Senegal: A Feast For All

In Senegal, a guest is welcomed with generous helpings of slow-cooked stew and fresh seafood brightly flavored with chiles, citrus, and spice

By John O'Connor

Published on May 23, 2011

The heat is gathering, driving everyone indoors. It's midafternoon in Dakar, Senegal, and the foot traffic in this narrow, two-story home in the working-class Gibraltar neighborhood is seriously congested. More people arrive every minute—relatives, neighbors, an imam—and collapse in the dark, cool refuge of the living room. In a small kitchen off the courtyard, a handsome, tall woman named Khady Mbow puts the final touches on the soupoukandia, a fiery, gumbolike stew of okra, palm oil, Scotch bonnet peppers, and shellfish served over rice. She and her 30-year-old niece, Sini, have spent the morning pounding vegetables in a mortar and pestle, scraping the mash into a steaming pot and stirring relentlessly. The Gueyes own a food processor, but Khady—the family's matriarch and chief culinary architect—believes the mortar and pestle better preserve flavor. Everything is done by hand.

And so I wait, with the other male guests. In Senegal, the women cook while the men sit in thumb-twirling inertia. Finally, Khady and Sini ladle the soupoukandia into a pair of large metal bowls and trundle them inside. Twenty or so people, including four generations of Gueyes, gather around the bowls, spoons hovering. Then Khady gives the order to eat in French, the country's official language: "Mangez!" The spicy soupoukandia delivers a swift roundhouse kick, making our noses run and sweat bead up on our foreheads, but our spoons continue to shovel away, clinking off the bottom of the bowls. The dish—sweet and sharp and hot all at once—elicits a chorus of contented grunts and lip-smacking. It's difficult to fathom, here, now, that during my first stay in Senegal, it took me awhile to come around to the cooking.

Ten years ago, when I was in my late-20s, I lived briefly in Dakar, a city of a million people on an arrow-shaped peninsula pointing into the Atlantic. The contrast between this place of white sand and red-tile roofs and morning air perfumed by baking bread, and my own hometown of Kalamazoo, Michigan, couldn't have been starker. After a month of French classes, I moved on to Thies, a city about 30 miles inland, where my girlfriend at the time worked for an NGO. Things began inauspiciously, as I faced the reality that roughly 50 percent of Senegalese still face: unemployment. This new idleness required a period of acclimatization, as did the food. Half a lifetime of Midwestern meat-and-potato standards had not prepared me for the rich, prodigiously spiced cosmos of Senegalese cooking.

The country's cuisine reflects the influence of its west African neighbors and Morocco, to the north, as well as recent patterns of immigration—particularly, since the 1950s, from Vietnam. There are also the legacies of French and Portuguese colonialism, and a varied topography ranging from a seafood-laden coast to a semi-arid interior awash in millet and peanuts. Despite its recent election turmoil, Senegal has been an oasis of stability and democratic rule in west Africa since winning independence from the French in 1960. Still, hunger is endemic in rural areas, and the country continues to suffer from periodic food shortages. All these factors converge in the capital, Dakar. Here and throughout the country, meals tend to be single-dish affairs, with everyone grazing from one bowl or platter, using spoons or bare hands to scoop up meat and vegetables—always supplemented with rice or couscous. Sosa kaani, an incendiary sauce made from Scotch bonnet peppers, is on every table at every meal.

Although it's borderline sacrilegious to say so in Senegal, I never took to the national dish of thieboudienne: rice, fish, and vegetables stewed in a chile-hot tomato base that gets its signature saline funk from two essential Senegalese flavorings, gejj (dried fermented fish) and yeet (dried fermented snails). The clamor of intense flavors and sensations—the concentrated sweetness of tomato paste, the searing heat of Scotch bonnet peppers, and that profoundly fishy bass note—was just too loud for me. I'll confess it wasn't the only one of Senegal's boldly flavored foods that my palate didn't prove equal to at the time. I did, however, come to love mafe, a delicious peanut stew made with chicken, fish, or lamb. And I developed what my girlfriend considered a troubling obsession with a tangy sauce of cooked-down onions and peppers called yassa, served with grilled chicken or fish. My favorite meals were eaten at friends' houses, prepared in sparse courtyards by women and girls using little by way of equipment besides a mortar and pestle, some dull knives, a propane tank, and a small charcoal grill. As I quickly learned, a guest in Senegal is treated like a king, given the best seat, the biggest cut of meat, and encouraged to eat until he or she is bursting.

For my girlfriend and me, Senegal was an exercise in blind optimism that didn't pan out. After 11 months, I went home. She stayed. Back in the States, living in New York City, I occasionially felt pangs of regret. I wondered if I'd stayed long enough, made the most of my time there, seen enough, done enough. Thieboudienne became for me a symbol of all that I'd failed to embrace in Senegal. As luck would have it, a Senegalese restaurant opened around the corner from my Brooklyn apartment, and the chef, Pierre Thiam, became a friend. When I confided in Pierre my sense of longing for a Senegal I never fully knew, he pointed out the obvious: What was keeping me from going back?

As my plane lands in Senegal this time, I'm determined to hit the ground running. Pierre's advice: Get myself invited into homes, because that's where the best Senegalese cooking happens. Landing at the Gueyes' turns out to be a terrific stroke of luck. To counterbalance my deplorable French, worse Wolof (the main indigenous language), and appalling sense of direction, I've hired as my translator and guide Medoune Gueye, Khady's 33-year-old son, whose first act of business is to steer me into his mother's kitchen. I eat a lot of Khady's cooking during my week in Dakar, including her yassa jen, the piquant onion-and-pepper sauce, served with grilled grouper. I've had several variations across Senegal; Khady's irresistibly tart, sticky yassa makes liberal use of cayenne, lime, garlic, and mustard. Eating it after so much time away breeds a curious dissonance. Still, it's good to be back.

After a few days in Dakar, I decide to return to my old town, Thies, and Medoune accompanies me. I'm curious to see how it has changed. After Dakar, the place feels provincial, quaint. But there's another side to Thies: an exuberant, frantically emergent city. Half a million people now live here, in tracts of beige cinderblock homes. Freshly minted buildings stand where I remember there being only sandy lots. My friend Samuel's grocery store has vanished, absorbed by a massive new house.

As we make our way around the city, the heat index spikes, and Medoune suggests we pause for tea. Dethie Mbow, Medoune's garrulous cousin, shepherds us into the courtyard of his breezy, low-slung house and promptly dispatches a neighbor boy to fetch some snacks from a vendor around the corner. The boy returns with two classic Senegalese street foods: pastels, tiny empanadas stuffed with fish and onions; and accara, black-eyed-pea fritters. We plunge the pastels and the accara into kaani sauce, and pop them into our mouths.

While we eat, Medoune commences the ataya, an elaborate, three-cup tea ritual that is ubiquitous in west Africa. Chinese gunpowder tea is brewed with sugar and mint and served in a tiny glass called a kas. The first serving is strong and bitter; the second a tad sweeter, with a little mint added; the third is a mint-infused sugar-bomb. Each serving has a heady top layer of foam, achieved by pouring the tea from one kas to another from a great height. Boys apprentice at the ataya for years before they master the proper foam-to-tea ratio. Medoune, who considers himself something of an ataya savant, clearly relishes the opportunity to showcase his talents. In the midst of a busy day, the ataya functions as a social and gustatory salve—an excuse merely to sit and chat and enjoy a mellow, if highly caffeinated, moment of quiet.

Caffeine notwithstanding, the tea has a narcotic effect on me. By round three, I'm laid out on a futon in a back bedroom, drifting off to sleep, the flavors of the pastels and accara lingering on my tongue.

After a week of outright gluttony, I've taken all the culinary spoils Senegal has to offer, with one exception: my old nemesis, thieboudienne. It's time for a reckoning, and also—despite the tacit ban on men in the kitchen—time to do some cooking myself.

My last meal in Dakar takes place at the home of Didier and Marie Jeannette (nicknamed Jeanine) Diop. Didier is a childhood friend of my pal Pierre back in Brooklyn. Pierre has assured me that Jeanine's thieboudienne will change my mind about the dish.

The day before the meal, Jeanine and I go grocery shopping at a large covered market downtown called Marche Kermel. Its symmetry and order are impressive. The building is vaguely octagonal, with concentric rows of produce, meat, and fish stalls spiraling neatly inward from exterior archways. Still, navigating any Dakar market requires great tactical sense, and it's all I can do to keep up with Jeanine as she swoops from vendor to vendor, picking through vegetables and haggling over prices. Normally a sweet, soft-spoken woman, she transforms into a cold and ruthless negotiator.

"I love to bargain," she says. After hearing a vendor's price for a bushel of okra, Jeanine bursts out laughing, waves him away, and descends on the next stall, where the vendor quickly bends to her will. "You can't let them hustle you," Jeanine tells me. By the time we drive back to the Diops', the trunk of their blue Chevrolet Optra is sagging with produce—onions, turnips, eggplants, Scotch bonnet peppers, squash, manioc, carrots, cabbage, tamarind, cauliflower, and I forget what else, but so much that we had to hire a porter to lug it to the car for us—plus a grouper the size of a small submarine, purchased at another market, on the beach.

Preparing the thieboudienne takes all day. We start at 8 a.m. in the Diops' rear courtyard, with sunlight slashing through the palm trees and a pair of disheveled chickens scraping around. My first job is to make the rof, or stuffing, for the grouper. It requires mashing vegetables into a thick paste. This I can do. An onion, a head of garlic, a bunch of parsley, and a handful of dried chiles gradually yield to the pestle. I turn to the grouper, which has been cut into eight or nine steaks. I poke two holes in each, stuff them with the rof, and then coat them thoroughly with the vegetable paste.

Under Jeanine's supervision, I saute onions and green peppers in a large pot heated by a propane tank, then stir in some tomato paste. Once the sauce starts to come together, we add a few cups of water to thin it and let it simmer a while. I carefully arrange the grouper steaks in the pot, followed by some cabbage; dried bisaap (hibiscus) leaves and tamarind paste, both of which impart a wonderful tartness; and four or five Scotch bonnet peppers. As the pot continues to simmer, we add other ingredients: hunks of salted, fermented cod (gejj) and some dried snails (yeet), turnips, eggplants, squash, manioc, carrots, cauliflower, and okra.

Once the vegetables have cooked through, I pluck them out and place them in a large bowl, followed by the fish. Rice is added to the pot, where the remaining sauce quickly stains it a deep red. Finally, the cooked rice is scraped into a waiting bowl and the blackened crust at the bottom of the pan—a much-loved delicacy called xooñ—is plated to be served on the side.

It's nearly 3 p.m. by the time we finish. Didier returns from work just as Jeanine's parents, Joseph and Marie Therese Nesseim, arrive, and the five of us arrange ourselves on a mat in the basement next to an open window. A heaping platter of thieboudienne appears, with the grouper sitting atop the rice, and the eggplant and manioc and cauliflower on the sides. With a breeze buffeting us, we dig in.

Pierre is right. Jeanine's is the Cadillac Fleetwood of thieboudiennes. The tamarind cuts through the pungency of the gejj, and the dried snails, used to enrich the base, lend a hint of umami flavor. It's a more nuanced version of the pungent thieboudienne I had recalled. But it's also familiar, with a distinctive peppery finish. Didier reminds me that thieboudienne originated in Saint-Louis, the former colonial capital in the country's north, near the border with Mauritania. Over time it became the national dish, so rabidly and universally was it loved by all Senegalese—and now, at long last, by me.

Jeanine's mother reveals that the recipe has been passed down in her family for generations, that her mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother all made thieboudienne like this. She taught Jeanine how to prepare it, and she believes her daughter has done well today. "I'm proud of you," she says, and Jeanine beams.

Dusk is approaching. After a long, hot day, I'm stumbling with fatigue. But I linger for a while, chatting with the Diops on their patio. This is the kind of occasion that I remember best from my time in Senegal: unwinding with friends after a meal in a cool, shady place, the early-evening sky turning a livid orange as the muezzins sing out the call to prayer. I'd like it to last a little longer.

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