Eating in West Africa: Senegalese Style

A couple of years ago I went to Dakar, Senegal. I was fortunate enough to be able to learn about their food, how they cook some of their classic dishes, and the way they eat. The Senegalese people are very generous; if you are visiting someone at meal time, they will always share what they are having with you. Even walking past people on the street, you will often hear them exlaim, “Kaay leck!” which means “come and eat!” in the local language.

Under some expert supervision, I was able to help cook the Senegalese national dish, Thiéboudienne (pronounced Cheh Bu Jen). Thiéboudienne is a rice and vegetable dish, topped off with a delicately marinated grilled fish.

In Senegal, everyone gathers around a huge shallow-rimmed bowl to eat. The head of the house will break up the main item (in this case the fish), and place it in each person’s section of the plate. Everyone eats out of this one plate, either with the right hand (never the left!) or with a spoon.

People typically eat quickly, with minimal conversation. They have a saying that translates roughly into “You only have one mouth, it cannot do two things at once.” Conversation typically occurs both before and after the meal, often during an elaborate tea ceremony. This ceremony involves three cups of highly caffeinated tea, with each cup containing more sugar than the last. One Senegalese man prepares the tea by pouring it back and forth between two glasses to create a thick foam cover. This cover protects the tea from sand and dust. Each person drinks using one of these two glasses, refilling each time. Once everyone has had a taste, they begin brewing the next one!

I also went to a small ocean resort about an hour and a half south of Dakar. I was fortunate enough to observe the local village-men fishing. Their fishing method was simple; they take a boat out into the water, drop a net, and then pull it in from both sides.

They caught everything from sea snakes to a huge ray, as well as the average fish (of which I bought one and took it to the hotel for them to cook up for my dinner!).

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