THE CUISINE OF SENEGAL is unique, very flavorful and rich in colors and spices. It is composed of an extremely rich and interesting variety of dishes very well appreciated all over Africa and abroad.
Senegal's distinctive ethnic groups, have their own cuisine and eating habits, influenced by the proximity of the ocean, or at the contrary by the the tradition of nomadism and cattle raising.
Rice and Millet are the cereals of choice. Millet being more affordable for many in the poorest regions, is found in many traditional Senegalese dishes, from breakfast to dinner, and indispensable in traditional naming ceremonies or other religious festivities.
Islam and Arab cultures which first penetrated the region in the 11th century, as well as the Portuguese and the French, who held the country as a colony until 1960 impacted the already rich traditional recipes with new ingredients.
Senegalese creativity is well known, and women have taken immense pride in creating their dishes, as well as enhancing the traditional heritage with elements from other cultures. The Senegalese"Teranga" or hospitality, is a very important aspect of the Senegalese tradition of sharing food and cooking for your hosts, and it is very rude for a guest to refuse food, or refuse to share a meal.
People take enormous pride in their welcoming tradition and go to great length in order to fulfill what is seen as a responsibility toward their guests, or even an unannounced visitor. All are welcome to eat, even in the poorest household. It is a given that food is a blessing from God, and is here to be shared. There is always "a share for the stranger".
As Senegalese people often migrated all over the world, they brought Senegalese cuisine to many cities in the world where their communities have settled.
Because Senegal borders the Atlantic Ocean, fish is an important staple. Chicken, lamb, peas, eggs, and beef are also used in Senegalese cooking, but never pork, due to the nation’s largely Muslim population. Meat has to be Halal, ( the animal has to be slaughtered humanely, according to Islamic laws.)
Peanuts, the primary crop, as well as couscous, white rice, sweet potatoes, lentils, black-eyed peas and various vegetables and roots, are also incorporated into many recipes. Peanut butter is also a staple ingredient of Senegalese cuisine. It is locally hand made. It used in the very popular "Mafe"and also in sauces served with millet couscous, etc. Peanuts are everywhere to be enjoyed, in all kind of ways, meals or snacks. When I think of Senegal, the smell that come to my mind are that of peanuts, Thieboudiene,(it is the smell in the street of Senegal, late mornings, around lunchtime) mangoes,in full season,( when the mango trees are heavy with fruits) and of course the ocean....
Meats, fish and vegetables are typically stewed with herbs, spices and vegetables, and served over rice or couscous or simply eaten with bread. Or, in the case of the national dish" THIEBOUDIENE" the rice is cooked in the sauce, where fish has been stuffed with parsley,garlic & pepper, then stewed with tomato paste and vegetables. (It really is much more complicated than that, but that will be the subject of another blog entry!!...)
Smoked and dried shell fish are commonly used as flavor enhancers. Whenever you go to Senegal(I know you will!!...), you might have to pick a beach where fish is not being dried in large quantities,the smell being quite strong. This small industry represent a very valuable source of income to many families. Usually, the men are fishermen and the women dry fish for trade.
it is commonly added to the preparation of many traditional dishes like the Thieboudien, and SoupoKandie.
It is dried on the beach, and its ferm flesh has a quite foul strong odor and taste, but, used as a condiment, gives a amazing taste to most fish based dishes. It is sliced in small pieces and fried with the onions at the beginning of the cooking process, and simmered with the sauces.
" NETETOU", is a condiment also indispensable to most Senegalese cook, it is made from NERE(a leguminous tree) seeds, which after a lengthy preparation are made into a fermented condiment, that are of economic importance and form a major ingredient in African cooking in general. It has a strong aroma and is used to strengthen the flavor of sauces that accompany rice and sorghum dishes. TAMARIND grows locally in abundance, and is also very commonly used as a condiment, and enjoyed for its tart flavor. "BISSAP"( hibiscus), both the fresh leaves and the dried flowers is another very important ingredient in the food as well as drinks.
Fish is sold at typical outdoors market, but also on many beaches. Even in Dakar, the country's capital. People wait for the fishermen to comeback with their beautiful "pirogues". Their wives usually set up the fish on the sand and it is of course the best place to buy it!.. "Grouper" is an all time favorite: it is an enormous white meat fish, that makes the best "Thieboudiene". Not all the households can afford it, and many have to settle for smaller fish, like sea bass, or blue fish, for instance. A great variety is available for all kind of delicious dishes.
Here is a small list of the main dishes served in a Senegalese household.
Thiéboudienne or Ceebu jën flavorsome marinated and stuffed white fish cooked with tomato paste and a variety of vegetables, the national dish of Senegal. there is a version without tomato paste, with "netetou" and "bissap". It is as delicious as it is beautiful, and its aroma is out of this world!....
Maffe Chicken, lamb, or beef is cooked with vegetables in a tomato and peanut butter sauce. depending on the area, it can be cooked with okras (Maffe Kandie) or spinach.
Yassa. Chicken or fish marinated in lemon juice and onions, and cooked with mustard and black pepper. Sometimes olives are added. Served with white rice.
SoupoKandie: Okra stew with palm oil, fish, or meat. served with white rice.
Thiere Millet couscous, with a vegetable stew, or a vegetable peanut sauce.
Sombi Rice and milk.
Poisson à la braise Spicy grilled fish
Thiou Carry: Vegetable Curry sauce with beef or lamb served with rice.
Dibi. Spicy Grilled meat served with onions.
Lakh rolled millet-balls served with yogurt and raisins or other fruits. It is the traditional offering for naming ceremonies, but it is also an affordable dinner or breakfast, in many families.
Thiacri: a couscous based dish served mixed with yogurt.
Women usually buy their ingredients daily from outdoors markets. Little girls always play an active role in the process. They learn at an early age to go to the market, and learn how to make good choices, and pick the right ingredients. Fish and meat are sometimes frozen in more middle class households, as People sometimes sacrifice a whole sheep for religious purposes. Most of the meat is the shared with the poor, and the rest is frozen, for the family consumption. The most commonly used oil, is peanut oil, but palm oil is used for many traditional dishes.
Peanuts, cooked in sand, or raw. Peanut brittles, Grilled corn, and beignets, as well as Fatayas or Pastels,(little fish or meat patties served with a spicy tomato sauce), are the snacks of choice.
Fresh juices are made from Tamarind, Bissap (dried Hibiscus flowers iced tea), fresh Ginger, Bouye ( Baobab seeds) and Ditakh(a fruit the shape of an egg with a large pit coated with a tart powdery green pulp) The outside shell of the Ditakh is brown and must be broken. The Ditakh is very rich in vitamin C. Its flesh is diluted in water and sweetened to make a delicious drink.
Most of theses fruit drinks are also sold by street vendors.
"BOUYE", "Le pain de singe" or " "Monkey bread" is the popular name for that fruit. Monkeys are very found of them, which gave it its name. the seeds contained in the fruit of the Baobab tree (emblem of Senegal) are coated in a tart beige flesh. They are also used in traditional medicine. The shell is considered to reduce fevers, and the fruit decoction is a well known anti-diarrhea.
Wherever people have access to freezers, The pulp is also used, sweetened and flavored with vanilla and orange flower extract to make very popular ice creams, packaged in small plastic bags.
Traditionally, Senegalese families eat together usually on the floor, covered with a mat, reserved to that effect, around a large bowl, where the food is beautifully presented.
People gather slowly around the bowl. They eat with there bare right hand or with a spoon. Meals are sacred moment, where people share their blessings and it must be treated with respect.There are a lot of rules around this seemingly simple event:
Each person only eats from the space exactly in front of them( no wandering around the bowl for the best piece of fish!!..:). The Lady head of the household will make sure you have enough of every element of the dish, and will cut pieces of meat or fish, and deposit it in front of you. She will also make sure her husband has the best share. She or her daughters will place one tip of her finger on the bowl to prevent it from sliding.
It is forbidden, even for lefties to eat with their left hand. There is of course a special technique to eating rice with your hands, that I will not describe here.
A short blessing is pronounced before the meal starts, by each of the guests. "Bismillahi"( to the grace of God) When done eating, the guest will get up as silently & respectfully as possible. The women sometimes stay last, and often feed their babies or toddlers sitting on their lap or in front of them. Some household still follow the tradition where men and women eat separately. Women then eat with their youngest children, and men with their male young & teen age children.
Senegalese food is reasonably spicy, most dishes incorporate at the end of the cooking process, a small amount of Scotch-bonnets or Habanero peppers, whole, in their sauces. The peppers are put in the bowl. The guest will then tap it on his food, in front of him, as needed. Some household would also prepare a special hot sauce served on the side of the bowl, when requested.
The fresh fruit drinks mentioned above, are often reserved to special occasions. Typically, water is served at the end of the meal. Dessert is not traditionally part of a Senegalese meal. Meanwhile, certain middle class households offer fresh fruits for desserts: mangoes, oranges etc
Senegalese woman of all ages are the only cooks. Men are not allowed in the kitchen. Young girls learn at a very young age how to purchase the best ingredients, and prepare food. Most households have their kitchen in outdoors area. Only in big cities or wealthy households. can you see European type kitchens. Still Senegalese people typically cook for a large number of people, and in considerably hot temperatures, so outdoors settings are much more comfortable. Meals are mostly prepared on coal stoves. Most of the recipes take a long time to prepare, and mornings are usually largely reserved to that process.
After the meals when schedules allow it, "ATTAYA" is served.
"Attaya" is the Senegalese tea ceremony. It is served in three rounds, using small glasses. The first round is strong and bitter, the second more sweet with a little mint, and the third is very sweet with more mint. The same leaves are used to prepare all three glasses. Chinese green "Gunpowder" tea is used, always, and cooked in a metallic teapot, that can handle the little coal stove reserved to that purpose. Sugar is used to sweeten it and is added to the teapot at different stage of the process, as well a fresh mint. There is an exact science to it and the "officer", has to be able to pour the tea from a certain height, in order to produce a maximum of foam, in the small glass cups. It is a very poetic sight, and the smell, there again, is delightful!...
Senegalese Attaya symbolizes friendship and the joy of being together. It is one of the symbols of the Senegalese "Teranga" (hospitality)and an important part of daily social life. Senegal tea-drinking is quite similar to other countries in the Sahel region of West Africa such as Mauritania, Mali, Tchad .
In and around Senegal, tea is prepared and presented in an elaborate process, and a highly cherished tradition. Boys learn early, how to prepare Attaya, and take great pride in being really good at it. Often the Elders ask the young men to make it for them. On weekends, young people organize sleepless nights around it, and gather money to buy the ingredients. Mostly young men prepare it, but many women know how to do it as well. (my grand mother Nafissatou, was one of them).
The words used in various ethnic languages to refer to the tea, the teapot and the mint are derived from Arabic. Senegalese mint tea is of Moorish origin. More than 80% of the population from teen age drink tea.
Anywhere in the world where Senegalese people formed communities, you will find delicious restaurants where you will be able to try some of these delicious dishes. Here in NYC, there is a "Little Senegal" around 116th street and Lennox avenue,in Harlem. You will also find there: amazing Tailors, jewelers, and bookstores. You will find all you need to make a great Attaya, and if you are a little more ambitious: Thieboudiene!
In Brooklyn, NY : the "JOLOFF" on Bedford avenue offers great Senegalese food and is a very friendly cultural spot. Various interesting publications about Senegalese cuisine and traditions can be found. Here is a link to a great book published by a renown Senegalese chef who lives in New York City: Pierre Thiam http://betumiblog.blogspot.com/2012/04/iacp-highlights-chef-Pierre-thiam-and.html
The book is called "YOLELE".
Now, you really want to make Senegalese food right?...As a friendly advice, I will suggest you start with a delicious Maffe, or a Yassa which is fairly easy.
In any case, do not be intimidated. If you love to cook, and share food with your friends, start with something simple. Set it up nicely in a beautiful bowl or a tray.
Get everyone to seat on the floor around it, give them spoons (the hands will come later..), and just enjoy the experience, with a little Youssou N'Dour (a world famous Senegalese singer/ song writer) in the back ground...You will have an unforgettable experience....
Senegal is waiting for you!... Do not forget the "Kaane"(hot pepper), on the side.
(I will be happy to give you a few recipes in the next entry!....). Until then, Salaam Aleekum...:)
You can find through the following link more interesting facts about Senegal's culture: