Senegal: Modern Senegalese Recipes from the Source to the Bowl
By Pierre Thiam
Pierre Thiam: My name is Pierre Thiam and my cookbook is Senegal: Modern Recipes From the Source to the Bowl.
Suzy Chase: So, how does the location of Senegal affect the cuisine?
Pierre Thiam: Oh, in so many ways. Cuisine is affected by the environment, always and in the case of Senegal, we are located on the west coast of Africa, so we bordering the Atlantic ocean so there are seafood in our menu on a daily basis actually. The Senegalese eat seafood, the national dish is called thiebou jenn which translates to rice and fish but it's much more than rice and fish. It's a meaty fish we call it [foreign language 00:00:51] looks like the [foreign language 00:00:52] and it's stuffed with parsley and scotch bonnets and garlic. It's very pungent with a fermented conch. The fish is cooked in a rice broth before being served with vegetables actually. So rice is cooked in a tomato sauce. So one is in seafood, another thing if you want is Senegal is south of the Sahara desert. So it's a dry area in the north of Senegal and the southern part is much more tropical and lush. So depending on where you're located, in the north or the south the food also changes. Senegal is located at the most western coast, which makes it the entrance of Africa so in history that was the place where most of the colonial European countries arrived first before entering Africa. The Portuguese came through Senegal, the French came through Senegal, the Dutch came thorough Senegal, the English came through Senegal via Gambia. And each of those countries also brought influences in our cuisine.
Suzy Chase: Speaking of influences, it's really interesting to me that thiebou jenn, the national dish of Senegal is made with broken rice and not fonio. Can you talk a little bit about that?
Pierre Thiam: Well, that's a very good question because broken rice, one we use for our national dish is not even produced in Senegal. Exported. It comes from southeast Asia and this also part because of our colonial past. We were colonized by french in Senegal and the same French also colonized Indochina which became Vietnam. Instead of the farmers growing grains like fonio or millet, which was our traditional grains, they started importing the rice. But they imported rice that was the processed rice, the leftovers from Indochina, So Indochina, which was part of the French empire started to send broken rice to Senegalese and the Senegalese embraced that broken rice, which is really a substandard rice because [inaudible 00:03:03]that's over-processed that [inaudible 00:03:06]tend to feed the animals in Vietnam. And that was the one that the French brought to Senegal and the Senegalese embraced it and the national dish became ... the main grain for the national dish became this broken rice.
Suzy Chase: Can you tell us a little bit about the ancient grain fonio?
Pierre Thiam: Yes. Fonio is probably ... I call it Africa's best-kept secret. It's been cultivated for over 5000 years. So it could be the oldest cultivated grain in Africa.
Suzy Chase: Wow.
Pierre Thiam: And ... yes indeed. The amazing thing about this grain it's a gluten-free grain. It's a grain that's considered a super-grain and a super-food because it's rich in protein it's rich in vitamins, and it used to be widespread before colonial times. Fonio was even ... archeologists found fonio in burial grounds in Ancient Egypt. So it was a grain that was widespread around Africa and now it's only limited to West Africa countries like Nigeria, Senegal, Mali, Guinea- lots of fonio in Guinea- and ... so that's where you find fonio now. It's also one of the fastest-growing grain in the world. So you can have like four, five different seasons of fonio in a year.
Suzy Chase: Wow.
Pierre Thiam: So it's a grain that's ... yeah it's an amazing grain and the most important thing for us it's delicious. In Senegal and West Africa, it's a grain that was served to royalty and this was the grain that you'd save for your most important guests because of its amazing flavor and texture. It looks like grains of sand when you look at fonio it's a tiny little with grain but it expands in an amazing way. For one cup of fonio if you cook one cup of fonio you cook, you put in one cup of water, and you have the equivalent of four cups of cooked fonio. So it's a generous grain. They call it the answer to world hunger. It's indeed believed to be the answer to world hunger by nutritionists.
Suzy Chase: Can we find it in the US anywhere?
Pierre Thiam: Yes you can find it actually if you're lucky to live in places like New York. Big cities they have African markets. Online you can find it in the US and anywhere in the world. Amazon is selling it online.
Suzy chase: Can you talk about how important fermentation is to Senegalese cuisine?
Pierre Thiam: You know, we ferment everything. We ferment this locust bean called netetu. But not only us, all over West Africa. In Nigeria, they call it dawadawa or iru. Sumbala in Mali or Guinea. The locust bean that we ferment and it's used as food, ... in the sauces, it's used as a seasoning. It's used fresh, we also ferment conch, which is some seafood in our seafood.
Suzy Chase: Yes.
Pierre Thiam: -that we ferment it with two of my favorite flavors. We ferment fish. We ferment like ... We really eat ... really part of it. You have to expect that fermented flavor when you eat Senegalese.
Suzy Chase: What's your favorite fermented wine?
Pierre Thiam: My favorite fermented wine probably the local Senegalese wine that's the palm wine that you'll only see in the south of Senegal because it's more lush so that's where palm trees grow. And that's made from the sap of the palm tree.
Suzy Chase: Growing up did you ever think food could be a career?
Pierre Thiam: No, no, no. It was never an option for me because the kitchen belonged to women. The kitchen was the kingdom of women in Senegal and most of Africa.
Suzy Chase: Now what is the symbolism of the bowl? You mentioned people sitting round a bowl as opposed to a plate.
Pierre Thiam: The bowl is uniting. The bowl is inviting in a way that the plate don't do. Sitting around the bowl with people is seen as a sign of love. Traditionally, we eat with our hand, we eat with our right hand, and the whole symbol behind it is you eat with your right hand because that's the hand that you use to greet people, that's the hand of love. That's just ... also another way if you like, we believe that the food tastes better when you eat with your hand and more intimate, there's nothing between you and the food. So you can feel it and shape it and your fingers are giving you some information about the food that you're about to eat. Before you eat it you're already feeling it with your mind because of that connection with your hand. But more so, the bowl is like symbolizing in Senegal the most important value, the teranga. We call it teranga. Teranga translates directly for hospitality. But it's not quite the right word for that. Teranga is the way you treat the older, so we know in Senegal that we receive blessing when we invite people to share our food. We also believe that the food ... your bowl will always be plentiful when you share with people.
Suzy Chase: That's really lovely. I feel like we could have world peace if everyone had teranga.
Pierre Thiam: Yes indeed. I agree with that. I think food is the medium that we overlook and could be the answer to that world peace situation.
Suzy Chase: There's nothing I love more than street food so I made your recipe for crystallized peanuts.
Pierre Thiam: Oh.
Suzy Chase: It's so citrusy and then you get the kick of the cayenne, and then you get the sweetness so you can find those around Dakar?
Pierre Thiam: Yeah, yeah, actually you can find a version of it. You know some of the recipes that I have in the book are my own tweak. Not all of them but most of them because as you see in the title, Modern Recipes From the Source to the Bowl so those are the modern recipes. Not all of them are the traditional ones. So I put my own tweak because I also wanted the book to be written ... read by Senegalese as well as westerners.
Suzy Chase: I'm really excited for your special menu tomorrow night at Porsena here in New York City.
Pierre Thiam: All right. I get to see you.
Suzy Chase: Yes. I can't wait to eat some thiebou jenn.
Pierre Thiam: Ah, so happy. So happy. I'll make sure I'll come out and say hi.
Suzy Chase: So where can we find you on the web?
Pierre Thiam: Ah, pierrethiam, P-I-E-R-R-E-T-H-I-A-M.com, also have a Facebook page Chef Pierre Thiram.
Suzy Chase: Great. Thanks Pierre for coming on Cookery By The Book podcast.
Pierre Thiam: Thank you Suzy for inviting me.