“African cuisine” is a misnomer

Pierre Thiam, a Senegalese-born chef defining African restaurant food in the United States, argues that it is insulting to categorize African cuisine into one box.

Pierre Thiam, second from the left, in 2010 with guests at one of his restaurants in New York City (Uegmusic, via Flickr CC).

Pierre Thiam is a chef, restaurateur, and cookbook author. He was raised in Dakar, Senegal. Thiam moved to New York in the late 1980s and started working in various restaurants in the city. In 2003, Thiam opened his first restaurant, Yolele, a visionary African bistro in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, and his second restaurant, Le Grand-Dakar Restaurant,  in 2004, in neighboring Clinton Hill, Brooklyn. Thiam now runs a catering and gastronomy consultancy: Pierre Thiam Catering. In addition to his work as a chef, Thiam gives lectures and cooking classes at venues such as the Institute for Culinary Education (ICE) and the International Culinary Institute. A very busy man indeed being a food ambassador for Africa all over the globe including South America and Europe. So we were lucky to catch him for this small chat.

Please tell us a bit about your background and how you got started in the culinary field. Did it involve a mentor or attendance of a formal culinary school?

Hello. I came to New York in the late 1980s. Prior to that, I was a Physics and Chemistry student at Cheikh Anta Diop University in Dakar. Unfortunately, the late 80s were marred with strikes in the Senegalese school system so I obtained a US student visa for Baldwin Wallace college in Ohio. My goal was to become an engineer but fate decided that I would stay in New York and that my first job would be in the restaurant industry. That first job triggered a passion that was sleeping within me. Cooking is chemistry. It has been over twenty years now and I am still cooking.

Being from Senegal, it never occurred to me that a man could consider cooking as a career. In Senegal, there is a general acceptance that the kitchen belongs to women. Ha! In fact, growing up, I knew only one man to ever step foot in the kitchen. That was my Godfather who was of Vietnamese origins. He was part of the Vietnamese community that migrated to Senegal after the French Indochina war. He was an excellent cook, combining Vietnamese and Senegalese flavors. He used to grow his own vegetables and herbs. He is my great inspiration.

What is your overall cooking style? How truly continental is your style and which regions of the continent have been featured in your cuisine? What are your favorite ingredients and spices to cook with at any given time?

I would not call it a style but I like to cook intuitively, preferably with jazz music in the background. By cooking intuitively, I mean I tend to be really present in order to communicate with the ingredients around me and sometimes be dictated by them. Africa is my main source of inspiration and the influences in my cooking have been very diverse, from northern Africa all the way to West and Southern Africa. I am a big fan of the intensity of flavors in our food. The fermented ingredients used in West African cuisine (i.e. netetou in Senegal or Dawadawa in Nigeria), the dried salted fish, the Yeet (fermented conch), the smoked catfish, etc. I also love using our spice mixtures like the Hausa’s Kankankan or the Moroccan Charmoula. All these layers of flavors are what make our African cuisines unique.

I have always wanted to ask an expert this question, what makes a cuisine ‘African’? History, methodology, ingredients or spices? Is ‘African cuisine’ a misnomer? Do we need an “African food” historian or anthropologist? Why does there seem to be a dearth of famous female African chefs in the diaspora?

“African cuisine” is indeed a misnomer. The continent is so rich in its cultural diversity, in addition to the immense variety of ingredients from one region to another. It is therefore insulting to try to categorize African cuisine into one box. I also do not think the definition of African cuisine should be simply geographical. “African cuisine” transpires through the diaspora. That is where the food anthropologist (or historian) you mentioned might play an important role. African captives, during slavery, have influenced Brazilian, Southern American and Latin American cuisines. In Spain, the Moors brought rice to Valencia; today the national dish of that country is paella. Food is constantly evolving. Our food has also received foreign influences. Africans brought new ingredients like rice, okra, eggplant or black eye peas to the new world. Other ingredients also arrived to the continent through the Columbian Exchange (Cassava, corn, sweet potato, pepper, etc.). The genius lies in how we embraced these new ingredients and made it our own.

Speaking of continental style, you have a luncheon and book signing at NYU in New York City coming up, please tell us more about that and your previous writings. And why do you not have a food column in the New York Times yet?

Hahahaha! The New York Times has not offered me a column yet. Friday, the 12th of April at NYU will be the culmination of an event that begins today (April 11) around a conference on food and economics. The idea of the conference is the brainchild of Dr. Yaw Nyarko (professor of economics at NYU). He will be joined in the panel discussion by my friend Jessica Harris, a renowned food historian who wrote extensively about African cuisine. Also in the panel will be Mexican scholar, Dr. Marco Hernandez De Cuella whose body of work comprises essays on the influence of African cuisine in Mexico. It will be an opportunity to sign my book “Yolele! Recipes from the Heart of Senegal.”

Are there other African food chefs we should be looking out for on the continent and in the diaspora? In addition, when should we be expecting the next restaurant venture from you in NYC?

Fortunately, there are many African chefs to look out for globally. Here in New York: Chef Abdoul Gueye at Abistro in Brooklyn, Ivorian chef Samuel Beket (Hill Cafe), another Ivorian chef, Morou Ouatara, to name a few. Of course, there is the Swedish-Ethiopian celebrity chef Marcus Samuelsson at Red Rooster.

Presently I am enjoying this time away from the demanding restaurant activities to work on projects which involve lots of traveling. I am also consulting on a couple of food concepts in NYC and abroad. I have a few pop up restaurants lined up including a recent one in San Francisco and an upcoming one on Mount Kilimanjaro as part of charity events.

Your best cooking tip for a novice just getting into the culinary business, be it operational or entrepreneurial?

Passion. Love is key in this business. It is not always as glamorous as it appears. It requires lots of patience to succeed in the culinary business.

Have you ever cooked for any “famous” Africans with “interesting” gastronomical pleasures? Would you ever consider becoming a presidential chef (what are those by the way)?

Through cooking, I have met many incredible personalities indeed. Last week, I cooked for Dr. Mamphela Ramphele, who I hope will be the next president of South Africa. No, I am not interested in being a presidential chef and having my food being constantly scrutinized by the secret service.

Let’s shift gears a bit. From 30 April to 5 May, you are organizing an African food festival in Dakar. Do share more about this festival. And why in Dakar?

The festival, “AfroEats”, is a celebration of our cuisine: its past and its future. It has the ambition to become a movement to promote our rich food culture but also to encourage healthy eating. The goal of the festival is to offer a platform to all the artisans of food transformation as well as chefs and food entrepreneurs. Dakar was chosen for this first AfroEats because of its ideal location. It is easy to get to Dakar (only 7 hours from NYC and 6 hours from Europe).

It is a crucial battle that we are facing. Many of our ingredients are being threatened with extinction. It is our responsibility to save and preserve them. There are no other options, to give up is to accept that what we eat will be dictated by corporations.

What is your favorite meal to cook for others? And for yourself?

I do not have a favorite meal to cook per se. It depends on my mood, the season, the person, and several other factors. The goal is to try to be in the place where the food I am cooking at the moment is my favorite to cook. That’s perfection! I have not been very successful at it yet.

Last but not least, could you share a recipe of yours with our readers (hopefully something they can make easily at home)?

Abala: Black-eyed pea puree with sauteéd eggplant wrapped in banana leaves. (Serves 4 to 6)

2 cups dried black-eyed peas, soaked
2 tablespoons palm or canola oil
1 small onion, diced
2 Japanese eggplants, cubed
salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 large banana leaf, cut into 6 (6- to 8-inch) squares

1. Peel the soaked black-eyed peas by rubbing them vigorously between the palms of your hands to remove the skin. Alternately, drain the peas and place them in a blender or food processor. Add enough water to cover the peas and briefly pulse a few times, to break the skin free. Do not attempt to make a paste of the peas. Place the broken peas in a bowl and fill with more water. Then pour the water out through a strainer (the skins, lighter than the peas will pour out with the water, leaving the cleaned white peas in the bowl).
2. Return the peeled peas in the blender and process to a thick puree (adding a few drops of water to facilitate the process). It should have the consistency of hummus.
3. Heat the palm oil in a sauté pan, over medium heat, and sauté the onions until soft. Add the eggplant and cook until cooked through and eggplant is soft. Season with salt and pepper. Allow to cool.
4. Fold the eggplant mixture into the pea puree. Adjust seasoning.
5. Place 2 tablespoons of the mixture in the center of each banana leaf square. Close the leaf by folding the ends over. Secure with toothpicks or kitchen twine.
6. Place the packets in the top of a steamer or a hot grill and cook for 10 to 15 minutes (turning once). Can be served with a spicy tomato sauce or a tomato relish.

Tomato Relish (Serves 4 to 6)

1 red onion, finely julienned
2 firm ripe tomatoes, chopped
½ cup fresh lemon juice
salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 habanero pepper, seeded and finely chopped
¼ cup peanut oil

1. Place the onions and tomatoes in a salad bowl along with the lemon juice, salt, pepper and habanero. Stir well. Gradually add the peanut oil while still stirring.
2. Can be served with Abala or grilled seafood.

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