Eben: Meals Without Wheels

October 14, 2009

A few weeks ago, during the presession, we took a field trip to the island of Ngor, off the northwest tip of Dakar, to conduct interviews with strangers on the beach on the subject of polygamy.  We were informed that Waly and co. had bought food for our lunch there.  Naturally, given my concept of what a portable lunch should be, I was excited for the possibility of sandwiches and maybe, if we were lucky, some fruit.  My cold-cut dreams were shattered when I was asked to carry a large vat of oil to the bus, which we subsequently carried with us on the small, wet pirogue that took us to the island.  Accompanying that vat were multiple pounds of chicken and uncooked French fries, along with a gas cooker.  We were going to have a normal lunch, field trip be damned.  And we did; Waly’s assistant, Adji, tended the cooker for a couple hours until our communal platters were ready.

And this is the way Senegalese food works.  There are restaurants, sure, and even a few fast-food places, but a real meal is hand-cooked.  And in this process, there are no compromises, no shortcuts, and certainly no need for lessons from Michael Pollan.  A meal is a meal, and it must be cooked in a certain way no matter the location or circumstances.  All of which is somewhat surprising given the way food is actually eaten.  Despite the elaborate tradition that surrounds meals here, people eat quickly and usually without stopping to talk or take a drink.  When you’re done eating, you get up even if others are still working.  After hours of cooking — at my house, a 2:30 pm lunch often gets started around 9 am — the meal is usually done within a 10 or 15 minutes.  Then onto the next meal.

At my house, lunch (which I only eat there on weekends) is the biggest deal of a meal.  The family eats with spoons around a large bowl, as depicted in the picture above of students eating in Sokone.  In many families, the bowl is present but the spoons are not, and people sit on mats around the bowl, rolling balls of rice (or millet) and sauce with their fingers.  (All of this is done with only the right hand, for cultural and hygienic reasons.)  Everyone eats the rice and sauce in the area in front of them, while people break off small pieces of the meat/fish and root vegetables in the middle of the bowl to eat with their rice.  This role is often also played by the woman who did the cooking, in which case she’ll distribute the pieces she breaks off to everyone around the bowl.

On the other end of the spectrum, dinners at my house are casual, less stereotypically traditional affairs, eaten on individual plates at each person’s leisure.  Usually, the kids and I eat around 8:30 with Ester, the youngest daughter of Mère Vitou (she’s probably about 30), and the maids.  Mère Vitou gets a plate in the living room while watching tv, and the rest of the house eats later if at all.  Moving back in the day, breakfast, the least important meal, is a very European affair that is done, as far as I can tell, exactly the same at every house throughout the country.  You get a piece of baguette and some chocolate spread or jam, accompanied by a hot drink (despite the heat) made of whatever powders — coffee, milk, hot chocolate mix, sugar — you want.  The French really sold Dakar citizens short in terms of whatever baguette recipe they taught them, and so I’m generally hungry by the end of my walk to school.  Eating air would at least require less chewing.  Outside of Dakar, though, the bread is great — much heavier, but still soft enough to eat comfortably.

In terms of the food itself (beyond breakfast), I’d love to be able to come back to the States and, like many who have traveled abroad, say that the food here was inconceivably wonderful.  But that would be dishonest.  I generally like the vast majority of what I’ve eaten, but I’ll return home and be perfectly happy to go back to eating the food I have for most of my life.  Most meals consist of a starch, meat or fish, and a dark, heavy sauce.  The starch, as I started to explain above, is either rice or very fine-grained millet during one of the traditional “bowl” meals, and then often it’ll be French fries or pasta for our more casual dinners.  The fish is always served whole and I’m pretty sure is usually herring.  It’s nice, flaky white meat once you get past the fact that the thing you’re eating still has its head on.  The meat is either chicken or beef, although Catholic families do eat pork from time to time.  Regardless of the meat, it’s served on the bone with plenty of fat still on.  In my house, beef is much preferred to chicken, much to my disappointment.  I grew up not really eating red meat, and so I do my best to pick around it here, but I’m essentially required to eat at least a little bit given the rules of hospitality.  The meat is always flavored very heavily with spices ground together with the equivalent of a mortar and pestle, and like most everything else, cooked very slowly over a gas cooker.  Finally, the sauce usually falls into one of two categories: onion-based or not.  The onion-based sauce is very thick, and brown, and delicious.  Reminds me of caramelized onions.  The other types of sauces are a mixture of oil with either tomato, peanut butter, or spinach.  This thick spinach sauce (as shown in the picture above) is about the most you’ll get in the way of green vegetables, as the only other “vegetables” you might get are carrots, potatoes, or white roots whose name I have no idea.

The most common plate is ceeb-u jeen – pronounced “tchiebou djenne” — which means “rice with fish” (great description, I know).  Ceeb-u jeen comes in endless varieties, but as the name would indicate, it all comes down to having rice and fish with either green or red sauce and a few root vegetables thrown in.  Then come the yassa dishes, which are rice with the dark onion sauce and any type of meat (most often chicken).  And after that, the rest of the meals are a mix of sauce and meat that are hard to sort through, both when you’re eating them and when you’re trying to describe them in text.

Dessert is usually nonexistent.  One night we inexplicably had hot bread pudding, which was great, but otherwise there’ll be mango once every couple weeks and that’s about it.  Students at other houses report the same.

Finally, drinks.  Like I said, people often don’t drink anything during a meal.  Nonetheless, drinks here are across-the-board better than back home.  I haven’t drunk soda in years, but I do it regularly here because it’s made with actual sugar instead of high fructose corn syrup and is consequently pretty good.  But even better are the homemade juice drinks.  The two most common are bissap juice, a deep purple juice made by boiling hibiscus flowers in water and then adding a ton of sugar, and bouye juice, a very thick white juice made from the fruit of the baobab tree. These two are often mixed together to make a milkshake-like cocktail.  Less common but also sometimes made are ginger juice and orange juice.  My family (and others) tend to make these when guests come over and at other seemingly random times that they feel like doing it.

And then there’s ataya, which I’m categorizing in the drinks section because I used the word “finally” above to indicate that this would be the last part, but really deserves a section of its own based on its place in society.  Ataya literally translates to “tea,” but it is entirely different than what we drink back home.  The person making it puts green tea leaves directly in the silver teapot, bringing the water to boil with the leaves.  It then boils for 10 to 15 minutes, making the tea a deep brown color, and at some point a ton of sugar and usually some fresh mint and some vanilla powder get put in the pot too.  While this boiling is happening, the tea-maker will pour a little bit of the tea into one of the shot-sized glasses used for ataya and begin the foam-making process.  This consists of pouring that little bit of tea back and forth between two of the shot-glasses; you leave one of the glasses on the table, raise the other one a foot or two off the table, and pour down into the tiny glass to create foam, or, in my case, a mess.  Then repeat the process.  A lot.  Eventually there’s enough foam for a centimeter or so of it in every shot-glass, at which point you pour and drink what has become the tea equivalent of a highly-sugared espresso shot.  And you can’t drink just one cup of ataya; if you’re really serious about your tea, you do this process three times, and if you’re a little more casual, you do two cups.  Given the lengthy tea-making process and that people like to hang out here, the ritual of ataya can take up to a couple hours if you want it to.  Often a household will have only two shot-glasses, meaning people take turns in two drinking their tea; it’s all in the spirit of partage, or sharing, which you hear about and see so often here.  I just can’t believe we haven’t figured ataya out yet, though …the United States is the world champ at appropriating the good parts of every other society, but we must have missed the memo on this.

So I hope this answers everyone’s questions about the food and food culture, of which I’ve been getting a bunch.  (I do wonder, though, if those have coincided with the hour or so before meal times back home.)  And now some updates:

  • The weekend in Sokone went great.  We got to Casimir’s house at about 4 am this past Friday night after another excruciating sept-place ride to Sokone.  Joining us in the car from Dakar was Charles, Casimir’s older brother and shorter lookalike.  We stayed in mattresses in a big open room in a building belonging to Casimir’s church.  Our Saturday was spent with about 8 of the youngish members of Casimir’s family at a small beach camp, where we swam, ate — there was, of course, a dead pig and chicken involved in this process — and hung out.  Eventually, as usual, song and dance spontaneously broke out when Casimir found an empty bucket and started playing it as a drum, and then we eventually rode back on the top of a pickup truck to the family compound.  Then Sunday we went to a party at the church before heading out.  Ironically enough, the Catholic Church is like the organizational leader of partying in Senegal, since they’re the only ones who can drink.  So now I think we’re in Dakar for the long haul, which at this point is only two more weeks before classes finish on October 23 and we head off to our internships.
  • The hivernage, or rainy season, has ended.  I thought this might mean that some of the heat and humidity would abate, but I guess I misinformed myself.  It now gets to about 97 or 98 degrees every day (the highs in the previous months were near 85), and there’s never more than an hour or so of cloudiness on a good day.  I guess I thought for some ridiculous reason that it wouldn’t be as hot here as everyone said.  Everyone was right.
  • Despite my desperate attempts to figure out when the Indian soap will be on, I haven’t even caught one show since the last time I updated about it.  So I think I get an F for this effort.

Seems like a good note to end on.  I’ll put some new pictures up soon, and if you haven’t noticed, my Photos page is now much more accurate, although I guess I get a failing grade on that too for thinking I’d put pictures up there.  Looking forward to my first “normal” weekend in Dakar for a while…for now, off to get sushi for the first time since July.  Crazy.

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