Cooking for the New Year with Chef Pierre Thiam

Chef Pierre Thiam. Image courtesy of Evan Sung.

When you leaf through chef Pierre Thiam’s Senegal: Modern Senegalese Recipes from the Source to the Bowl, you’ll be rewarded with sumptuous images of food that will draw you back to the kitchen, armed with a renewed desire to be adventurous – and healthful – with flavorsome food. But you’ll also read for the pleasure of learning about a whole way of life in a way that no food blog or Youtube video on the Internet will be able to fulfill. There are recipe for various fish stews and vegetables with subtle differences in seasonings, but also  accompanying stories about the problems caused by illegal, commercial trawl-net fishing that is depleting the food sources that the Senegalese have depended on. There are recipes that trace the influence of Vietnamese cuisine to that of Senegal, as well as the ways in which Senegalese staples, like seafood-okra stew, soupou kandja, has clear linkages to Louisiana gumbo. And there is the story of Diallo, the octogenarian from Casamance with rippling, lean muscles of a body-builder-cum-yogi, who still climbs palm trees as tall as fifty feet to collect palm fruit clusters weighing up to ten kilos (or twenty-two pounds), then processes the fruit by boiling it and pounding it to extract palm oil.

Thiam is a natural cartographer and historian of food, aware of the fact that his global (and mainly American) audiences won’t know about regional specifics, never mind that each region of imagined “Africa” has specific food chemistries determined by trade routes, traditions culled from immediate neighbors and occasional visitors, proximity to sea and rainfall region, and yes, to the presence of the colonial past. He begins by explaining that the bowl is the central metaphor for Senegalese – and African – food traditions: “Teranga is what Senegal is,” he noted; “The bowl is the vessel from which we eat. We eat around the bowl in Senegal…Eating is something that’s not done in a separate way…You always stop everything when it’s mealtime and everyone gets together.”

Thiam emphasizes the fact that long before the arrival of the French, Senegalese people had developed intricate food traditions, and could always feed themselves well. Their cuisine is based on seafood, grains local to West Africa (indigenous to both wet and arid regions), and fresh greens in which the umami of fermented conch, smoked fish, and the burn of scotch bonnet peppers came together in complex sauces. He refers time and again to pre-colonial foods that continue to feed Senegal, but are largely forgotten in urban areas. The grain Fonio, for instance – a gluten-free, protein-rich grain that does not “embarrass the cook” – is now rarely found in the city, though it is still eaten regularly in the countryside.

“Diallo from Casamance, the octogenarian palm-oil producer. Image courtesy of Evan Sung.

Modern city people believe, explains Thiam, that what came from the West was better; so they eat baguettes, and broken rice (this is rice that is discarded in Asian markets) that began to be imported to Senegal from France’s East Asian colony, Indochina (Vietnam). He is quick to note that the Senegalese have done “beautiful things” with broken rice (witness thiebu jenn or thieboudienne, for instance), but points out that they had their own varieties of rice – including the prized grains of the variety Oryza glaberrima, originating in the south of Senegal, in Casamance, where his family is from. This variety was taken from coastal West Africa to the Americas during the slaving period, and became a significant crop in the Carolinas. (Analyses of the genome sequence of O. glaberrima support the hypothesis it was domesticated in a single region along the Niger river; it is also a different species from Asian rice, according to research published in the journal Nature.)

Besides being a skilled interpreter of culture and history, Thiam is able to do that miracle that most trained chefs cannot – translate traditional methods for what a modern home cook with somewhat limited resources and skills can put together. His recipes are blueprints for what I plan to cook in the New Year. If you are lucky, and can reciprocate in some way, you might be able to wheedle an invite to a meal at my home, guided by Thiam’s deeply knowledgeable, yet joyful and easy-to-follow instructions.

*Read ‘kola’s interview with chef Pierre Thiam, back in 2013, here.

Further Reading