Note: I wrote this on Friday but only just had the chance to publish it, on account of spotty Internet in my house and a wonderful weekend trip to a tropical paradise at Toubab Dialow, which will be recounted in the future.
When I made the decision to apply to this program in Dakar, I must admit that approximately 64% of my knowledge of and appreciation for Senegal came from the song “Sénégal Fast-Food” by the awesome blind married Malian duo Amadou & Mariam. It’s downright catchy. In my preparations and especially since coming here, I’ve learned quite a bit more about Senegal, thankfully, and about Senegalese cuisine in particular.
Despite the facet that “Sénégal Fast-Food” is now more like 0.64% of my Senegalese-knowledge-and-appreciation base, I’ve been curious to discover the phenomenon of Senegalese fast food since I arrived almost three weeks ago. Last night around 10pm I had my first encounter. My host brother Tanor and I were in the middle of an interesting conversation about his passion for marketing. Abruptly, he announced that he was going “au restaurant” and would I like to join to continue our discussion? I acquiesced, and so we set off through the muddy (I mean, REALLY muddy – “rainy season” is no joke) streets of Sacré-Coeur 3. After several roundabout-crossings that made me grateful to be in the company of a local, we reached Dibitérie Dikatoria, where Tanor ordered a hamburger. It kind of reminded me of a scaled-down and slightly dirtier version of Five Guys.
Except this burger was nothing less than a Senegalese institution, as Tanor explained between mouthfuls. He swore that every American he’s known has fallen for the Dibetérie Dikatoria burger, which includes a fried egg, French fries (on the burger), grilled onions, a sorry soggy lettuce leaf, and mounds of ridiculously spicy sauce. Since we hadn’t eaten dinner yet, I tried just one bite, and though it was indeed tasty, all I could think of was the amount of grease oozing from the Arabic newspaper that served as wrapping. “The spices, they’re good for you when you’re sick!” Tanor explained.
This comment was in reference to my malady this week, which was not the malaria that Aida initially suspected with a dramatic flourish at my bedside, Alxamdulilaay. Still, Monday through Wednesday were days I’d rather not repeat. I’m hoping that, having served my time with a tropical stomach bug early in the semester, I can now proceed illness-free for the next three and a half months. Anyway, although the inescapable heat and the smell of goat poop everywhere don’t make Dakar the most comfortable sickbed, the pampering here sure beats being sick in a college dorm room.
As an example of the sweetness that my host family showed me while I was being overly apologetic and feverish, I’ll bring it back around to food. After a miserable night on Monday, I was trying to stick to the BRAT diet – easier than you might expect here thanks to Citydia, a Western-style grocery store that allowed me to stock up on Bananas, Applesauce, and Toast(ish). I gathered the courage on Tuesday night to ask Binta, my family’s maid/cook (and one of my best friends here), if I could prepare just some Rice. She gladly embarked on an odyssey to find a very particular brand of rice, which she promised was the perfect sick food.
I say “odyssey” because shopping for food in Dakar, excepting perhaps Toubab-filled places like Citydia, involves walking two doors down to the boutique where unrefrigerated milk sits next to shelves of Choco-pain and packages of tamarind candy; greeting the vendor, who you know personally; inquiring whether the object of your desire, in this case fancy sick-food rice, is in stock; discovering probably that it’s not because new shipments come in every morning and it’s currently 22h15; walking about four more houses down to an identical boutique and repeating the process; walking four more houses down to another identical boutique; and so on until you finally find the fancy rice and watch as a twelve-year-old boy weighs it and pours it into a paper sack and haggles over the price. I seriously cannot get over the frequency of these little grocery shops.
Even more prevalent are the informal vendors that line the streets selling flyswarmed fruit, powdery peanuts, deep-fried beignets, hard candies, cigarettes, and the (in)famous instant coffee Nescafé. I’ve noticed that while men always sell packaged, name-brand, and/or imported food on the streets, it’s almost always the women who operate produce stalls. From what I’ve gathered, I think the vegetables and fruits are grown here in the city for the most part. They’re always arranged neatly and according to color, but the ever-present flies do make it hard to see anything as “fresh.” As might be expected in the tropics, there is a vast and delicious array of fruit to choose from – my personal favorite are these tiny slimy sour balls called madd that are only found in Senegal. (Warning: do not try to swallow their seeds. I accidentally did in a moment of miscommunication and Aida chastised me.) But vegetables, on the other hand, are pretty limited to the starchy variety. One night I accompanied Binta and Mouhahmed to buy lettuce, a rare treat, for our dinner – the small expensive bundle of wilty greens elicited much excitement from both Mouhahmed and me.
I love following Binta around to her errands. The most wonderful part about buying food for meals is that it’s all done in the moment – if you’re cooking ceebujën you first by the fish, and while that’s cooking you go out to buy the vegetables, and while that simmers you go out to buy the rice. Preparing a meal is an affair that takes many hours – Binta usually starts cooking lunch when I’m leaving for school in the morning, and she starts cooking dinner soon after the lunch dishes are done. A lot of that time is hands-free, while the meal simmers or roasts. I’ve helped to cut vegetables and stir sauces and mash fresh spices with a huge mortar-and-pestle. I’m looking forward to learning even more about the process of cooking traditional cuisine.
My family eats in the traditional Senegalese manner, around a gigantic communal bowl. The bowl is placed on a small coffee table in what is basically a breakfast nook. (Breakfast, incidentally, is a meal that I eat alone, and always consists of a baguette and tea.) Chairs and stools are pulled up – older males get chair priority, and me apparently since I’m sort of a guest. Speaking of guests, there always seems to be some random person eating with us, a cousin or an uncle or a friend or two. So the number of people sharing the bowl can vary from three to eight or so, but there always seems to be about the same amount of food. This means that the more people, the smaller the portions. Depending on the dish, we either eat with our hands or use spoons, though sometimes it’s simply personal preference. (I always choose hands whenever possible, of course.) The dishes themselves are always wonderful. It’s hard to choose a favorite. I’ve gotten used to picking out bones and forming rice into balls and keeping track of the rapid-fire conversation around the bowl.
In terms of how eating fits into Senegalese culture on the whole, I’d say there are several interesting contrasts with American mentality. First of all, eating is first and foremost a social enterprise. Any food eaten alone, like a sandwich for lunch, is basically discounted. People don’t really tend to snack very much here, probably because meals are so big. The timing of meals has also taken some getting used to. Though this varies by family, I’d say it’s the norm to eat lunch around 3:00 in the afternoon, and dinner at 10:00 or 10:30. I usually head to bed as soon as I’ve excused myself from dinner, since I have school and my internship. (On a related note, today I even ate lunch around the bowl at my internship – all five or so office employees and the three interns – which was unexpected and, I thought, a really lovely personal action for an NGO that works with such personal and emotional issues as child maltreatment and sexual abuse. And then the director of the center, a wise and compassionate child psychologist who gets more interesting by the second, sat down to brew us some ataaya tea and give us life advice – “TRAVEL!” – and casually reveal that he’s buds with the ex-president of Guinea and a famous Senegalese pop singer. More about CEGID will come in future posts!)
I’m learning that what people eat and how people eat can actually say a lot about what people think and how people act. The final observation I’d like to make is that, just like in America, a lot really does depend on individual choices – in our orientation, we were warned not to mistake personal (or familial) habits for cultural norms, and this has been sound advice, especially when it comes to the variety of foods and eating behaviors we are experiencing. Just as Amadou and Mariam sing about more than just fast food, though, there’s a lot more to Senegalese culture than its cuisine. I have a whole notebook full of jots and musings, so look out for more themed posts in the future. In the meantime, keep enjoying your lives around the world, my friends, and bon appetit!