Like French cuisine, Guinea’s cooking is based on a series of sauces. As I stood before the counter at Le Conakry—a new place named after the West African country’s peninsular capital—the daughter of the cook was writing the names of the sauces on a yellow legal pad in big, looping script. My friend and I arbitrarily chose the first two on the list, and the girl communicated them to her mother, who peered curiously at the two pale dudes trying somewhat comically to pronounce the names of the sauces in French.
We sat at one of the 10 tables in the giant room, which had been wainscoted with tongue-and-groove board, with rush-woven place mats and a mask or two adorning walls the color of coffee with cream. The sauce de feuilles (“leaf sauce,” $6) appeared deep green and inky, a thick purée of young cassava leaves dotted with dense and fibrous cubes of beef. We eagerly ladled spoonfuls onto the massive plate of polished white rice that comes alongside (and constitutes the heart of most Guinean meals)—many diners would be hard-pressed to finish such a mountain of rice, and we were no exception). The sauce tasted like pure chlorophyll.
The only condiment on the table was a bottle of Hunt’s ketchup. We took this as a bellwether of the cuisine’s assimilation into the American culinary fabric. Gradually, it dawned on us that the ketchup was intended for us. In more traditional African joints, one might find a bottle of Maggi, a dark and salty Swiss product that tastes like soy sauce. A product of Switzerland, Maggi itself is a bellwether of the Nestlé corporation’s penetration into the African marketplace. We pushed the ketchup aside and asked the girl for pima, a homemade Scotch bonnet pepper paste. It brought tears to my eyes when I smeared it on the rice, and not just because it wasn’t made by Nestlé.
Second on the list was sauce clair (“clear sauce”), which arrived soon thereafter with an identical plate of rice. The color was brownish red, and morsels of chicken bobbed in the muck along with carrots and potatoes. Puréed tomato and eggplant tinged with palm oil form the basis of the gravy, making it milder and sweeter than the sauce de feuilles. Although now common in several coastal countries, sauce clair was originally associated with Ivory Coast, which borders Guinea on the east. Even more central to Ivorian cuisine is athieke, a moist heap of off-white cassava meal that, when prepared correctly (as it was in this case), plumps up like couscous. Le Conakry serves it in the traditional manner, topped with a whole grilled fish ($9)—here a pleasantly muddy-tasting tilapia garnished with a tongue-tingling relish of mustard and onion.
We explored the rest of the legal pad on subsequent visits. Down near the bottom, it also featured Senegalese dishes, demonstrating that Le Conakry intends to mount a pan West African menu. Included was mafe, a sauce that is like liquid peanut butter. With the addition of fatty lamb, a plate of mafe and rice makes a hopelessly rich meal. Equally Senegalese is couscous, a North African staple transported across the Sahara by Muslim traders. The Senegalese have made it their own by squirting French mustard into the sauce that accompanies this rather bland assortment of meat and vegetables. Unlike ketchup, mustard makes everything better.