As promised, I will give you the reader’s digest version of Senegalese food. Personally, whenever someone travels to a foreign land I love asking questions about what they ate, especially if it’s something completely unique like half fermented eggs or monkey brains.
To start, I want to talk about a cultural difference that starts with a saying that people tend to use quite often in America, “Finish your food because there are kids starving in Africa.” Here in Senegal everyone eats around the same bowl and it is actually polite to not finish the food. I am always expected to leave some food on my plate as a cultural courtesy in case someone comes who has not eaten. This is quite the opposite of what I was taught growing up which was to finish the food you put on your plate in order to not be wasteful.
As mentioned, the Senegalese eat around one single bowl. In French, this custom is called “l’art de la table.” Here are just a few rules:
- If there are stools available, men and guests get priority. Likewise, if there are spoons, men and guests will be given a utensil first.
- For all meals, the base layer of rice is spread out around the entire bowl. The meat and veggies are dropped in a pile in the middle. You can only eat what is immediately in front of you in a pizza pie shaped section. If you really want a carrot that is on the opposite side of the bowl, you cannot have that carrot. Reach outside your food zone at your own risk and in fear of being reprimanded.
- The food bowl is controlled by the eldest man or woman eating. He or she has the authority to distribute the meat and veggies as they see fit. If you are bold, you can ask for a specific piece of the bowl and hope for a positive response…..However,
- Many families will not talk around The Food Bowl.
- The elder at the bowl will sometimes literally throw food at people around the bowl. The elder will also (mostly) de-bone the fish and share it with those around the bowl.
- There will likely be 10 or more people seated around one bowl. So it’s important to find a comfortable position with sufficient leg room as you sit on the floor.
- When you have eaten your fill, immediately get up from the bowl without saying anything and vacate your spot. This shows that you are done eating for that meal.
In Senegal, the variety of food depends on the region of the country and of course the economic conditions. The main staples are rice and fish, and most dishes can be simple to prepare. There is also a huge French influence – everyday thus far, my breakfast has been a baguette with coffee/tea/hot chocolate. It only costs about $1.15 for four baguettes, so it can be a really cost-effective way to start the day.
Let me describe the most common dishes that I eat on weekly basis that are native to Senegal.
Ceebu jën: Directly translated from Wolof, meaning Rice Fish. It is a stew-like bowl of marinated and stuffed white fish cooked with tomato paste and a variety of vegetables (like carrots, cabbage, sweet potatoes) on a bed of rice. It is the national dish of Senegal.
Maafe: Chicken (sometimes lamb or beef) is cooked with vegetables in a tomato and peanut butter (more like groundnuts) sauce.
Yassa: Chicken or fish marinated in lemon juice and onions (lots and lots of onions), and cooked with mustard and black pepper and served on a bed of white rice.
Lakh: Rolled millet-balls served with yogurt, concentrated milk, and raisins or other fruits. It is the traditional offering for naming ceremonies, but it is usually a cheap and easy meal to make for Sunday evenings.