When in Senegal: Food and 3 Must-Try Meals You Can Make At Home

There are many things to love about Senegal. The people are lovely, the country is beautiful, music is everywhere. But there is one thing that sticks out in my mind about Senegal: food. The flavors are perfectly balanced, combining spice with tang with sweet, the ingredients all play a role in giving each meal a unique richness characteristic of West African cuisine.

I love cooking and trying new foods and learning how to make them is one of my favorite parts of traveling. In Senegal, food is part of the family dynamic: meals are all shared together everyday. Schools let out, businesses close, trucks stop on their routes to enjoy lunch communally. There is always enough food for more people and Senegalese people will often insist you stop what you are doing to join them in meals, even if it is just for one bite.

While staying at Kaira Kunda in Kafountine, I was fortunate to learn the recipes of three staple Senegalese dishes from some amazing cooks. A great thing about Senegalese food is that the ingredients are not wildly outlandish and can be found at any supermarket around the world. The dishes are cheap and easy to prepare once you know the recipes.

All of the meals described below fed between 7 and 10 people when we made them. I was right at home in the kitchen in Senegal because people here don’t use exact measurements when cooking and the recipes below follow suit. I think that in order to get comfortable in the kitchen, you have to become familiar with food and with your own palette. Think about how you like things. Like it spicy? Use more spice! Watching your salt intake? Use less! How many people are you feeding? Is this the main meal? Tweak these recipes as you like to fit your needs and your taste buds! Cooking is a very subjective experience so don’t forget to taste as you go, that’s how all the best chefs do it!

1. Caldou

This is a staple dish that is both basic and delicious. I have learned that almost all Senegalese dishes involve the same base, which is a mixture of tomatoes, onions, garlic, pepper (black and red), and bouillon. Every Senegalese home has the classic wooden mortar and pestle. I know I said that these recipes didn’t require anything special but having a mortar and pestle will make each dish so much fresher! If you don’t have one, don’t fear (but seriously think about investing in one!) If you’re mortar and pestle is not big enough to handle the entire sauce at once (most household ones aren’t), grind the peppercorns and the garlic and the bouillon together and then add the other ingredients (in the same order as suggested) into a food processor.

In Senegal, there are a limited amount of vegetables that are sold at an affordable price for locals. As a result, most dishes use the same handful of veggies and almost all meals are served with rice and fish. Caldou is no exception, however, you could easily make this (or any of the dishes we will learn here) with other meat or no meat at all and can easily substitute or add any veggies of your choosing!

This recipe also calls for whole white fish. In Senegal, this is usually tilapia or sardines. You can use any fish of your choosing (a massive whole flounder would be incredible with it!) or if you only have fish fillets you can use that, just be aware of the different cooking process involved with the different types of fish you use.

Ingredients:

  • 2 Onions, diced
  • 4 Tomatoes, diced
  • 4 Garlic cloves, peeled
  • Whole black peppercorn
  • Dried red pepper (crushed is fine)
  • Bouillon cube
  • 4 medium white fish (whole but scaled and gutted)
  • Rice
  • 2 large carrots, peeled and cut in large segments
  • 1 yucca or manioc, peeled and cut in large segments
  • Lime/lemon
  • Salt to taste

Method:

  1. Cook your rice. Everyone has a different method for cooking rice and everyone will tell you their method is the best. I am shit at cooking rice so you’re better off doing it your way. However, rice is the bed and the base for this meal so don’t skimp.
  2. While the rice is cooking, use your mortar and pestle to mash up the whole peppercorns (black and red) into a powder. Once you’ve done this, add the garlic. Mash until a paste starts to form. Add the onions. Once a thick paste has been made, add the bouillon, a pinch of salt, and then the tomatoes. Be careful when mashing the tomatoes as they will spray juice everywhere. I have not figured out how to avoid this.
  3. Heat up oil in a pan or pot and fry the fish.
  4. When the fish are finished, remove from the pan and allow the oil time to heat back up. When it is back up to temperature, carefully put in the tomato mixture and stir well. Allow the tomato mixture to cook for a few minutes mindful to not let it stick to the pot.
  5. After a few minutes, add enough water to the pot to cook the veggies. Let the veggies boil in this mixture until they are tender.
  6. When the vegetables are cooked, squeeze some lime/lemon juice into the sauce and add salt to taste. Add the fish back to the pot, gently placing it on top, nestling it in the sauce.
  7. Let this cook long enough for the flavors to meld but be careful not to overcook the fish.
  8. Spread rice onto a communal serving dish. If you had crispy rice stuck to the bottom of the pot, scrape this out and place in the middle (waste not in Senegal!)
  9. Lay the fish across the rice and then distribute the vegetables in a circle around the fish.
  10. Begin to ladle the sauce over the rice, veggies, and fish. Be sure to put plenty over the middle as that is where the crunchy rice is.
  11. Serve and enjoy communally!

2. Thieboudienne

Pronounced djem-boo-djen, this might as well be the national dish of Senegal. It is eaten a few times a week (sometimes daily!) Thieboudienne comes in two different versions: red and white. The difference has to do with how you cook the rice and the veggies you use. In my opinion, the red is the best so that is the version we will be making!

This dish requires fresh, whole tamarind, which has such a unique flavor but might be hard to find depending on where you live and how “ethnically cultured” your grocery store is. Whole tamarind is preferred, but I don’t see why you couldn’t use a paste or use a powder if you can’t find it whole. I personally had never worked with fresh tamarind before coming to Senegal so I have no idea if it is difficult to find in Western supermarkets.

Ingredients:

  • 2 onions, peeled and diced
  • 3 tomatoes, diced
  • 4 cloves garlic
  • Whole peppercorn (black and red)
  • 1 Bouillon cube
  • 1 green pepper
  • 1 small can of tomato paste
  • 1 yucca, peeled and cut into large pieces
  • 2 carrots, peeled and cut large
  • A handful of okra
  • 1/2 a head of cabbage
  • 4 whole white fish, scaled and gutted (we used barracuda)
  • Lemon/lime
  • Fresh, whole tamarind
  • Vinegar
  • Rice

Method:

  1. Start by making the same tomato mixture described in the Caldou recipe only this time, add the green pepper with the onions and add the tomato concentrate after you have mashed the tomatoes. The order goes (mashing well after each addition): peppercorns, garlic, onions (and green pepper if you need it), bouillon and salt, tomatoes, tomato paste (again, only if it’s needed).
  2. Heat up oil in a large pot and fry the fish. When the fish is finished, remove from the pot and set aside.
  3. When the oil has come back up to temperature, fry the yucca. Remove from the oil when crispy. It is going to go back in the pot to cook longer so it doesn’t need to be fully done; you just want a nice brown crisp on each piece.
  4. Let the oil heat back up and add the tomato mixture, stirring and careful not to let it stick to the bottom. Cook for a few minutes and add water, enough to boil veggies.
  5. Add veggies (including cabbage and the fried yucca) and cook until the carrot softens.
  6. When the veggies are done, scoop out a large spoonful (we’re talking serving spoon, not teaspoon) of the sauce and add it to the fresh tamarind. Sprinkle a little salt, add some lemon/lime, and a few dashes of vinegar to the sauce and give it a taste. It should be a good balance of tangy and salty. If it tastes really strong and you can’t place how you feel about it, you’ve probably made it right.
  7. Remove the cooked veggies from the pot. Add enough water to the sauce to cook your rice and bring to a boil. This part is a bit tricky because you have to guesstimate the amount of liquid in the pot needed to cook the rice. When in doubt, you can empty the liquid in the pot and measure it out precisely. Rice is usually cooked at a ratio of 1.5 cup liquid: 1 cup rice. Once you have the right amount of liquid at a boil, add the rice.
  8. When the rice is done, transfer it to a serving platter. Add the fish on top and arrange the veggies around the fish and the rice. Spread the tamarind sauce over the entire dish.
  9. Serve with a lime and enjoy communally with friends!

3. Maffe

This might be our favorite Senegalese dish. It is a creamy peanut-based sauce mixed with veggies and meat. In our case, we used beef, which added to the richness of the dish and was simply divine! This dish is versatile throughout Senegal. Peanuts are a staple protein for poorer families so maffe is often eaten as a veg based meal. In restaurants, you will often find it served with either chicken, fish, or beef. Senegal is a mostly Muslim country so pork is hard to come by, although a maffe with a pork tenderloin would be to die for!

Ingredients:

  • 2 onions, peeled and diced
  • 3 tomatoes, diced
  • 3 cloves garlic
  • Whole peppercorn (black and red)
  • 1 bouillon cube
  • 1/2 kg beef (in Senegal, you get what they have, but I would opt for a lean cut, into cubes. Stay tuned for the method if you choose to use a pork tenderloin)
  • 4 large potatoes, sliced medium thin
  • Peanut paste (in Senegal you can buy plain peanut paste; however, creamy peanut butter will do as well, just be careful not to add too much sugar later)
  • 1-2 carrot, peeled and cut into large pieces
  • 1 yucca, peeled and cut large
  • 1/2 head of cabbage

Method:

  1. Cook rice. You know the drill.
  2. Make the classic Senegal tomato base in your mortar and pestle. Black and red pepper mashed into a powder, garlic into a paste, onion into a finer paste, bouillon and salt, tomatoes. After everything is mixed well, add the peanut sauce or peanut butter and mix into a paste. If using plain peanut sauce, add sugar to taste.
  3. Season the beef with a little salt and pepper and brown in a hot skillet. *If you are using a pork tenderloin, I would marinate the tenderloin overnight in a sauce made with peanut butter, lime/lemon juice, red and black pepper, and maybe a little apple cider vinegar . Stab the tenderloin and shove sliced garlic into the stab wounds before placing it in the marinade. Brown the same way as you would the beef*
  4. Remove meat from the oil and when it has regained temperature, fry the potatoes. When browned and crisp, remove from the oil and set aside.
  5. Bring oil back up to temp. Add the peanut paste and stir.
  6. Add water (enough to cook the veggies) and a pinch of salt to the sauce. Add all veggies besides the potatoes! Cook until tender.
  7. Place beef and cooked potatoes back in the sauce. Add lime, vinegar, and salt to taste. Cook until the beef is done to your liking.
  8. Spread rice onto a serving platter. Scoop out the veggies and the beef and distribute around the rice. Lather the platter with the sauce left over. Serve with a wedge of lime and enjoy communally with friends!

Congratulations! You have mastered 3 basic (but important) Senegalese dishes! Show your friends and family what an awesome and authentic cook you are and share your experience with the recipes with us! Any other Senegalese dishes you make? Comment below or link to the recipe! We’re always eager to add more to our repertoire.

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