Week On Senegal #1: On Food

The wise King Solomon once wrote:

So I commend the enjoyment of life, because there is nothing better for a person under the sun than to eat and drink and be glad. Then joy will accompany them in their toil all the days of the life God has given them under the sun.” -Ecclesiastes 8:15

I like to playfully interpret this verse as: Food is the best thing in ever. So when my Senegalese mother says “Kaay Añ!” (Wolof for “come eat lunch”), I get ecstatically happy no matter how bad a day I might have had. It’s lunchtime. Glorious lunchtime. After I hear those two words, I scatter to the living room, where a big, chrome, communal bowl filled with Ceebu Jen awaits me. What ensues afterwards is pure bliss. The freshest fish, the zestiest onion sauce, the sweetest sweet potato—oh God, do I love lunch.

You see, the big advantage about the culinary part of the immersion process is that you kill two birds with one stone:

  1. You gain a new perspective on the culture.
  2. You eat.

And while I cannot offer you a hot plate of Senegal Homecooking via the internet, I can at least try to give you the whole “gain new perspective” part of the deal. Before that, though, let me start with a few basics:

  • The Senegalese diet is heavily reliant on rice, couscous, and other small grains. This is due to their abundance and cheap cost. Government programs have worked hard to introduce more vegetables into the people’s diet in an attempt to reduce malnutrition.
  • Senegal’s main dish is called Ceebu Jen (pronounced Cheboo Jen). Ceeebu Jen is Wolof for rice (ceebu) and fish (jen), so I think it’s needless to explain further. The rice is usually an orange-red color, seasoned with a plethora of spices whose names I have yet to learn. Being a coastal country with a booming fishing industry, fish here is always as fresh as it can be. Ceebu Jen is usually served along with vegetables, mainly sweet potato, yucca, and carrots.
  • Onion sauce (called Yassa by the locals) is also a pretty big deal around here. It’s safe to say that probably more than half of my meals have onion sauce in it.
  • I cannot talk about Senegalese food without mentioning the peanut. Peanuts are the main crop grown here in Senegal, so it is the most common snack. By Far. Many meals here are cooked with a peanut sauce called Maffe, which is, to say the least, pretty peanut-y. Not diggin’ the Mafe, to be honest.
  • Senegal has this plant called Bissap (known as the Roselle plant in America, a species of hibiscus). With it, they make the sweetest, darkest juice you’ve ever tasted. They also make the most glorious sauce I have ever experienced in my life. They place that sauce over the ceeb (rice) and, I swear, that stuff will be the end of me.
  • The juices here are ridiculous, bro. Capri Sun needs to pick this stuff up.

Now, just as important as the food is the etiquette. Meals here are eaten pretty interestingly, and it is here where I believe we can most learn. To be concise, I’ll just bullet point it out:

  • You wash your hand in a small bowl of water.
  • You sit around a big communal bowl of food in the ground along with everyone else.
  • You grab the food directly in front of you with your hand. Your right hand. You NEVER use your left hand. EVER. And do not reach into other people’s spaces, bro. You don’t do that.
  • You place bones under the bowl, never inside it.
  • The head of the house (usually the mother) is in charge of distributing cuts of vegetables and meat throughout the bowl. She is responsible of making sure everyone is satisfied.
  • When you’re full, you get up, thank the cook by saying “Neex na te bare na”, and leave. While you do, the cook will most likely say “Noo ko bokk. “

Most people find these practices odd, but within the cultural context, it just makes good sense. Senegal has a very collective culture that embraces the importance of family and community. So it’s not your food in your plate, it’s our food. In fact,  those Wolof words that the cook says when you leave (noo ko bokk) quite literally mean: “It belongs to all of us, so you need not thank me.” This collective sense of belonging is so strong that anyone who walks through the front door during lunch is not only invited, but strongly encouraged to kneel down and dig in along with the rest of us. In the Wolof language, there is no distinction between ‘family’ and ‘house’; the same word is used for both. This is more than just some lexical gap. There is a saying that here in Senegal, if you’re in the house, you’re family. There’s always enough room at the bowl for you. This collective sense of belonging is by far the most appreciable and noticeable trait of the Senegalese culture, and it’s quite beautiful, in a way.

The use of hands serves a purpose as well. If the food is too hot for your hand, it’s too hot for your mouth, so using your hands prevents burning your tongue. Also, when your most common meat is fish fresh off the ocean, it’good to feel n’ find all those tiny bones before they get into your mouth. Also, I personally feel that it allows you to add a third sensory experience to your eating experience, along with tasting and smelling. I don’t really know how to explain it, but it makes you feel closer to the food. As for the use of the right hand, this is due to Islamic purity rituals, which states that after having gone to the bathroom, one must use their left hand and water to wash. So, by default, the right hand is used for everything else.

My culinary experience has so far been very pleasant, although it did take a while for my body to get used to oilier-than-usual meals. I also think I’ve had an advantage in adapting because I’m so used to rice in every meal (thank you, Puerto Rico). I look forward to learning how to cook these dishes and forcing my family back home to have at least one Senegalese-style dinner. You read that right, mother. You’ve been duly notified.

As for you other people who are not my mom, I just remind you to appreciate the importance of eating together. The family table (or in my case, the family bowl) is a great place to foster strong relationships with the people around you, and as Solomon (sort of) said himself, food is the best thing in life, so savor each bite, and savor each relationship. Never, ever underestimate the glorious power of glorious, glorious food along with glorious, glorious people.

P.S. Grandma, I’d like a sancocho when I come back. Thanks a million. Love, Joseíto.