Five Communal Dishes from Mauritania

published Jul 16, 2010
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(Image credit: Apartment Therapy)

My brother and his wife served for the Peace Corps in the northwest African nation of Mauritania. There, they learned of the local foods and ways of serving them and they’ve shared much of it with those of us back home. The thing that is almost always certain is that the meal is served from a communal dish:

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Thieboudiene (Image credit: Apartment Therapy)

Since everyone’s eating from a communal dish (with their hands), hand washing is an important first step in sitting down to a meal. Water and soap are passed around to each person at the meal to wash their hands. The meal then starts with a welcoming wish of “Bismillah!” (also the opening word of the Qur’an). As the host makes their way through the plate, they are almost sure to toss the best pieces of the meal (or a known favorite of a particular person) to the area of the serving platter of guests who are present. These are five popular dishes from the region that my brother and his wife were happy to share with me:

1. Thieboudiene – (Cheb-u-jin) The national dish of Mauritania, many people eat it every single day. It’s a fish-and-rice lunch dish that’s especially popular in coastal towns – it is said that the fishing off the coast of the country is some of the best in the world. Served in both white and red (tomato sauce is added) versions, I’ve included a recipe at the bottom of this post for the red version. The recipe is transcribed from observing actual cooking practices and gives a rough idea of reconstructing the highly intuitive, traditional dish at home.

2. Yassa Poulet – Traditionally a Senegalese dish, large populations of the Wolof and Pulaar tribes in Mauritania make it popular there as well. The dish consists of rotisserie roasted chicken (most likely slaughtered from the yard just before the meal) and vegetables, often on a bed of french fries (but also eaten on white rice). This is a relatively special dish because chicken is expensive.

3. Mahfe – This dish appeals to my love of peanut sauces. It’s made of goat or camel meat cooked in peanut sauce. The peanuts are ground by hand until they break down in their oils and are then combined with tomato paste and jachtini (ground okra). Served on rice, the protein of the peanuts means the dish can also be made without meat for a very inexpensive meal.

4. Hakko – This is a special meal because of the time-intensive process of its preparation. A sauce of ground bean leaves, which tastes like spinach, is served over couscous. The couscous is made from scratch, meaning it is sifted into balls from millet, wheat or barley flour. The entire dish may take anywhere from three to four hours to prepare.

5. Mauritanian Sweet Tea – Tea is a ceremonial activity that everyone takes part in at least daily (or more). Consisting of green tea, sugar, and mint leaves, the hot tea is poured from on high to create foam – a process called ragwa. Each person partakes of tea in three cups, which starts out bitter and becomes more smooth and sweet by the third cup. For those who find the tea too strong, there is always zrig, a Moorish favorite of sweetened milk. Tea is served after meals and most certainly when guests come into the home. We enjoyed reading more on Mauritanian tea ceremonies at Worldwide Gourmet

Thieboudiene Recipe
Makes 6 servings

Vegetables (okra, cabbage, carrots, eggplant, potato, squash, red pepper – clean, peel, soak in water with garlic)
Fish Seasoning (black ground pepper, salt, 2 cloves garlic, 4 sprigs parsley, small red pepper, half onion – combine with mortar & pestle)
2-4 Small Fish (clean and stuff seasoning inside)
Sauce Seasoning (2-3 cloves garlic, 1 tsp black pepper, remaining onion, 1-3 cubes bullion – combine with mortar & pestle)
3 tbsp Tomato Paste
Heat a large, heavy, empty pot until warm, covered. Add about 1/2 liter of oil with a little butter, recover with lid.

When oil is hot, fry the fish, uncovered. Remove the fish when done.

Mix together a little water and approx 3 Tbsp of tomato paste. Add to the frying oil and stir occasionally. Add vegetables and about 2 liters of water to the oil/tomato paste mixture in pot.

Put the fish back in the pot. Add sauce seasonings and cover partially

Put rice in a steamer on top of the pot and cover. Remove veggies, fish, and a little sauce from the tomato/oil mixture once rice has been steamed (~20 minutes, maybe less) and set aside, keeping warm. Add rice to remaining sauce in the pot and stir to mix thoroughly. Cover pot, stirring rice mixture occasionally.

When ready to serve, place rice/sauce/oil mixture in a large bowl, also scraping up the crispy, burnt rice from the bottom of the pot. Place fish and vegetables on top of the rice and serve.

(Images: two lovely PCV’s – thanks, guys!)