A scrap of paper, a Senegalese surprise
On a flight home last week, a little scrap of paper with words scrawled on it tumbled out. “Senegal,” it read. “Thiéboudienne. fish/rice. seasoned with paste: parsley, spring onions, chillies, black pepper. Eaten on Saturdays.” That was it. There was no recipe. There never is.
Despite possessing more than 60 cookbooks, I am bad at following recipes. One reason is my inability to pre-organize, so I tend to cook with whatever is at hand. This technique has served me well. Everyday cooking isn’t rocket science—nor should it be.
However, my methods fail with somewhat more involved cooking, and they also limit my ability to try foreign food because that requires procuring ingredients that aren’t normally in my larder. Regular readers of this column will also know that I am loath to store foreign spices and ingredients because then my bi-monthly culinary ramblings would be that much harder to follow.
Indians are notorious for carrying their dietary habits when they travel, but my family is not among them. We are eager to try anything, anywhere. The vegetarian wife has, often, managed with salad and fries—as long as there is alcohol, she isn’t fussy.
So, there is some irony in my domestic approach to gastronomy. I am not given to desi comfort food. Even those who travel well crave, at some point, dal-chawal, idli-sambhar, fish curry-rice, sabzi chapati, whatever. I do not. I may have tried random exotica—from snakes in Vietnam to worms in South Africa—but I focus always on staple food. I adapt to local cuisine immediately, and I do not carry ingredients for desi food. I can go months eating a Japanese-style breakfast, perhaps with miso soup, sticky rice and a piece of fish, South African pap—or maize porridge—and gravy for lunch and do dinner as the Danes might, with raw, pickled herring and rye bread. I am glad to sample the varied offerings of the human race—in the place they are offered.
Sometimes, just sometimes, I break that principle at home, when I feel inspired to cook something from far-off lands. That inspiration may come from random sources—an in-flight magazine, a local newspaper, a conversation, or even a billboard. I jot down these inspirations on chits of paper, promising myself that I will look them up, sometime. They litter the inside of my wallet and my clothes drawer, waiting to be brought to life.
When the thiéboudienne chit tumbled out, the time was right. I was bored of my quick-fix cooking. And I wanted something that did not require chapatis, bread or accompaniments. All I remembered of the thiéboudienne jotting was that it was made on a flight out of Dubai, possibly to Johannesburg; I remembered it had spice, vegetables and fish.
It is usually hard to combine vegetables and meat at home. I must cook separately for the vegetarian. And from my hasty internet research, thiéboudienne could not be made for one person. One day last week, the wife was travelling, and my parents were coming over for lunch. Perfect.
As it emerged, thiéboudienne is a one-dish family meal. Like I said, I use whatever is at hand, and that is what I did. There was no cassava to be had in the local market, of course, or nététou, the processed seeds of the African locust bean. But I gathered that a thiéboudienne is much like jollof rice, which I had made before, and which is essentially rice, tomato paste, vegetables and fish. It also has guedj, a salted and dried fish.
It was up to me to come up with an Indian translation. I replaced guedj with tiny dried shrimp and went with my gut on the other ingredients, retaining mainly parsley. What emerged was meant to be a quick lunch for the parents and I. It was not exactly quick, but I was done in an hour. The parents approved, as did I. It’s time to find more scraps of culinary notes and bring them to life. I’ll keep you posted.
Thiéboudienne, Indian Style
800g whole fish, cleaned, with slits on each side (I used Indian salmon)
For the marinade
7-8 tbsp fresh parsley
2-3 small red chillies
4 cloves garlic
1 tbsp white vinegar
Salt, to taste
For the rice
1/2 mugs rice, half-cooked
1 long eggplant, cut into oblong slices, about Ncm thick
1 sweet potato, similarly cut
1 medium cabbage, do not slice
3-4 carrots, each cut into three
1 tsp ginger, chopped
2 tsp garlic, chopped
2 tsp tiny dried shrimp
1/2 medium onion, chopped
4-5 spring onions, chop bulbs and stalks, keep separate
4 tsp cold-pressed sesame oil or vegetable oil
1 Tetra Pak tomato paste
Salt, to taste
Grind the ingredients or pound in a mortar-pestle and rub the paste into the fish, especially within slits.
In a large non-stick pan, warm two teaspoons of oil and fry fish until done. Keep aside. In the same pan, warm two more teaspoons of oil and sauté ginger, garlic, chillies, spring onion bulbs, onion and dried shrimp for a minute. Add tomato paste and sauté for another minute. Add eggplant, carrot and sweet potato. Add salt and a mug of water, cover and cook for 10 minutes or until done. Add cabbage last; it should cook within 5 minutes. Remove vegetables as they get done, carrots will take the longest. In the same water, add rice, pepper, cover and cook until done. You may need to add more water. In a large dish, make a mountain of rice and flatten the top. Decorate the sides with vegetables, separating the cabbage leaves. Place fish on top. Sprinkle chopped spring onion stalks.
This is a column on easy, inventive cooking from a male perspective. Samar Halarnkar is the author of The Married Man’s Guide To Creative Cooking—And Other Dubious Adventures.
The writer tweets at @samar11