No. 19: Cheb at Dibiterie Cheikh
What a colorful heap of food is Senegalese cheb!
Known more formally as tiebou dienn ("cheb-oo-zhenn") in the Wolof language, cheb is the national dish of Senegal. Consisting of a massive heap of red rice topped with stuffed fish and a vegetable cornucopia, cheb seems almost a modern dish, though it was probably developed in the 16th century, when Iberian mariners first skirted the coast of West Africa.
Cheb is said to have been inspired by something akin to Spanish paella, but how differrent it became! Traditionally, the rice is heavily laced with palm oil, further flavored with tamarind and bits of stockfish -- small, bony swimmers that have been dried in the sun on the beach, producing an indescribably funky flavor.
The hunks of fresh fish have been stuffed with cilantro, green onions, and garlic, and then fried before being deposited on the top of the rice. Because the capital of Senegal, Dakar, situated on a stunted peninsula on the extreme west of the African continent, is ringed with gardens, cheb often contains a rich combination of vegetables, often including yuca, okra, carrots, orange and white yams, and eggplant.
The version at Dibiterie Cheikh -- named after Cheikh Ahmadou Bamba Mbacké, the founder of the Marabout branch of Islam headquartered in the holy city of Touba, Senegal -- reflects the influences of modern America. The rice, for one thing, has been reduced to a tiny heap. In its original form, cheb would be 90 percent rice. Sadly, the palm oil has been eliminated, as a result of disinformation campaigns about the oil -- indigenous to West Africa -- on the part of nutritionists.
Never you mind. Cheb is still glorious in the complexity of its flavors and what those flavors have to say about the history of West Africa. But you can only get it at lunch at most Senegalese restaurants in town, since most have converted to a French menu in the evening, featuring such things as fried fish, roast chicken, and grilled steaks. "Dibiterie," by the way, refers to a cafe that specializes in "dibi," or grilled lamb chops.
Dibiterie Cheikh 231 West 116th Street 212-663-0717
100 Days/100 Dishes is an almost-random alphabetical collection of delicious dishes from around the five boroughs. See the entire series so far.
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