Making ataaya. Pouring in the sugar--a shot glass and a half for each stage of tea-making.
Why relate all this? To try and communicate how much sugar gets eaten in Senegal. In short, it's SO MUCH SUGAR. And so many carbs--white rice, white bread, white pasta. And so few vegetables.
The lack of fruits and veggies in the standard Senegalese diet is pretty baffling to most of us American students, because there is a bounty of fresh produce sold from tiny stands every corner here. Yet veggies only make a minor appearance in ceeb u jen, the Senegalese national dish of fish and rice...more like rice, fish, and one (1) carrot, one (1) eggplant, one (1) manioc root, and one (1) head of cabbage, all of rather modest size. And as for fruit, any kind of fruit, it's a dessert item. Yet everywhere there are apples, bananas, pears, mangoes, cantaloupe, avocados...and they're cheap! Affordable! So, why can't we have a salad?
Because culinary stuff is cultural, of course. Balsamic vinaigrette is not part of what most Senegalese people know how to make and what most Senegalese people want to eat (even with that snooty French influence). And the Senegalese have already gone through one national cuisine shift, from millet- and sorgum-based dishes to rice-based, which happened around the time of colonization--from 16th - 19th centuries, when everything gets messed up in Africa. The French tried to get their federation of colonies (Afrique Occidentale Francaise) to produce cash-crops, not food-crops, radically changing the subsistence farming that had been practiced before that point, and thus changing the eating habits of their indigenous "subjects." And things have gotten trickier from there; these days, Senegal is excruciatingly dependent on imports of rice, sugar, and gas. To address this national vulnerability, President Abdoulaye Wade has announced an (overly?) ambitious plan for Senegal to grow its own food. I wish him, and Senegal, luck.
And now, for some characteristically Senegalese dishes. I don't know how to make any of them...yet?
- Ceeb u jen / thieboudienne (that's Wolof / French). Already described it above. It comes in "rouge" (red), where the rice has been cooked with tomatoes, and "blanc" (white), where the rice is...not cooked with tomatoes.
- Soup u candia. Gumbo-style gooey sauce made with okra and palm oil. Served on top of white rice with fishy items and sometimes with beef. The only Senegalese dish I really can't eat.
- Couscous. Not the Moroccan kind, but the Senegalese version, made with finely-ground millet. Many people don't like it, saying that the dry, sandy texture is too much to be endured, no matter how good the sauce that covers it. Usually made with beef, not fish.
- Yassa. Thick onion sauce, made with lemon and mustard. Delicious. Served with fish, chicken, and beef. The onions that I eat in yassa probably constitute 80% of the veggies that I have eaten during these 4 months in Senegal.
- Mafe (pronounced maff-ay). Thick peanut sauce, with palm oil. Served on top of white rice, with some chunks of potatoes and carrots. Heavy, but oh-so-satisfying.
Sometime soon, I will document the incredible diversity of cookies that I've had in Senegal that don't exist in the States. Stay tuned.
One week. This is all going too fast.