“So, what was the food like?”, I’m often asked when I speak about Senegal. Well, I’m pleased to report the food is – largely – delish. Ok, the pizza tends to suck, but at least it’s a safe option if the restaurant looks dodgy. The burgers are bizarre, as your fries come stuffed inside them. Still, once you’ve overcome this mindfuck, they taste remarkably good. Spoilt Westerners should also give up all hope of decent coffee: expect a sachet of instant, perhaps blended with another sachet of dried milk powder, scalded in boiling hot water, then drowned in sugar. However, if you order expresso, you might actually get a brew extracted from real coffee beans, even though it might be bitterer still than Hillary Clinton’s regrets.
Apart from these endearing quirks, the food is amazing. The rice alone is legendary: I’ve never tasted anything quite so aromatic – cultivated in Casamance, it has a natural fragrance that puts the bland packs of grain in our supermarkets to shame. Chicken is popular, as is fish and seafood, as well as beef and mutton. Pork? D’uh – it’s off the menu, as this is a largely Muslim country. There’s plenty of couscous-based dishes making use of local staples such as sweet potatoes, tamarind, and plantains.
One of my absolute favourites is Thiebou Jen, which means, quite simply, rice with fish. You cannot over-estimate the importance of this dish in the public imagination. “I’ll find you a lovely African woman”, said Oscar to me one night, “one that cooks the best Thiebou Jen ever.” Of course, I didn’t have the heart to tell him that I’d rather pay good cash money to dine out at a restaurant for an NSA bit of nosh than to be hooked into matrimony by a piece of fish.
The proper way to serve Thiebou Jen is in a large metal bowl, which is then set on the floor so that a group of people can sit around it and share. I’ve been invited to eat like this with by the waiters of a beach bar in Warang, and seen tailors interrupt their sewing to hunch over the same communal repast in Dakar’s medina. Who knows, perhaps I’ll learn to cook it myself – and then surprise my African friends with my domestic skills. With any luck, one of them will marry me.