I spend a lot of time thinking about food. I am in fact obsessed with food. Sadly, my health- and Northern-California-centric attitude towards it has led me to reject Senegalese cuisine in all of its indulgent richness. Though Senegalese cuisine has not captured my heart (insert pun about oily, simple-carbohydrate, produce-less cuisine being heart-stopping), I still have to dedicate a post to it:
Senegal is a net importer of food. The northeast is the edge of the Sahel Desert; the south is lusher and more suitable to farmland, especially for peanuts; the west is a portal for fishermen. Simple carbs, MSG flavor packets, and peanut oil feature heavily because they are cheap and easy to find. By the same reasoning, fish is the most common source of protein. Produce, either local or imported from Europe, is about the same price as it is in America. However, it’s hard to find non-fruit/non-root vegetables (ex. brassicas), which will be expensive when found. Milk comes powdered. Industrial agriculture/CAFOs are still uncommon.
Fun fact: the Wolof slang for a badonkadonk (highly desirable) is jaayfondé, which literally means “to sell millet porridge.” The thinking goes that any woman who sells fondé must be sneaking handfuls of its richness, resulting in an admirable behind.
Breakfast is bread (mburu) eaten between 8 and 11. Senegalese “Dakar” baguettes have a thin crust and an airy crumb with little gluten structure. Tapalapa, made in the south of the country, is made with harder flour, resulting in a denser, chewier texture. Pain miel is bread specked with some brown grains. Bakeries and boutiques also usually sell milk rolls. All of these breads become stale within hours except for tapalapa.
The most popular spreads are butter/margarine, Laughing Cow spreadable cheese product, and especially Chocopain, which is a Nutella-style chocolate and peanut spread. If you want something fancier, you can walk 100 meters in any direction and find a shack selling bread and toppings. These toppings include jam, mayonnaise, tuna, hardboiled or deep fried eggs, beans, peas, lentils, and ground meat. In case you’re in the mood for more carbs, you can also stuff your sandwich with french fries, spaghetti, or potatoes. British-style tea (black with sugar and milk) is the drink of choice.
I have some more pictures of bean sandwiches but I’ll refrain.
LES REPAS: LUNCH (AÑ) AND DINNER (REER)
The traditional Senegalese meal is a one-course shared affair: a large bowl is placed on the ground, and people will sit in a circle around it. If the meal is a rice dish, the rice will fill the bowl halfway and “goodies” such as vegetables and meat will be piled in the center to share. Starting from the edge of the bowl, people use their right hands only (remember the “water” culture) to squish food into a ball, moving toward the center in a wedge shape. Because one is supposed to use only his or her right hand, teamwork is sometimes needed to rip apart a certain chunk of vegetable or meat.
Anyone who passes by is invited to eat; without chairs, utensils, or separate plates, the extra person is easily incorporated. Using the same logic, once you are full, you are not to wait until everyone is finished. You are instead to make your eating area look neat and then leave to make room for anyone else who might come by. Drinks are drunk after the meal, never during, to make sure you don’t get full from liquid. Senegalese-style tea (ataaya) is traditionally taken after each meal to digest.
Lunch, the main meal of the day, is a rice (ceeb, pronounced cheb) dish eaten between 1 and 4pm. This is a cultural remnant from French colonialism: during World War II, France required that all of its colonies to contribute to the cause. Vietnam sent rice. The French soldiers didn’t like it, so France traded it for other goods with colonies such as Senegal. Now, Senegal imports massive quantities of inexpensive broken white rice. These are some of the classics:
Ceebujën (rice of fish) – The national dish, invented in St. Louis, can be made “bu weex/blanc/white” or “bu honk/rouge/red.” “Rouge” adds more tomato/oil-based sauce to the lighter “blanc” version. Ceebujën is topped with bissap-stuffed fish, and a mélange of vegetables: carrots, potatoes, sweet potatoes, cassava, eggplant, jaxato (bitter “tomato”/eggplant), cabbage, and/or bissap. The bissap in this dish is hibiscus leaves pounded until they have a slimy texture.
Ceebuyapp (rice of meat) – Rice with a brown sauce and red meat. Sometimes comes with vegetables.
Yassa Jën/Ginaar (onion sauce fish/chicken) – Onions cooked until soft with a squeeze of lime, spread as a sauce with fish or chicken. My favorite dish, and it’s commonly liked by foreigners for its fresh flavors and because it feels lighter.
Mafe – A heavy peanut butter-based sauce with red meat.
Dinner is a smaller meal eaten between 8 and 11pm. It can range from bread with spaghetti, oil, and meat; to fish or chicken with french fries; to couscous with meat and root vegetables.
Roasted peanuts, sometimes pralined in a sugary coating, can be found on almost every street in Dakar in 25, 50, and 100CFA packets ($.05-$.20). Fruit stands, stocked with a minimum of bananas, apples, oranges, and mangoes (when in season), are just as ubiquitous. Some carry melons, grapefruits, clementines, and guavas. Other vendors may sell beignets, packaged cookies, or fataaya. You can also find coconuts. The beige-colored ones are for drinking and the dark brown ones are for eating. Watermelon vendors also often sell watermelon slices for snacking.
Bisaap is made from hibiscus flowers, which give the drink a rich, purple color. Mint and sugar are added.
Gingembre is a tangy drink made out from ginger root and sugar.
Bouye is the fruit of baobab trees. It’s pounded into a frothy, opaque drink that tastes slightly like a banana smoothie.
Ataaya is Chinese green tea is steeped until bitter and then mixed with massive amounts of sugar and poured between cups until it froths. Sometimes mint is added. You need to slurp the tea to be polite (you should sound like a Japanese person eating ramen).
Coffee comes in plastic Dixie-sized cups for 100CFA. You can get a cup of Nescafé, instant coffee mixed with sugar and water, or a Café Touba, which is coffee, sugar, and an herb. In my opinion, café touba tastes exactly like Chinese medicine.
Most restaurants feature Senegalese or French food. There is some Italian and “American” “fast food.” There is one Indian restaurant and one Korean restaurant and two or three Japanese restaurants in Dakar (and thus the whole of Senegal). Burritos don’t exist.
Senegalese burgers come packed with a ton of mayo and ketchup-like sauce, a slice of tomato and lettuce, a thin beef patty, a fried egg, and a handful of fries. Sometimes they come in a hollowed-out roll instead of a bun
Dibi is Senegalese barbecue. Traditional dibi is fresh mouton grilled over a fire and served with a side of onions and spicy mustard sauce. Dibi is especially delicious when it’s smoked in a closed oven. Modern dibiteries (a place that sells dibi) may also sell chicken dibi.
Nems are a Vietnamese-influenced Senegalese food. They’re basically thin egg rolls.
Fataaya are samosa-like fried dumplings, usually filled with meat.
Other unusual foods include ditakh, a green fruit that does in fact taste grassy.
And this other mystery green fruit:
Note: Wolof orthography is not completely standardized. I alternate between Wolof and French spellings, e.g. bisaap/bissap, ceebujën/thiéboudienne.