Bites with Becca: Senegalese food is nutty

by Rebecca Szkutak / Beacon Staff • October 26, 2016

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As Emeril Lagasse would say to his show’s viewers at home, “Make sure to turn up your smell-a-vision.” You wouldn’t want to miss out on the smells of the garlic roasting, the tomato juices soaking into fresh fish, and the nuttiness of peanuts that are staples in Senegalese cooking—my latest endeavor. 

The country of Senegal is located on the northwestern coast of Africa, and its cuisine is heavily influenced by their cash crop, peanuts, and by fish from their expansive coastline. Because the nation was colonized by France for approximately 100 years, many of their dishes include French notes and flavor profiles as well. 

Senegalese food may not be your best choice if you have a seafood or peanut allergy, as many of their dishes focus on these elements, but if you don’t, the cuisine offers a completely different approach to food and ingredients than I had ever seen, and delicious dishes even for picky eaters like myself. 

After clicking around the Internet for different foods to try, I stumbled across Senegalese cuisine and decided to give it a shot. I did a simple search on Google to find recipes that I thought I would be able to feasibly make. I found a website called The Food of Africa, which provided both recipes, food knowledge, and background. 

I decided on a recipe for a dish called Thieboudienne, or Ceebu jën, which is considered to be the national dish of Senegal. It’s a hearty recipe: fish stewed with tomatoes, vegetables, and peanut oil, topped over broken rice. It sounded quite delicious, and not too difficult, so I began to plan.

The recipe contained two ingredients I had never heard of, so I decided to be smarter than I was during my last cooking adventure and not assume I could find what I needed at the local Star Market. So, as all crafty cooks do, I meandered over to Whole Foods to investigate its diverse aisles. 

Everything on the list was easy to find—your standard cod fish, root vegetables, and peanut oil. After feverishly scrolling through my iPhone looking for a replacement for broken rice, I settled on sushi rice. However, when it came down to finding Yété and nététou, a seed paste, my search became complicated. 

I asked an employee, who scrunched up his face when asked the question, and directed me to the cheese section. Yes, I know, the dairy section—which did not have either of them, as they are not dairy. 

As both of these were optional, I shrugged and headed home. I put on the Pixies album Doolittle, as one does, and began to cook. 

You start by coating the fish in a marinade of ground parsley, garlic, salt, pepper, and a bouillon cube. In the meantime, you fry smashed tomatoes in a big pot of peanut oil and garlic.

The smell was truly unique. On first whiff, it smells just like an average marinara sauce with the aroma of garlic and tomatoes, but then you’re hit with the distinct overpowering smell of peanuts.

I added the fish to this creation next. After it cooks, you are supposed to take the fish out and let it sit while the vegetables cook in the sauce. I messed this up big time by breaking the fish up and not being able to strain it out. Spoiler alert: it still came out good

The vegetables this time included potatoes, carrots, and peppers. It was also supposed to contain okra, but as someone who doesn’t like it or know how to prepare it, I left it at the store. 

When these were finished, everything was combined and I mixed it all into a bowl over rice. The flavors of this dish can’t be compared to any other. The tomatoes cooked with the juices of the fish and the sharp contrast of the peanuts gave way for a complex flavor. 

I personally was not used to the textures of sushi rice, potatoes, and flakey fish delivered in each spoonful. The texture of this dish also added to it tasting like nothing I’d ever had before. 

I definitely recommend this dish to others. It is an easy way to spice up your cooking and takes less than an hour to make. It also makes enough for a week of leftovers. 

My cooking is now going to take a turn for the spicy—my next ethnic discovery will delve into Indian cuisine.