Revisit: Diberterie Cheikh

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Two years ago, when I reviewed newcomer Dibiterie Cheikh, I found the place to be on the very cusp of innovation: It was the first Senegalese restaurant to consistently offer appetizers, in this case, little half-moon pies stuffed with smoked herring called fataya, and pork-free Vietnamese spring rolls known as nems. In the process of studying how the Senegalese national dish of cheb (more formally, tiebou dienne) has evolved in New York, I recently paid a revisit.

I went at lunch, when traditional tribal dishes of the Wolof are served, including cheb, mafe, and yassa. Cheb is an over-rice dish of fish and vegetables probably descended from paella. When I first started eating it in New York over 15 years ago, it was colored bright red with palm oil. In the ensuing time, the palm oil has disappeared in response to a general perception on the part of Senegalese cooks that palm oil is unhealthy. The Maggi sauce that used to be on every Senegalese table has disappeared, too, at first in favor of ketchup. Now the ketchup is gone.

Though the cheb is served around two in the afternoon, you can also usually get the leftovers in the evening, even though the evening menu is more like a West African spin on French cooking. I ate it in the afternoon, and noted the changes the dish has undergone. First, the rice (Southeast Asian broken rice is used for this dish, and this dish only) has decreased in volume, so that now the chunks of fish and vegetables eclipse it. Second, the quantity and variety of vegetables has increased, once again in line with ideas about the healthfulness of vegetables, but also because, back in Senegal, vegetables were a more prominent part of the national dish, and now the Senegalese cooks can indulge that passion. Earlier versions of cheb were more spare and functional. Third, the fish (bluefish in this case) had been steamed rather than fried, making the cheb far less oily.

My friend and I also sampled thiou, a dish of oblong fish "meatballs" in a thick dark tomato sauce. It was scrumptious, and Dibiterie Cheikh remains your best place to get Senegalese food in town. But watch out for the Scotch bonnet pepper!

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