Author: Pierre Thiam
Review by: DeShawn Jenkins, executive director, Alliance Francaise d’Atlanta
Few Americans have ever heard of the West African country and former French colony of Senegal. And fewer still would have had an interest in its food and culture prior to Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown and Andrew Zimmerman’s Bizarre Foods, two popular food shows that took outsiders on a video culinary tour of this unfamiliar food territory.
Chef Pierre Thiam’s Senegal: Modern Senegalese Recipes from the Source to the Bowl adds to the growing interest in the country’s cuisine. It is a beautifully constructed work, written by a son of Senegal, and filled with delicious recipes, vibrant pictures and rich history. Senegal overflows with Terranga (Senegalese hospitality), inviting the full attention and interest of the reader, and it is at once a coffee table book that inspires discussion, a cook book whose ingredients promise to confound and wow tastebuds and a picturesque travel book taking the reader through the food regions and people of Senegal.
Senegal gives the reader a quick introduction to the author and the circumstances that brought him to the shores of the United States, leading him to open a restaurant in New York. Thiam’s love and attention quickly return to his native country where he shares essential ingredients that are staples to Senegal and its various regions. His recipes are deeply traditional on one hand, including the country’s most famous dish Thiebou jen (rice and fish), and on the other hand, several offer a fusion of Western and Asian styles and techniques such as coconut-lime-palm ice cream.
What is also special about Senegal is that it goes beyond simply stating ingredients in certain dishes and gives glimpses into the geopolitical and economic conditions that construct food availability and preferences. From the trans-Atlantic slave trade which brought food like okra and rice cultivation technology to the American South, to the French Indochina War and colonial dominance that brought Vietnamese rice and other foods to Senegal, it becomes clear that food is not simply about sustenance, but rather an amalgamation of culture, creativity and conquests.
This is Thiam’s second cook book, and it is written for Africans and non-Africans alike with a hope of fostering a deeper appreciation of the value and vast nature of Senegalese ingredients and cuisine that is unknown, forgotten or undervalued, especially set against other well known world cuisines. It also serves to highlight an initiative he created called AfroEats, a Dakar, Senegal-based festival dedicated to the promotion of local food and food products of Africa.
I lived in Senegal for five years, and though I learned many cultural traditions, like how to expertly eat en famille (eating with family) around a communal bowl, I regret that I did not master the art of Senegalese cooking. That is why this book has become a staple in my kitchen, and with the chef’s permission, as I create my own fusion of African American-Southern-Senegalese dishes, I marvel at how far and wide the source of this food and traditions traveled to become a welcome dish on my table.