Like many from Senegal, the Mbengue family is fractured across two continents. Of the 10 children, three live in Europe, one in Ivory Coast and another is almost always on the road for his job with a fishing company.
On Sundays, though, the three generations still living in this West African country gather at the family home nestled off a sandy road in seaside Dakar. The meal for 20-something relatives takes four hours to prepare. They eat on a tile floor, crowded together around two platters, adults at one, children at another.
Fragrant aromas waft through the two-story concrete home as the three Mbengue sisters labor over thieboudienne, a dish of fish, rice and vegetables enjoyed across Senegal. While shopping, peeling and boiling, the women shoo away seven curious and hungry children eager for a taste.
Mbawa Deme was 14 when she learned to prepare thieboudienne (pronounced CHEB-oo-JEN) from her mother. Now 30, she wears the traditional taille basse-style dress—a snug-fitting amber two-piece—as she directs the others. She is the youngest daughter-in-law at the Mbengue house and her task has significance beyond the meal.
“If you can’t make a good thieboudienne, you’re not going to find a husband. All the men love it,” her sister-in-law Ndeye says.
It’s hard to overstate the importance of thieboudienne. In Dakar, most people eat it for lunch daily, and there’s an industry of women who prepare it at small outdoor restaurants, selling it by the plateful. The Mbengue women say it’s not the same, though. They try to make it during the week, but even the “quick” version takes two hours.
In some ways, it’s a familiar story. Older Senegalese lament shortcuts younger generations take. Cooking it over a gas fire instead of charcoal or relying on MSG-laden bouillon changes the taste, they say.
And then there is thiof, the iconic fish of Senegal. Classic recipes insist on it, but today the grouper is dangerously overfished, pricing it out of range for most.
Thieboudienne has many variations. Poorer families make it with dorade, a type of bream, while the wealthier might opt for capitaine, or hogfish. Whatever the main fish, thieboudienne is defined by layers of rich flavor created by a combination of seafood. Pungency comes from salted and dried guedj. Then there’s tiny, sardine-like yaboye, a Sengalese staple.
“You can have $100 of barracuda, but don’t forget the little fish,” sister-in-law Marieme Thiaw says.
Today, the Mbengue women make thieboudienne diaga, a special variation that includes tiny balls of ground-up fish that are fried in oil before being added to the mix.
The women work on wooden stools in a sunny courtyard, chatting while listening to the music of Senegalese superstar Youssou N’Dour on an iPad. Ndeye washes, then artfully peels the vegetables: yams, carrots, cabbage and eggplant. Marieme guts the fish and tosses the chunks into a large metal bowl, where they marinate before being tossed into the pot. She then turns her attention to rolling the fish as her son cuddles up to her. Petite Mbawa grinds parsley and pepper the traditional way—with a giant wooden mortar and pestle that she throws her weight into.
When the meal is ready, rice dyed red by tomatoes is piled on two large platters, each intended to feed up to 10 people. Boiled golden vegetables soft enough to eat by hand are piled on top, along with pieces of barracuda and diaga sauce. The men and children follow as the meal is brought to the rooftop terrace, where clothing dries in the sun. It is the dry season. Down below, neighborhood children play soccer in a sandy alley. Horse-drawn carts haul goods, as they have for generations.
Marieme squeezes fresh lime juice and adds a few more chilies. The family sits in circles around the bowls, eating with their hands. The men waste no time, and Marieme does her best to divvy up the fish, but the eating is fast. A boy cries when told he can’t join the adult platter.
When the Mbengues are sated, the remains of the meal are given to neighbors less blessed. That, too, is part of thieboudienne. “Thieboudienne is our national dish, but it also represents the Senegalese spirit of sharing and hospitality,” Ndeye says. ◆