When Papa Diagne moved to Brooklyn from Dakar a couple of decades ago, he had never cooked a thing in his life. Not because he didn’t want to – see, in Senegal, men just don’t cook. If a guy were to try, people would think him…crazy, basically. Of course, things are different here. As Papa says, “Here, it’s a whole different reality.” It was here, watching his siblings prepare dishes from home in their kitchen in Bed-Stuy, that Papa found his calling.
He fell in love with cooking and started a business making Senegalese food at home and delivering it to fellow expats working in downtown Brooklyn who craved taste of west Africa at lunchtime. Before he knew it, he was delivering his food to a cross section of Brooklynites with roots extending far beyond west Africa, and knew he was onto something.
Eighteen years ago, he opened Joloff, the restaurant in Bed-Stuy where he showcases his own take on traditional Senegalese cuisine. We stopped by to meet Papa and to try his tiebuu jeun – a vegetable, fish and rice three-act stew known officially as the national dish of Senegal.
OK Papa, what should we have today?
I think of course you should try our tiebuu jeun. Tiebuu jeun is what we call the national dish of Senegal. In Wolof, our language in Senegal, tiebuu jeun means just rice and fish. Basically it is fish, rice and vegetables all cooked in stages in a tomato-based sauce. It’s our signature dish here at Joloff.
You will find this dish in every household in Senegal. Senegal is on the west coast of Africa, on the Atlantic Ocean, so over there, we have a lot of fish. Fish is very important in our cuisine. If you walk by three or four houses in the afternoon in Senegal, the people will be making tiebuu jeun in at least one of them. Probably two. This is what everybody eats all of the time.
It’s a very, very good dish. For most people from Senegal, it’s their favorite thing to eat in the whole world. The only thing is that it takes a very long time to cook. You have to be very patient to make tiebuu jeun, because everything has to cook very slowly. You cannot rush it. This is a dish that will take you at least one hour to make, but that would be only if you are very, very fast, and you don’t really want to be very, very fast when you make this dish. For most people, the way they like to make it will take a lot longer than that.
To make the tiebuu jeun, you have to start with the sauce. It starts as a tomato sauce, but then it changes as you cook more things in it. First, you sauté some onions. In Senegal, we usually use palm oil, but any vegetable or olive oil can do. You sauté the onion and then you add your tomato paste. We always use tomato paste to make this dish in Senegal. The flavor of the tomato is really concentrated in the paste, so we like to use that.
You let the tomato paste and the onions simmer a little bit, and then you add some water, so that you have enough liquid to stew your vegetables. You season it too – just some salt and pepper. Then you add your vegetables to cook in the sauce. You can use cabbage, carrot, cassava, okra, eggplant…whatever you have in the season, you can use. Cauliflower, pepper, anything. It’s a very versatile dish. It’s ok to use whatever type of vegetable you have for the season.
Here at the restaurant, we are using cabbage, carrot and cassava now, because they are the kind of thing you can find at this time of year. Greens work very well with it too – collard greens, spinach. But today, we have cabbage, carrot and cassava. We just add the vegetables to the pot, to cook into the sauce. They simmer down nice and slowly until they become very soft. They give some of their flavor to the sauce, and the sauce gives some of its flavor to them. When they’re all done, you pull them out of the pot, and put them to the side.
Back at home in Senegal, we add some dry fish to the sauce and the vegetables too. It has a very powerful flavor. It’s hard to find that kind of Senegalese dried fish here in New York, and not everyone likes that very strong flavor, so for those reasons we don’t use it here. But also we always make this dish with bluefish. Bluefish has a very nice, strong flavor on its own, so we don’t need to have even more fish flavor from adding dried fish. It’s very good on its own.
So after we cook the vegetables and we put them to the side, then it’s time to cook the fish. We cook it in the same sauce, in the same pot as the vegetables. In Senegal, people use any kind of fish. Whatever fish they have, they use. All the fish in Senegal is fresh fish. You catch it yourself or you buy it as it comes off the boat, or you buy it at the market, from the fisherman’s wife. You can use, snapper, barracuda, bluefish. Any kind of fish. But it’s best to use bigger fish, firmer fish, so that it doesn’t break up when you cook it in the sauce. Here, we always use bluefish. It’s a very good fish for this dish.
In Senegal and here at Joloff, we always stuff the fish with herbs. We take the fillets of the fish we are going to cook in the tiebuu jeun, and we cut into them with a knife and we stuff them. Here, we stuff them with fresh parsley and garlic. We grind up the parsley and garlic and stuff them into the fish. Then the fish goes into the pot, into the sauce, to cook. First the vegetables give their flavor to the sauce, now the fish.
You let the fish cook slowly in the sauce for a nice long time, until it is ready. You let the sauce really cook down while you simmer the fish, so when the fish is finished, it’s very red on the outside. As it cooks, the fish absorbs the flavor of the tomato and the vegetables in the sauce, and the parsley and garlic stuffing in the fish cooks too, giving it even more flavor. The fish and the stuffing give their flavor back to the sauce, too, so the sauce keeps changing, you see? When it’s done, the fish is very, very tender, very moist. You take it out of the sauce, and you put it to the side.
The last part of the dish is the rice. Joloff rice, we call it. To me, it’s the best part of the dish. All over west Africa, people have their own versions of Joloff rice. The Nigerian people, they say Joloff rice is theirs. In Ghana they say it’s theirs. In Sierra Leone, the same. Everyone says, “This kind of rice is our own.” But in Senegal, we know Joloff rice really originated in Senegal. [laughter.] We know because a long time ago there was an empire called the Joloff empire. It was based in Senegal. The language we speak in Senegal is Wolof, just like Joloff, you see? The people are called Wolof. So we know it is really from Senegal. But I say to everyone, “It’s ok! We can all share it! It can be everyone’s rice.” [laughter.]
What makes Joloff rice so special, is that we cook it in the same sauce we used to cook the vegetables and then the fish. First we cook the vegetables in the sauce, then we cook the fish in the sauce, then we cook the rice in the sauce. So the rice absorbs the flavors of the tomato sauce and of the vegetables that cooked in that sauce and of the fish that cooked in that sauce. It’s very, very rich and nice in flavor by the time you use it to cook the rice.
The rice we use has a very nice flavor of its own to begin with. It’s jasmine rice – a nice, aromatic rice. In Senegal, we always use broken jasmine rice, so it’s a very short grain. That’s what we always use because it’s perfect for this dish. So the rice goes into the same pot with the same sauce used to cook the vegetables and the fish, and you cover it up and the rice absorbs all of the rest of the sauce and all of the flavors of the things that came before.
When it’s done, the rice is nice and red, just like the fish and the vegetables. In Senegal, normally we make tiebuu jeun and serve it all on one big plate. Everyone sits around the plate, on the floor or at a table, and we all eat the tiebuu jeun together, with our hands or with a fork, whatever you like. Here, we don’t do that. We serve it on one plate for each person.
The thing that I like about this dish is that everything is stewed in stages. It’s a simple dish, but there are many things going on. The vegetables cook in the sauce and take on the flavor of the tomato sauce, and give it their own flavor back. They make it more complex. Then the fish is stuffed with that nice bright green parsley and garlic, and it cooks in the sauce and absorbs the flavors of the sauce and the vegetables that cooked in it before, while giving the sauce back its own flavor. It makes it more complex again. It adds another dimension. And finally, the rice is cooked in the sauce again, and it completely absorbs all of the flavors of everything that came before it in the pot, and it’s just beautiful.
So while the colors on the dish are the same, and everything is cooked in the same pot, and there are not a lot of ingredients, each bite still has its own little special thing. One bite maybe you have the fish with rice, another bite, the cabbage with fish, or the cassava with rice, or you take a bite of the fish and get taste of that green parsley stuffing, which is like a nice surprise. You can have many, many different bites and flavors in this dish. It’s not complicated, but there are many layers of flavor.
So like I said, in Senegal, this is the dish that everybody loves. Everybody eats this, everybody loves it, and now you can see why, right? [laughter.]
What about you Papa? How did you end up here in Brooklyn doing this?
I was born and raised in Dakar, which is the big capital city of Senegal. I lived there until I was in my early thirties. Dakar is very different from here. It’s very different from the rest of Senegal too. It’s like its own country, Dakar. It’s a beautiful place. Lots of people. Friendly people. If you go there once, you’re always going to try to go back, because you’re going to love it.
Dakar is on a peninsula, almost surrounded completely by the Atlantic Ocean. There are beaches all around Dakar, and many are covered with hundreds and hundreds of fishing boats. A lot of people in Dakar fish from these small, open boats. They go out and they fish. When they come back, you can buy fish from them on the beach. Some of them, when they come back from the sea, their wife or sister will bring the fish to sell at the market. So you can get it at the market too. That’s why you have fish all the time in Dakar. It’s everywhere.
Growing up, I used to go out fishing a lot. I loved to go fishing. I would come home in the afternoon with fish. One of my friends, her mom used to sell fish at the market. We would bring the fish to her at the market to sell for us, and we would bring some home to cook. I really liked that – fishing as a kid.
I never thought one time growing up that I would be a cook. Cooking was something…I don’t know how to put it…in Senegal usually it is the women who cook. If a man tries to cook, the women say, “Are you crazy?,” and they come and cook for them. Over there, it wasn’t considered proper for a man to cook. Here, it’s a whole different reality.
I moved to New York when I was in my early thirties. I came for the same reason so many people come here, I think – for greater opportunity of making money and a better life. People come here from all over the world to make money, because they think it’s going to be easy, but it’s not easy. That’s what everybody finds out when they get here. [laughter.]
When I moved here, I had never even fried an egg in my life. Seriously. Everything I learned about cooking, I learned it here. When I first moved here, I was living in a house right here in Bed-Stuy with my siblings. Every day, somebody else was supposed to cook dinner for the house. After work, everyone would come home and we would all eat together. I was still looking for a job. I wasn’t working yet. I was home, and I was watching my siblings cook, and the more I watched, the more interested in it I became.
I started to learn to cook, and the more I learned, the more I fell in love with it. I learned to do it pretty well. One day, I had an idea. I thought, “You know, I know a lot of Senegalese people who live around here and who work in downtown Brooklyn, around Fulton Street and that area. They’re buying lunch. They’re paying for food that they don’t even like to eat. Why don’t I cook and I’ll take it there to them and they can pay me for food that they actually do like to eat! [laughter.] Everyone will be happy!”
So that’s how I started cooking for a living. I started with people from Senegal that I knew who worked around there. I said, “I can bring you lunch. Do you want it?” They said, “Oh yes. I would like that.” I was cooking food at home, and delivering it to them for lunch. At first it was six people, all Senegalese. I knew them from the neighborhood. But in less than two months, I had a whole variety of customers. I had Spanish people, Japanese people, any kind of person you can think of.
You see, they would see one of my neighbors eating my food. They would smell it. “Mmmm, that smells good,” they would think. “What is that? What are you eating?,” they would ask. They would say, “When the guy comes next time, can I get some?” So the people who knew me, they would call me up and say, “What do you have today? I have one guy over here, he wants to try your food.” I would say, “Okay, I’ll bring him a plate.” It happened more and more and more and more.
Soon, I was cooking for a lot of people. I was cooking Senegalese food in my apartment kitchen six days a week and bringing it to all these people. Sometimes if it was late, somebody would call me at home and say, “Do you have anything left? I’ll come and pick it up. I really want that food. That’s what I want tonight.”
I learned how to cook other stuff too. In Senegal, everything we eat has fish or chicken or meat. When I got here, I became friends with some Rastafarian guys. They were musicians and they used to hang out by my house. Like I said, in Senegal, when we eat we take a big plate and we put it in the middle of the table and everybody eats together. We always invite our friends, everybody, to come and eat with us. But these guys, when they came to our place they couldn’t eat with us. Rastas, you know, they are vegetarian. We did not like that they couldn’t eat the food we were serving.
I said, “You know, I have to find a way to make something these guys can eat.” So I learned how to cook vegan, vegetarian Senegalese food. In Senegal, that doesn’t even exist, but in Brooklyn, it does. I made it. [laughter.] And that’s a part of our menu to this day.
I loved all that. I cooked for people out of my home for two years, and then I got together one day with my siblings to talk about opening a restaurant, and we decided to do it. That was over eighteen years ago. Now, I’ve been here for a couple of decades. My kids were born here and raised here. When I came here, I remember I had a single gray hair on my head, right here. Now, I have more gray hair than anything else. But it’s ok. Now, Brooklyn is my home, and I love it. I enjoy myself here. It’s amazing. Being a cook? Having a family, raising my family here on the other side of the ocean from where I come from? I never would have imagined it. Never, ever would have imagined it.
Joloff is located at 1168 Bedford Avenue, between Putnam and Madison, in Bed-Stuy.
Photography by Morgan Ione-Yeager. All rights reserved.