After speaking with Senegalese Chef Pierre Thiam about his homeland’s cuisine, I was excited to try it myself. I began my journey by visiting Le Petit Sénégal, also known as Little Senegal, in Harlem. The 116th street neighborhood is filled with West African markets, restaurants, and other gathering places. I had my initiation to Senegalese cuisine at Pikine, a well known restaurant in the area.
In addition to trying restaurant dishes, I decided to recreate some Senegalese foods at home. I used recipes from two of Chef Pierre Thiam’s cookbooks, The Fonio Cookbook: An Ancient Grain Rediscovered and Senegal: Modern Senegalese Recipes From the Source to the Bowl.
I found that Senegalese cuisine largely consists of proteins and stews served with a grain of some sort. In order to prepare for this culinary undertaking, I stocked up on ingredients such as yellow onions, ginger, limes, yuca (cassava root), and fonio, a West African grain similar to couscous.
Six dishes in particular stood out to me:
- Thieboudienne (Senegalese Jollof Rice with Fish)
- Thiebou Yapp (Senegalese Jollof Rice with Meat)
- Salmon Fataya (Fish Pies)
- Chicken Yassa (Stewed Chicken)
- Yassa Burger with Yucca Fries
- Selim Crusted Salmon with Fonio
Read on for my experiences with each of these dishes.
What is Senegal’s National Dish? Thieboudienne
Thieboudienne, or Ceebu Jen in the Wolof language, is one of the most popular dishes in Senegalese cuisine. In fact, it is often dubbed the country’s national dish. It is a one pot dish made with rice, marinated fish, tomatoes and a host of vegetables and spices. I was excited to try this dish at Pikine, because I had heard so much about the Senegalese version of jollof rice. The addition of the carrots and cabbage added a nice amount of crunch to the tasty rice dish. If you want to recreate this meal at home, Chef Pierre Thiam has a recipe in Senegal: Modern Senegalese Recipes.
It is typical in Senegalese households for people to enjoy thieboudienne on a communal platter, with everyone eating the meal with their right hands. Communal eating is related to the country’s concept of teranga, or hospitality. There is always enough food to share, and theiboudienne makes a hearty meal for all. What a beautiful concept!
Another version of Senegalese jollof is Thiebou Yapp, or Ceebu Yapp in the Wolof language. Instead of fish, the protein in this dish comes from meat, which is typically beef or lamb. I loved the rich meaty gravy and green olives that accompanied the thiebou yapp I tried at Pikine. It was bursting with flavor and paired perfectly with the tomato flavored rice.
Street Food in Senegalese Cuisine: Salmon Fataya
Salmon Fataya, a savory fried dough stuffed with fish and spices, is a Senegalese food that is perfect for a snack or appetizer. I had it at Pikine before trying my entree, and it was so satisfying. It is very similar to an empanada, but this was my first time having one filled with salmon. Dipping it in the sous kaani, a tomato chile sauce, only added to the flavor.
Interestingly enough, the term fataya is related to the Arabic word fatayer, which describes savory Lebanese pies. This connection makes a lot of sense given Senegal’s history and demographics: 95% of the West African country’s population is Muslim. Thus, there has been a great deal of linguistic and culinary exchange between the two regions.
Chicken Yassa: Another Mainstay in Senegalese Cuisine
Chicken Yassa is another quintessential dish in Senegalese cuisine. It consists of chicken stewed in caramelized onions, limes, mustard, scotch bonnet pepper and ginger. The flavorful chicken is served over rice. It is a delicious meal that requires minimal ingredients and ready in less than 45 minutes.
When making this dish at home, I used Chef Pierre Thiam’s New York Times recipe for inspiration; the online recipe was adapted from his Fonio cookbook. I began by rubbing boneless, skinless chicken thighs with white vinegar, lime juice, and olive oil. I seasoned the chicken with salt, pepper, chicken bouillon, garlic powder, onion powder, smoked paprika, cumin, ginger, thyme, and turmeric. I topped it with sliced onions, ginger, red bell pepper, minced garlic, and diced scotch Bonnet peppers.
While the chicken marinated, I caramelized onions and seasoned them with salt, pepper, and lime juice. I removed the onions, browned the chicken, and added the onions back to the pan. After deglazing the pan with chicken stock and adding a bay leaf, I covered the pan and let the mixture simmer for about 35 minutes. And voila, dinner was served!
Recipes from a Cookbook on Senegalese Cuisine: Senegal: Modern Senegalese Recipes From the Source to the Bowl
When I visited Chef Pierre Thiam’s Harlem restaurant Teranga earlier this year, the beautiful cover art on one of the display cookbooks caught my eye. As I flipped through the text, I was in awe of the pictures and recipes. As I began working through Senegalese cuisine, I thought now was the perfect time to try some recipes from Senegal: Modern Senegalese Recipes.
Yassa Burger with Yucca Fries
While the recipe for this burger called for lamb, I used beef patties. I seasoned them with salt, pepper, garlic powder, onion powder, lime zest, cayenne pepper, and thyme and seared them in a cast iron skillet. I topped them with caramelized onions, a fried egg, spicy brown mustard, and tamarind kani sauce.
The kani sauce was truly the star of the show. It consisted of cooking down onions, garlic, tomatoes, scotch bonnet pepper, fish sauce, sugar and tamarind paste. It was so good! I served the burger with thick cut yucca fries. Unlike potatoes, yucca are flavorful on their own. It was a great meal.
Selim Crusted Salmon with Fonio
This recipe called for selim pepper, also known as grains of paradise; this is a smoky spice commonly found in West Africa, but I was unable to find it in my local grocery store. Instead, I made a substitute with ground cardamom and freshly ground black pepper. I seasoned the salmon with the cardamom pepper, salt, smoked paprika, garlic powder, and onion powder. I pan seared the salmon and served it with leftover kani sauce and fonio.
Fonio is an ancient West African grain that is nutrient-packed and requires very little water. I ordered my fonio from Chef Pierre Thiam’s company Yolélé Foods, which supports Senegalese farmers in producing the crop. The fonio took five minutes to cook. I then sautéed it with onion, garlic, scotch bonnet pepper, and curry powder. So simple, but so good.
I enjoyed each and every one of these dishes and plan to add Senegalese food to my repertoire! Have you tried any of these dishes before? If not, which would you like to try?
For a look at another cuisine, check out my post A Guide to Angolan Food.