Pierre Thiam's 'Senegal' Explores the Country's Flavorful and Varied Cuisine

Pierre Thiam, NYC ambassador for Senegalese cuisineEXPAND
Pierre Thiam, NYC ambassador for Senegalese cuisine
Photo by Evan Sung

Pierre Thiam moved from Dakar to New York City to go to college. For the Senegalese national, the city was supposed to be a stopping point on his way to study physics and chemistry at a small school in the Midwest. He never left. Instead, like so many immigrants, he found himself working as a busboy in a restaurant. Fortunately, Thiam loved it. He has gone on to become one of the leading ambassadors for African cuisine in NYC. His latest book, Senegal: Modern Senegalese Recipes From the Source to the Bowl, aims to introduce West African culture to Americans through food.

Thiam tells the Voice he had a few objectives for writing the volume. Over the course of three years, he traveled the African country from north to south with photographer Evan Sung, talking to farmers, fishermen, and cooks, documenting what he says is "a voyage into Senegal." He wanted to offer a look into their world. The tome, however, is not just for Westerners seeking to understand the culture and cuisine — Thiam is far more political than that. He hopes that by highlighting the natural bounty of the region, he can influence his countrymen to foster a greater appreciation for local ingredients: "I wanted to talk to a Senegalese audience. We tend to look down on our products and favor products from the West. It's a sad part of our colonial heritage."

Rice and grains flourish in the country. Millet and sorghum are popular in the cuisine, as is fonio, a West African supergrain said to rival quinoa in nutrient density. The Carolina Gold rice now coveted by chefs was brought to the New World from Senegal during the slave trade. Still, imported rice is preferred by the Senegalese. "You see that throughout Africa, because of colonization," says Thiam.

Senegalese cuisine is at its core healthy and comforting, he says. All kinds of leafy greens are used, including the foliage from sweet potatoes, cassava, and black-eyed peas. Sorrel is common, as is moringa, filled with vitamins A and C, protein, fiber, iron, and beta carotene. Grilling and fermentation are common techniques. Unlike Thiam's first volume, Yolele!, this edition is not based solely on traditional and family recipes. This one focuses on dishes that have been inspired by time-honored meals.

Thiam explores the cross-cultural exchange of dishes and ingredients in the book. Black-eyed peas, okra, sesame, and watermelon all come from the region. Newly trendy, Lowcountry cuisine has deep ties to Africa, evidenced by ingredients such as benne (sesame seed) soup and dishes like hoppin' John, which evolved from Senegal's thiebou niébé (as do rice and peas in the Caribbean, Louisiana jambalaya, and Brazilian feijoada). Thiam connects the dots to familiarize Americans with Senegalese fare: "They [readers] have had it before, but they didn't realize they were eating Senegalese food. It arrived here, had its own influences, and became its own food. The food evolves. It's always evolving."

The influences extend both ways, though. A large Lebanese and Middle Eastern community in the country explains the prevalence of shawarma and fataya (bundles of bread stuffed with spiced beef and mint) — both hugely popular in Senegal. A onetime part of the French empire, Senegal also has strong Gallic culinary ties. In Dakar, writes the author, baguettes and croissants are popular breakfast items. Because of the French connections, there's also a large Vietnamese imprint. After the French lost the First Indochina War, many refugees fled the Southeast Asian country, immigrating to Senegal. Thiam's godfather, Tonton Jean, was one.

Uncle Jean, as Thiam called him, was one of the greatest influences on his culinary career. There's a deeply gendered divide for domestic duties in Senegal — food is a big part of the culture, and everyone goes home during lunch to share a meal. Still, cooking is typically a woman's duty; Thiam simply didn't see men in the kitchen. But when he'd go to Uncle Jean's for summer break, Jean would prepare his own Vietnamese food. "Those were just flavors I wasn't used to," says Thiam. "There, this man was cooking at home. It was so different. And he was bringing those interesting flavors."

School breaks at Uncle Jean's piqued his curiosity, but it was Thiam's busboy position in New York that got his culinary career rolling. He may have become accustomed to seeing Jean roll up his sleeves behind the burners, but to see all men in the kitchen was a complete surprise for Thiam. "It was a cultural shock," he recalls — but the dishes were impressive. Fascinated, Thiam befriended the chef, who offered him a job as a dishwasher, then moved him to prep cook, then garde-manger. Thiam eventually moved to Amazon, then a French bistro called Jean Claude, followed by Garvin's Restaurant. Thiam was like a sponge. He listened intently to direction and hit the books in the New York Public Library, reading cookbooks by Julia Child and other famed authors. "As I was going from one job to another, my experience was growing and I was learning a new style of cuisine. I realized my interest in cooking as a career became stronger. Everything I was seeing was a chain reaction."

Geoffrey Murray, the chef at Boom Restaurant in Soho, was the final ingredient. The restaurant focused on global cuisine; Murray asked Thiam, then sous-chef, to develop specials from his homeland. Thiam still remembers the first Senegalese dish he introduced: vegetable mafé, spring vegetables in a peanut sauce over jasmine rice. An off-duty food critic Thiam and Murray knew just happened to be dining in that night. She loved the dish, mentioning it in print shortly after. Thiam knew he was onto something: "I was like, wow, this dish from Senegal made it to the New York Post. It confirmed there was potential."

Since then Thiam has gone on to lead several kitchens. He started a catering company, then opened Yolele. After a short but successful run in an area of Bed-Stuy that at the time had no sit-down restaurants, he closed it, moving to Clinton Hill. There, Thiam set up Le Grand Dakar on a block that was referred to as "Shooting Alley." It became a cultural center in a slowly gentrifying part of Brooklyn.

For seven years, the restaurant showcased artists and musicians from Senegal. Thiam hosted neighborhood events, occasionally roasting whole lamb in the street. Like most of the borough, "it became too expensive," says Thiam. "It's a bittersweet feeling. I still live in the community. It's great to walk down the street and have everyone greeting you for helping to make this place what it became. It's bitter, because it's a story you hear a lot. People come with less means, like me, and impact the community. Then people come and dictate the market."

Thiam went back to cooking for private clients so he could spend more time with his family. In that regard, closing Le Grand Dakar was a relief. After working on Senegal and consulting projects, he's about to open a restaurant in Nigeria and is working on other concepts on the continent. Still, he's ready to jump back into the NYC restaurant scene. Thiam is mum about specifics, but he says he's on to a potential concept somewhere in Bed-Stuy. 

Lamb shank mafé with rof gremolataEXPAND
Lamb shank mafé with rof gremolata
Photo by Evan Sung

Lamb Shank Mafé With Rof Gremolata

Lamb shanks slowly simmered in peanut sauce are to me the image of comfort food in Senegal, especially when served with steamed rice, couscous, or fonio. I must thank Jenn Sit for the idea of topping the shank with a gremolata just as the Milanese people would do. This gremolata recipe is a twist on our traditional rof, the parsley mixture we use to stuff the fish in thiebou jenn (page 204). The heat from the Scotch bonnet and brightness of the lemon zest brilliantly lifts all the earthy flavors of the peanut sauce.

SERVES 6

2 tablespoons peanut or vegetable oil, plus more if needed
6 lamb shanks (about 1¼ pounds each)
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 cups chopped yellow onion
2 garlic cloves, minced
2 tablespoons tomato paste, mixed with a few tablespoons water
2 quarts chicken stock or water
2 dried bay leaves
1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh thyme
1 cup unsweetened smooth peanut butter
1 Scotch bonnet pepper
2 tablespoons Vietnamese or Thai fish sauce
Rof Gremolata (recipe follows), for serving
Spring Vegetable Fonio Pilaf (page 162), for serving

Heat the oil in a large saucepan or Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Season the lamb shanks with salt and pepper. Add the shanks a few at a time, without overcrowding. Brown them well on all sides, about 8 minutes, and set aside on a plate. Repeat until all the shanks are nicely browned, adding more oil if necessary.

In the same pan, brown the onions. Reduce the heat to low and add the minced garlic. Stir well, then add the diluted tomato paste. Cook, stirring with a wooden spoon, for 7 to 10 minutes, until a deep, dark red. Add another tablespoon or two of water to prevent scorching, if needed.

Add the stock, raise the heat, and bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer. Add the bay leaves, thyme, 2 teaspoons salt, and 1 teaspoon pepper. Slowly add the peanut butter 1 to 2 tablespoons at a time, stirring constantly to dissolve it in the liquid.

Return the shanks to the pot, pressing down to submerge them in the sauce. Add the Scotch bonnet and fish sauce. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to a simmer. Cover and cook for about 1 hour and 30 minutes, until the shanks are tender.

Uncover the pot and continue cooking until the sauce is thick and coats the back of a spoon.

Remove the bay leaves and skim off the fat. Adjust the seasoning.

Serve the lamb shanks and sauce hot, on a platter. Top each shank with a generous pinch of gremolata and serve with a side of fonio pilaf.

Rof Gremolata

Italian gremolata, a condiment traditionally made with herbs, lemon zest, and garlic, meets Senegalese rof in this fresh, flavor-packed topping.

Makes about 1 cup

1 bunch parsley, leaves finely chopped
3 scallions, finely chopped
2 garlic cloves, minced
½ Scotch bonnet pepper, seeded and finely chopped
Grated zest of 1 lemon
Fine sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Gently combine the parsley, scallions, garlic, Scotch bonnet, and lemon zest in a small bowl.

Season with salt and pepper to taste. Store in an airtight container and refrigerate for up to 1 week.

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