Welcome to the third book of our summer cookbook club. Our theme this season is Summer Vegetables – perfect for a time when local farmers’ markets are thriving, and maybe even your home garden. After easing into our vegetable-focused cooking adventure with Nigel Slater’s Greenfeast: Spring, Summer, we began an intercontinental journey; first to Asia, now to West Africa!
Senegal: Modern Senegalese recipes from the source to the bowl by Pierre Thiam with Jennifer Sit is a stunningly beautiful cultural tour of the author’s beloved homeland. The photography, by Evan Sung, brings the vibrancy and richness of Senegal and its people, and the feeling of teranga – warm hospitality – to life on every page.
Senegal: the place
The Republic of Senegal is a country in West Africa. The capital city of Dakar is a peninsula jutting into the Atlantic Ocean. Its location, with access to an abundance of seafood, has great impact on the cuisine of the region.
Senegal was once a French colony. That and its position as a major port on the Atlantic brought culinary influences from other regions as well. In addition to the regional tribal cultures (predominantly Wolof), there are French, Lebanese, and Vietnamese culinary contributions.
Senegal, and West Africa as a whole, also made huge contributions to the cuisines of other parts of the world. Most notably to the foodways of the Southern US and the Caribbean. But not by conquest, colonialism, or by choice. West Africa was the heart of the slave trade. Those people carried their foods and memories with them, and the world has been enriched by them.
Because this cookbook is a celebration of Senegal and its food, and does not directly address that conversation, I will leave it to you, the reader, to explore that contribution more. I recommend starting with the book High On the Hog by Dr. Jessica B. Harris, and the Netflix production by the same name, hosted by Stephen Satterfield.
about the author
Pierre Thiam was born and raised in Dakar. He also spent a lot of his childhood in the tropical region of Casamance in southern Senegal. His food memories are shaped by both places, and both feature prominently in the recipes of the book Senegal.
Based in New York City since 1989, Thiam is an internationally-acclaimed chef, writer, author of three cookbooks, restaurateur, social entrepreneur, and culinary ambassador. He’s known best for introducing the food of West Africa to fine dining, then to a wider market through his company Yolélé Foods.
Yolélé Foods “was founded in 2017 to create economic opportunity for smallholder farming communities; to support biodiverse, regenerative, and resilient food systems; and to share Africa’s ingredients and cuisines with the world.” It’s most notable product, Yolélé Fonio, is an ancient gluten-free grain that cooks up similar in texture to couscous, similar in flavor to quinoa.
There are several delicious recipes for fonio in the book Senegal. It’s now become a staple grain in my home – especially in the form of Mango Fonio Salad!
about the book
If you enjoy food-travel television, you will love this book. I was drawn in deep and fast, immersing myself in every story, every photo, every description of foods and smells I long to experience in their place of origin. Until that time, I have these carefully written, authentic recipes and a passionate chef-author as travel guide in my own home kitchen.
Beyond the rich descriptions, the spectacular photography, and the immersive cultural experience, are recipes that are true to their roots – even when that means ingredients lists that are sometimes challenging to assemble (thank you internet). It’s so worth the extra effort to taste something as close to “authentic” as is possible from the other side of the world in an all-together different place.
Of all the books we’ve cooked from since the cookbook club started for me (eight, as of the time I’m writing), this has been the most challenging, and the most intellectually rewarding (and quite delicious too!). I value my cookbooks for where they can take me, what they can teach me, and how they can change me. This book is all that and holds an important place in my collection for all those reasons.
the cooking part…
For each cookbook we work with, I create a traditional style daily menu featuring a selection of recipes from the book in order to provide some guidance and get us on the same page during our conversation. These are only suggestions, and many people experiment with whatever strikes their fancy. Here’s what we started with, based on the traditional Senegalese formula. Having a light breakfast of coffee and croissant is common. This is followed by a substantial lunch – typically the main meal of the day. Later in the afternoon comes teatime and/or and afternoon snack. Dinner is usually lighter, but often there will be late night snacks as well, especially after a night out on the town!
breakfast café Touba or a hot coffee with sweetened condensed milk purchased croissant traditional lunch Thiebou Jenn or kale, avocado, and grapefruit salad piri piri prawns with watermelon salad sweet potato, green plantain, & scallion latkes w casava leaves pesto teatime hot mint tea or mint hibiscus cooler afternoon snack millet beignets black-eyed pea fritter sandwiches w pickled carrots ginger lime peanut hummus dinner spring vegetable fonio pilaf with salmon-yucca croquettes & spicy tamarind glaze mango fonio salad with coconut mussels mussels mafé eggplant & palm oil risotto vegetarian jollof rice (below photos by myself and several cookbook club members)
This is the national dish of Senegal. Each household has its own special way of preparing it. All are based on the regional staple, jollof rice, with fish and vegetables. The flavors are earthy, funky (from fermented fish sauce), and thoroughly addictive. The recipe in this book calls for a whole fish fried, but given the blessing to use cut pieces, most people who tried it did just that. Thiebou Jenn is very likely the forerunner of the classic Spanish paella. The earthy-funky flavors are great with Cabernet Franc.
kale avocado and grapefruit salad
Strange to see something so seemingly familiar, but this was a great reminder that many things we believe were “invented” here came from somewhere else. This salad is a version of something I’ve been making for a long time, so it was comfort food for me.
piri piri prawns with watermelon salad
Some like it hot. If you’re one of them, you’ll love this. I did! I don’t have a grill or a grill pan at the moment, so I made it in a cast iron skillet. I never thought to caramelize watermelon. I now have a new favorite technique in my arsenal! This may have been my favorite dish of the book. I paired it with a fresh watermelon juice mojito.
mint hibiscus cooler
Hibiscus was one of the star ingredients of our group discussion of Senegal. Hibiscus is one of the flavorful ingredients that show up frequently in very interesting places in the book (hibiscus salt as a garnish, for one; a hibiscus tart as well). And, more significantly, we were cooking from this book around the new US National Holiday, Juneteenth. One of the traditional foods of Juneteenth is “red drink” – nowadays, it can be any kind of red. Red soda, red Kool-Aid… but the original was something similar to this hibiscus cooler.
spring vegetable fonio pilaf
As a side dish or as a main dish (max out the vegetables, if so) – this is a fast, easy, healthy, delicious meal. Think of it as a West African version of fried rice. It’s addictive. I ate it for dinner and had the leftovers with a fried egg for breakfast.
mango fonio salad
Nearly everyone made this dish, and we all agree that it’s a keeper. Adjust the quantities as you wish to your own taste. It’s even better the next day.
Preparing mussels at home is so easy but I rarely do it. I’m happy I broke that pattern – it was a great treat. Make sure you have a baguette or some kind of yummy bread to go with it. The fonio made a great catcher of the sauce, but I like to dip with mussels.
vegetarian jollof rice
Jollof rice is a big deal all over West Africa and everyone calls it as their own. But Senegal is its home. The thing about this recipe is that the amount of tomato paste called for was enough to put off just about all of us (2 cups of tomato paste). But in our Q&A session with Chef Pierre, we learned that the secret is patience. You must cook it down low and slow – get the tomato paste good and caramelized. It’s the secret to getting just the right flavor. So don’t question, just follow the instructions. It’s worth it!
After you make the jollof, save some and make the croquette recipe that uses the leftovers. They’re a predecessor to the Sicilian classic, arancini and they are addictive!
Have you cooked from any of Pierre Thiam’s books? Have you ever cooked with fonio? I’d love to hear what your favorites dishes were. Leave a comment with your thoughts below!
In closing, as always, I want to thank Kitchen Arts & Letters bookstore and the 92nd Street Y in NYC. Their beloved live program, Talks & Tastes, went virtual and we’ve all reaped the benefits of this twist of fate. If you missed this season’s club registration, stay tuned, we’ll return in the fall with four exciting new books!
You can catch up with my previous post HERE.