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Gift of the Maggi

A salty liquid seasoning faces off against ketchup in Harlem

The national dish of Senegal was inspired by paella, which was brought to the west coast of Africa by Iberian traders in the 16th century. Made under ideal conditions around Dakar, where a cornucopia of vegetables is readily available, Senegalese thiebou djenne (pronounced "cheb-boo-jenn") rivals bouillabaisse in its perfection and complexity. Here's the recipe: Pieces of fish—usually small tuna that can be caught from pirogues—are stuffed with a paste of cilantro, garlic, and green onion, fried in palm oil, and removed. Water is added and vegetables, one by one, are boiled and pulled out. Rice is then cooked in this oily broth with bits of sun-dried stockfish and tamarind. When the rice is done it's bright red from the palm oil and highly flavored by all the ingredients that have gone before. The fish and vegetables are arranged on top of the rice, and the dish is served by the matriarch of the family, who carefully distributes each morsel.

The best cheb I've ever had was bought from a woman on the Senegalese island of Gorée, who dispensed takeout meals from a ground-floor kitchen in one of the pastel colonial houses. The customers were mainly African bachelors and low-level American and French foreign-service workers. On most nights, her version boasted nine vegetables, and I learned from her to judge cheb by counting the number of vegetables.

Though still delicious, the dish made here for homesick Wolof immigrants has never quite matched the African renditions. While you can sometimes get four or five vegetables, three or even two turn out to be more typical. In New York, cooks usually omit the fish stuffing, stockfish, and tamarind. I had my first cheb here over a decade ago in one of the Senegalese underground kitchens established in SRO hotels, where it was served family-style from communal receptacles. Five dollars bought a limitless serving, and a new bowl was brought out every time the previous one was exhausted. Since then I've eaten every restaurant version of cheb I could find, totaling nearly two dozen.

Out of Africa: Aligi serves up cheb.
photo: Tara Engberg
Out of Africa: Aligi serves up cheb.

The current best is available at La Marmite, a comfortable Harlem café that was previously an Ivory Coast place called Le Grenier ("the granary"). La Marmite is named after a lidded French casserole, which is also the restaurant's logo. Like other versions around town, the cheb served there is regrettably devoid of palm oil—a concession to American health food consciousness. As a result, the signature orange color has changed to a dull brown. Marmite's cheb ($8), however, does feature four vegetables—cabbage, carrot, yuca, and eggplant. While the firm bluefish fillet that so ably stands in for tuna is not actually stuffed, it comes with a salty fish relish, and tart tamarind segments are found among the rice grains.

While Senegalese cafés along West 116th Street shocked me a couple of years ago by replacing traditional condiments with American ketchup, La Marmite retains its yellow-and-red bottle of Maggi seasoning, the African favorite. This dark fluid was invented not by the Three Wise Men, who prefer to spell their name with one g, but by 19th-century Swiss food scientist Julius Maggi. Seeking ways to fortify the diet of the poor, this unsung hero invented the bouillon cube in 1882, and Maggi seasoning, which tastes something like soy sauce, two years later.

No matter how much Senegalese cuisine evolves here, I'm never putting ketchup on my cheb!

 
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