By Elise Leise
In the hubbub of this West African port city, you’ll find a hidden treasure – what some say are the finest rice and fish dishes in the world. Senegalese meals are known for bringing families and friends together while simultaneously delighting the senses.
They blend West African and North African cuisines while adding a dash of French, Portuguese, and Middle Eastern influence–and the end result is delicious. Next time you’re in Dakar, these are five meals you can’t miss:
Ceebu Jën (chee-boo-JEN)
There’s a reason why it’s the national dish of Senegal. Once the family-style (read: communal) bowl is uncovered to reveal ceebu jën, little children fiddle with their spoons in anticipation, waiting for the moment they can take the first bite. Those with refined palates compare it to Spain’s paella and Creole jambalaya, but it’s truly incomparable.
Women and older girls will spend their morning hours carefully sifting through rice. Younger children are dispatched to the markets to choose vegetables, while the women pound the peppers, green onions, and dried hibiscus into spice mixtures. They then bring it all together in a stunning presentation, placing an array of fish (jën) and vegetables such as cassava, sweet potato, cabbage, eggplant, and okra atop a base of either red or white rice.
Eating it is an art. You’ll learn that the best way is to carefully cut off small pieces of your favourite vegetables and place them in your area of the bowl. Then, with either a spoon, a chunk of white French bread, or your hand, scoop up a mix of rice, vegetables, and spices and savour the flavour. Expert advice: try the xooñ–crispy rice that adds a satisfying crunch.
Yassa Poulet (YAH-sah-PU-lay)
If ceebu jën is the quintessential staple of Dakar cuisine, yassa poulet is its elegant counterpart. It’s a French-inspired meal of chicken and rice that’s been deliciously adapted by the Senegalese. Women marinate chicken in lemon juice, oil, mustard, and plenty of caramelised onions, and the result is flavourful chicken that falls off the bone. You’ll want to share this spicy extravaganza with all your friends.
If you’re feeling adventurous, we’ve heard it said that in the Casamance region of Senegal where this dish originated, monkey–not chicken–yassa is a delicacy.
If you’re looking for a warm and filling dish to prepare you for a day of adventure, look no further. The traditional Wolof meal of Senegal and Gambia, mafe is a tasty variation on groundnut stew. It’s made of fish and peanut butter sauce, along with chili peppers, salt, black pepper, and onions. You might think that list of ingredients sounds strange, but it’s so good–we promise.
Fish, palm oil, vegetables – who knew a dish with only these three ingredients could be so delicious? Originally from Casamance, Senegalese all across the country now incorporate kaldou into their weekly meals.
You’ll marvel at the beautiful presentation of onion sauce carefully layered over fish fillets and appreciate its uncharacteristic mildness. Since it’s not widely known by foreigners, we recommend dining at one of the many local Dakar restaurants to find this dish.
Soupou Kandja (su-pu-KANN-ja)
You’ll never forget this messy and mouth-watering stew of okra sauce and palm oil. Often, you can experiment by adding either meat or dried fish and mollusks. If you’re new to sampling Senegalese cuisine, you and your travel companions may end up laughing about the spills that accompany your meals but this only adds to its appeal. Remember, this is what Senegal is all about – enjoying time with family and friends with a healthy dose of humor.
Afterward, when you’re pleasantly full of rice and spices, finish off your first Dakar dining experience with a local drink of either bissap (hibiscus flowers, water, and sugar) or attaya, sweetened tea prepared daily on street corners and in shops alike.
Don’t be surprised if strangers pouring attaya invite you over to share. After all, although the Senegalese come from countless ethnic backgrounds, they’re bound together by a culture of teranga, or hospitality.
As they proudly share their rice and fish dishes with the world, you can’t help but feel welcomed. Whether you decide upon ceebu jën or soupou kandja, it’s not only the stunning array of spices and sauces that make Dakar a city not to be missed. You’ll come for the cuisine and stay for the culture.