Senegalese chef, restaurateur and cookbook author Pierre Thiam (www.pierrethiam.com) has been touted as a West African culinary icon. He is the executive chef at acclaimed restaurant NOK by Alara in Lagos, Nigeria, and runs the catering company Pierre Thiam Catering in New York City. On March 25, Thiam hosts the dinner Jolof to Jambalaya: An Evening with Chef Pierre Thiam at the Southern Food & Beverage Museum (www.natfab.org). (He also signs books at Community Book Center March 24 and does a cooking demonstration at Dillard University March 27.) Thiam spoke with Gambit about Senegalese cooking.
What are the characteristics of traditional Senegalese food?
Thiam: Senegalese food is special because of the environment. It's a coastal region so there is a lot of seafood and different types of fish. There have been many influences in the cuisine because (Dakar) was a natural port of entry to Africa. For hundreds of years this meant traffic — from the Portuguese, French and British.
To the north is the Sahara Desert, and the south is lush. The south is more of a rice-growing culture while the north is more of a millet culture. French colonizers wanted our farmers to focus on growing peanuts — peanut oil was pretty high in demand. The French also imported broken rice from Vietnam. The Senegalese embraced it even though it was substandard rice compared to the rice that they were growing. ... It's even a part of our national dish called thiebou jen. It's almost like couscous and the dish looks like a paella. It's rice cooked in a rich broth with fish and vegetables like yuca, carrots and eggplant. The fish is stuffed with a spice mixture made with parsley, Scotch bonnet peppers and garlic. Also, in the broth we have what you would call umami, the fermented aspect of the cuisine. We ferment conch and we use that as a flavor agent when we cook. It adds another dimension to the dish. We also cook a lot with peanuts and make a peanut sauce called maafe that is not like the Asian peanut sauce but is thick and cooked either with rice or millet or couscous, and the protein can vary from fish or lamb.
Are there similarities between Senegalese and Creole cuisines?
T: There is a dish is called soupoukanja that is the ancestor of what you in New Orleans call gumbo. It's an okra dish that has seafood and meat and is served over rice. The difference between our gumbo and yours is that we use palm oil, which is extracted from the palm tree. It has its own special flavor. Gumbo actually means okra in a lot of different languages in Africa, and jambalaya is an evolution of the dish I mentioned earlier, thiebou jen. A lot of this has to do with slavery, which is the time (period) where a lot of these ingredients traveled from West Africa to the Americas.
You'd be surprised to hear that this included ingredients like rice. There are two main families of rice in the world. One is called oryza sativa, which is an Asian rice, and oryza glaberrima, which is African rice. The African rice grows in certain pockets of Africa, including what we call Senegambia, the region south of Gambia but in Senegal. This is actually the region where my family is from. The Jollof people are rice growers, and we are known as a rice-growing culture. The rice that was brought to the Americas during slavery is from the exact same family of African rice. The reason why we have regions with a strong rice-growing culture — in South Carolina and North Carolina — is because the slaves were targeted from the Senegambia region and taken directly to this part of America. This is because of the similarities in the environment and because those guys knew how to grow rice. It was a very sophisticated technique — growing rice isn't easy. Rice is just a very symbolic example, but there are other ingredients, such as black-eyed peas. There's a dish called hoppin' John that you see in southern America. We have the exact same dish in Senegal of rice and black-eyed peas, with a few different variations. Okra, watermelon, you name it — there were quite a few ingredients that arrived from Africa because of slavery.
We were colonized by the French, but there was also a small community of Vietnamese that came to Senegal. In Dakar, you have street corners and kiosks where they're selling Vietnamese spring rolls. We call them nem, and that word became part of the Senegalese language. Many Senegalese don't even connect them to the Vietnamese anymore. They're almost considered Senegalese. But that's how it happens — that's how food evolves. We also have a Lebanese community, and they have a dish called fatayer. Now, if you ask the younger generation, they think it's a Senegalese dish, but it just became part of our culinary environment.
You will roast a whole lamb for the dinner. How is that prepared in Senegal?
T: We love lamb. This is a dish that we do on a yearly basis in Senegal. It's a majority Muslim country, and there is a holiday called Eid, where we slaughter a whole lamb. It's interesting, because it's a country where religious tolerance is a big part of our values, and this is very much seen through the culture of our food. When the Muslims slaughter a lamb, there's a part that is served to the Christian families and the Christians have the same ritual. On Good Friday, they have a dish called ngalax that is prepared, and all the Muslim neighbors receive a serving of this dish. It's interesting, because Good Friday arrives, and the Muslims are very excited in Senegal, because they know they're going to receive this dish.