Food & dining

Q&A

The surprising Senegalese origins of many American foods

Pierre Thiam

Evan Sung

Pierre Thiam

Senegalese chef and restaurateur Pierre Thiam has been using food to build connections between his West African roots and adopted home of New York since he arrived as a student in the 1980s. Thiam, who lives in Brooklyn with his wife and three children, has owned two modern African bistros there, Yolele and Le Grand Dakar. Thiam’s restaurants served as a hub for Africans living in America and also helped introduce New Yorkers to the fresh seafood, grains, and vegetables of Senegal that have also served as inspiration for a number of American dishes. Just back from a trip to Nigeria — where he has opened a new restaurant called Nok by Alara on Victoria Island in Lagos — and Senegal, where he spent a week showing off the country’s rich food heritage to Anthony Bourdain for an upcoming episode of the series “Parts Unknown,” Thiam talked about his new book, “Senegal: Modern Senegalese Recipes From the Source to the Bowl.”

Q. What are the staples of Senegalese cooking?

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A. There are regional differences, but most of what people eat on a regular basis is rice. The protein would be fish. Senegal is a coastal country, and we eat a lot of leafy vegetables and tubers. Other grains like millet and fonio are very popular in the rural areas.

Q. What is fonio?

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A. Fonio is just like quinoa. It is an ancient grain. It may be the oldest in Africa. It’s protein rich and gluten free. You can harvest in two months, so you can have four to six seasons of fonio in one year. Unfortunately, it went to the back burner during colonial times. Then it became this mind-set of preferring what comes from the West. One of the big ironies is that those [ancient] grains are the most nutritious ones. You can do so many different things with fonio. I use it as flour for baking. I use it in salads.

Q. When you go back to Senegal, what dishes do you look forward to most?

A. In Dakar that would be thiebou jenn [fish with rice], which is the national dish of Senegal. It’s made out of broken rice, rice that looks a bit like couscous because it is processed. The fish is usually a grouper that is stuffed with a mixture of parsley, Scotch bonnet, and garlic. It’s cooked in a tomato broth with ingredients like tamarind and fermented conch, which is a way of bringing umami in our cooking. After the fish is cooked, broken rice is cooked in that broth that has all the flavor. The rice comes out with a bright red color. When I go in the southern region of Casamance, where my family is from, my favorite food is soupou kandja, which is the ancestor of gumbo. Just like gumbo, it has the okra and the rice. But in Senegal we add palm oil to it. It has a slightly nutty, fruity, almost buttery flavor.

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Q. What other American foods have roots in Senegal?

A. There are quite a lot actually. Traveling to the South for me was eye-opening. I went to the Gullah Islands [off the southern US coast] years ago, and I was so surprised to see the red rice they have there is made the same way as the one we prepare. Okra is another ingredient that arrived from our region. In Senegal we make a black-eyed pea dish called thiebou niébé, which is the same as the Hoppin’ John that you have in the Carolinas. Jambalaya is another dish that you find with origins in West Africa. It’s not surprising that Africans brought their cuisine with them. It kept them going for centuries.

Q. How did you learn to cook?

A. I was never on the path to become a chef. I was a student in chemistry when I was in Senegal. I came to the United States with a student visa. My first job was a restaurant job, as a busboy. That is where I got a cultural shock. Coming from a country where I only saw women cooking, in this restaurant every single person in the kitchen was a man. The chef saw my interest. Being from Senegal, even though the kitchen belonged to women, food is such a big part of who we are.

Q. Is that what the Senegalese concept “teranga” refers to?

A. It is translated as “hospitality.” But it is much more than hospitality. If you arrive in a Senegalese household, anytime, unexpected, they will greet you with something, maybe a drink or food. We eat around the board, so there’s always room for an extra person. The guest is getting the best piece of meat, the piece of vegetable. We have a deep belief that when you share your food, your bowl will always be plentiful. Value isn’t by how much you have, but by how much you give. That’s teranga.

Pierre Thiam talks about “Senegal” March 2 at 6 p.m. at Boston University, 808 Commonwealth Ave., Room 117. For tickets and details, call 617-353-9852.

Michael Floreak can be reached at michaelfloreak@gmail.com
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