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Thieboudienne: the Senegal’s national dish incomplete without fermented sea snails!

3 min read

We are in Senegal.
The country’s cuisine reflects the influence of its west African neighbors and Morocco, to the north, as well as recent patterns of immigration—particularly, since the 1950s, from Vietnam. But there are also the legacies of French and Portuguese colonialism, as well as a varied topography ranging from a seafood-laden coast to a semi-arid interior awash in millet and peanuts.
Despite its election turmoil, the country has been an oasis of stability and democratic rule in west Africa since winning independence from the French in 1960. Still, hunger is popular, above all in rural areas, and Senegal continues to suffer from periodic food shortages. All these factors converge in the capital, Dakar, where, like throughout the country, meals tend to be single-dish affairs, with everyone grazing from one bowl or platter, using spoons or bare hands to scoop up meat and vegetables—always supplemented with rice or couscous.
Sosa kaani, an incendiary sauce made from Scotch bonnet peppers, is on every table at every meal.
Most meals are eaten at friends’ houses, prepared in courtyards by women and girls using little by way of equipment like a mortar and pestle, dull knives, a propane tank, or a small charcoal grill. And a guest, in Senegal, is treated like a king, given the best seat, the biggest cut of meat, and encouraged to eat literally until he or she is bursting.

Senegal’s national dish is Thieboudienne, or ceebu jën in Wolof (language spoken in Senegal, in The Gambia and Mauritania), which literally means “rice and fish”: rice, fish, and vegetables stewed in a chile-hot tomato base that gets its signature saline funk from two essential local flavorings, gejj (dried fermented fish) and yeet (dried fermented snails).
Alternately spelled “yet” or “yeet”, these large marine mollusks are buried in the sand for several days, then sun-dried, when they are ready to impart a signature saline taste to Senegal’s popular fish-and-rice dish.
Some diners say the yete has a leathery texture, a smoky aroma, and a briny flavor that also tastes a bit musky.
Despite there is no true substitute for snail flesh, in its absence, cooks choose a Southeast Asian fish sauce to impart a comparable brininess. But many claim that yete is less intense than the other aquatic flavoring added to their thieboudienne.

According to the legend, the dish was created, or at least made famous in its current form by a renowned cook of the nineteenth century named Penda Mbaye. There are few traces and verifiable sources of this famous character, but many oral stories talk about her.
She was apparently a waalo-waalo, resident of the historic Kingdom of Waalo centered on the Senegal River delta, around the city of St. Louis, who made her living by cooking for family ceremonies. One day, she had the genius idea mashing cherry tomatoes to use in her cuisine, and success and fame followed after the end result delighted the palaces of Saint Louis.
The reason why her thieboudienne now affectionately called thiéboudieune Penda Mbaye by Senegalese, became so successful, is largely due to the fact that the city of Saint Louis (or Ndar in Wolof) was a reference in terms of culture at the time, and the capital of French West Africa (Afrique Occidentale Française), one of the oldest cities and most important culturally in Senegal.

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