añ: lunch, to eat lunch
Out of all the things that I am going to miss in Senegal, ceebu jenn—the traditional dish of rice and fish—is near the top of the list. It is without hesitation the best fish and rice I have ever had. The first time I ate it, I thought, I have never tasted these flavors in my whole life, and then all thought disappeared, submitted to the blank trance-like state that occurs when you are eating something amazing. Through the three and a half months I have been here I have not gotten tired of ceebujeen once.
Of course, there are some problems with ceebujeen. It is made with possibly the lowest-quality white rice I have ever seen in my whole life, the fish is like a graveyard of bones, the vegetables have been stewed to within an inch of their life and you can practically feel the sodium that is the result of a half-dozen seasoning packets. So despite these problems, why is ceebujenn so good? I have theory.
The theory is that ceebujenn is good because it is only for añ, the lunch meal. I have never had ceebujeen for any meal other than lunch, never at dinner. This works to the dish’s advantage because of a truly insane aspect of Senegalese life—that lunch takes place at two or three o’clock in the afternoon. This fact is certifiably nuts because the only thing people eat for breakfast is dry, uninspiring bread with margarine or chocolate spread, which means that by noon or even ten o’clock, you are unbearably hungry. Thus, by the time lunch rolls around, you are going bonkers and absolutely ready to shove nearly anything down your craw, and in the crazed fog of hunger all the little annoying things about ceebujeen fade away.
And yet, I suspect that ceebujeen also is good simply because, fundamentally, it is good—a work of culinary genius. Under the watchful eye of the Senegalese woman, the horrible broken-grain rice that must be sifted for pebbles is transformed into the most flavorful rice I have ever tasted, exploding with the rich flavors of the broth of fish and vegetables in which it was cooked, so that you don’t even notice the low quality of the grain. The vegetables provide a calmer taste and softer texture as a complement to the flavorful rice. And the fish, through being fried and then put in the sauce with veggies, is transformed from a mediocre, cheap, previously-frozen trash fish into a perfectly cooked poisson.
Maybe that is the beauty of ceebujenn, its real genius—the ability to take a bunch of subpar ingredients and to turn it into a culinary feast, a communal gathering, a delicious moment.