connection to Paella is that they both were developed in the 19th century based off older west African rice & stew cooking traditions that already existed.

✔️ The ingredients of Ceeb & Jen are African.

✔️ The traditional principles & rules regarding how to cook it CORRECTLY are African.

✔️ The inventor (Penda Mbaye)

of this variation of our traditional rice dishes in Africa was an African woman, with the dish originating from her own mind & creativity based off the traditional native cuisines she was already used to.

Thus, Ceebu Jen was invented within the native African mind of Penda Mbaye, based off native indigenous African cooking, & was first cooked & created on the African soil.

Therefore, it has its ROOTS & ORIGINS in the African people as our native African dish.

In conclusion, thank you for sharing our dish.

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    • Cabbage is an especially popular ingredient when making thieboudienne.
      By: monticellllo
      Cabbage is an especially popular ingredient when making thieboudienne.
    • Chopped tomatoes and onions are often added to thieboudienne.
      By: Profotokris
      Chopped tomatoes and onions are often added to thieboudienne.