Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Week Twenty-Eight: A Journey to Senegal

This week’s culinary journey marked an interesting turn as I discovered Senegalese cuisine, its influences, and how it has inspired the cuisines of other nations.  Senegal’s cuisine reflects its native crops and geography, as well as the influence of Portuguese, Dutch, and English navigators in the fifteenth century and the French occupation in the seventeenth century that lasted until Senegal’s independence in 1960.  After twenty-eight weeks of detailed research, country by country, Senegal presented a confluence of dishes I recognized and understood in a new way.  Because of its climate and geography, its dishes include many of the same ingredients used here in Miami, as well as the Caribbean and Latin America, including fish, yucca, mango, and rice.  I found many examples of dishes from Senegal that I recognized as Latin American.  These dishes evolved as a result of West Africans brought to Latin American plantations as slaves.  I discovered the influences of the French occupation in its recipes, such as the inclusion of mustard in the sauce for a popular dish called yassa.  Most surprisingly, the French influence even stretches to connect Vietnam (also once a French colony) to Senegal.  As it turns out, Senegalese men served as French soldiers in Vietnam, and many married Vietnamese women.  This explains a popular Senegalese dish called nems which is basically Vietnamese Spring Rolls served with fish sauce.  The list of examples goes on and on.  Even today as I’m writing about last week’s Senegalese dishes and planning this week’s Brazilian ones, I discovered that the Red Palm Oil so frequently used in Senegalese dishes is also a staple in Brazilian cuisine called Dende Oil.  With so many avenues to explore, I attempted to touch on them all through my Senegalese menus this week.

Wednesday Night: Chicken Yassa
Originating from the Casamance region north of Dakar, yassa refers to a dish of fish or chicken marinated and simmered in a sauce of lemon, onion, and mustard.  By most accounts, this dish is considered a favorite by visiting Americans, so I decided to embark upon my introduction to Senegalese cuisine with something presumably suited to my tastes.  At first, I thought it was strange that the sauce included mustard, but then it occurred to me that this is clearly a French influence.  The flavors of the sauce wowed me!  I made it with chicken, which provided the perfect blank canvas for the piquancy of the sauce and sweetness of the onions and carrots.  It was definitely my favorite dish of the week.

Saturday Night:  Accra, Jus de Bissap, Thebouidienne, Mafe, Mango-Avocado Salad, Cinq Centimes, and Peanut Ice Cream
When planning Saturday night’s menu, I selected dishes that emphasize native Senegalese ingredients and those highlighting Senegal’s influences in the cuisine of other countries.  When researching African cuisines, I often find guidance for presenting authentic meals at the University of Pennsylvania’s African Studies website.  For Senegal, I discovered that an authentic formal meal begins with an appetizer followed by the main course.  Because most of the population is Muslim, many meals do not include wine or beer; instead, fresh juices or teas are generally served.  After the main course, a salad is presented to guests, and on special occasions, dessert ends the meal and may be served with Demitasse Dakar, a coffee drink made by steeping ground coffee and one beaten egg in boiling water.  With this in mind, I set out to create a Senegalese-inspired meal for my husband and some gracious friends who agreed to brave one of my project’s dinners.

When I stumbled upon a recipe for Senegalese accra, I immediately recognized a convergence of cultures.  The recipe presented a fritter made from mashed black-eyed peas and onions, which just happens to be one of my favorite specials called bollitos de carita offered at La Camaronera, a local fish joint in Miami’s Little Havana neighborhood.  Even more interesting, Haitian cuisine includes a fritter called accra, which is made from grated malanaga and a binder of black-eyed pea puree, onion, peppers, and garlic.  This all makes perfect sense considering that many West Africans were brought to Caribbean islands and Latin American countries to work as slaves on plantations, and it is easy to see how they would use their black-eyed pea batter to bind inexpensive, accessible malanga root for a fritter.  The best part of my discovery was the unexpected surprise that I would have the opportunity to make one of my favorite dishes for this week’s project!  I followed a recipe from Saveur magazine for the fritters and the tomato-chile dipping sauce, and the results were delicious.  The fritters tasted just like my favorite treats from La Camaronera.  The only thing I will change about this on my next attempt is to use just a little less water in the batter.  Otherwise, I thought the recipe worked really well.

Thebouidienne is considered the national dish of Senegal.  It is pronounced cheh-boo jen, and other spellings include Ceebu Jen, Ceeb bu jen, Ceeb u jen, Thebouidienne, Theibou Dienn, Thiebou Dienn, Thiebou Dienne, Thiebou Dienne, Thiébou dieune, Tié bou dienne, Thieb-ou-Djien, Thiebu Djen and sometimes just called Thieb or in French, Riz au Poisson.  The dish features white fish stuffed with a mixture of herbs and stewed with vegetables in a tomato based broth.  When the fish and vegetables are tender, they are removed from the stew so that rice may be cooked in the stewing broth.  The vegetables used seem to be selected based on family recipe preference and availability.  I followed the recipe featured in The Congo Cookbook, which reads like a recipe handed down generation after generation.  The recipe offers several options for vegetables, and I chose to use the vegetables I read about in other writers’ accounts of travel in Senegal:  onion, bell pepper, carrots, yucca, eggplant, and cauliflower.  All in all, I liked this dish.  Without question, my favorite element was the fish fillet stuffed with a paste made from bell peppers, onion, scallions, garlic, fresh parsley, salt, and a scotch bonnet pepper.  The rest of the dish just tasted heavy and, well, like a stew.


Mafe is a ground nut stew generally made with lamb, but it can be made with mutton, fish, or chicken.  I chose this dish because I wanted to incorporate peanuts into a savory dish, and I must say that this stew brimmed with rich flavors.  I followed the directions from The Congo Cookbook for this dish, although I took a few liberties.  For the vegetables, I used carrots, okra, butternut squash, and cabbage.  I also removed the vegetables and lamb when they were tender and cooked the sauce down until it was a thick, smooth consistency.  Then, I poured it over the lamb and vegetables on a platter to serve.  This sauce was delicious!  Because of its thick consistency and bold flavor, it reminded me a little of Mexican mole sauce, and its richness complemented the flavor of the lamb well.

Jus de Bissap
Jus de Bissap is a bit of a misnomer as it isn’t a juice at all, rather a tea.  Dried hibiscus flowers, sometimes called sorrel or roselle, are steeped in boiling water, sweetened with sugar, and flavored with mint, ginger, vanilla, orange-flower water, lemon juice, pineapple juice, or orange juice.  Admittedly, I went to several markets in search of dried hibiscus flowers, including my favorite local Middle-Eastern market, and I had no luck; however, at a grocery in a West-Indian neighborhood near my office, I found a tea of pure hibiscus flowers and ginger marketed as Jamaican, which is exactly what I needed.  Having read The Congo Cookbook’s directions to steep 2-3 cups of dried hibiscus flowers in two quarts of boiling water, I deduced that steeping the entire box of tea bags in two quarts of water would render the same intense flavor profile.  After ten minutes of steeping, I added one cup of sugar, a few sprigs of mint, and a teaspoon of vanilla to the tea.  After trying it, I can understand why the Senegalese refer to this as a juice, because it has the intense color, sweetness, and tartness that I associate with juice.  I served it chilled with our dinner, and it provided a welcome freshness against the heavy stews. 

Saladu Awooka ak Mango
I served a simple salad of avocado, mango, and orange segments after we finished our stews.  I’m not sure how authentically Senegalese this is, but it was included with a group of recipes in Saveur magazine inspired by a trip to Senegal, so I decided it would fit the bill.  I am confident that it achieves the goal of serving a fresh salad made of local ingredients to cleanse the palate after such a heavy meal.

Cinq Centimes
Peanut Ice Cream
Cinq Centimes (Five-Cent Cookies) are peanut cookies sold in markets and are especially popular in Dakar.  Oddly enough, I searched the internet for an authentic recipe, and I found the same recipe over and over without fail:  Spread Peanut Butter on store-bought sugar cookies and sprinkle with coarsely chopped peanuts.  So, that’s just what I did, and I must say to great effect.  We really loved this simple concept!  Being the overachiever that I am, I didn’t feel like that was quite enough effort for the project.  On the University of Pennsylvania African Studies webpage regarding Senegalese meals, the author suggests that Peanut Ice Cream is a common dessert served at finer restaurants in Dakar.  I made the recipe on their site, and it was delicious.  Interestingly, the recipe included instructions to whip evaporated milk and fold it into the base, which is a fantastic alternative way to create a fluffy ice cream without using an actual ice cream maker.  I was surprised by the use of fresh lemon juice in this recipe, too, but it contributed a lightness that balanced the heavy use of peanut butter.  All in all, these peanut desserts were a great way to end our dinner.

I had no idea what to expect when I started researching Senegalese cuisine this week, but for most weeks, that is exactly the point.  I discovered some incredible new dishes, and I reveled in the connections I made to other countries’ dishes.  I may have actually enjoyed this week’s research even more than the food!


  1. Really enjoy reading these. I've found big bags of dried hibiscus (roselle) at BM Market on 79th Street.

  2. Thanks...for reading and for the tip on dried hibiscus!

  3. This one sounded interesting. Have any peanut ice cream left? ;)