Man Cannot Live on Rice Alone. Update from Senegal

Robert Puckrin is a Quebec City student who is volunteering at a school in Senegal


If Senegalese cuisine were to be summed-up in a single comparison to a well-known scenic landscape, then it would without question be most appropriately likened to the endless monotony of the pancake-flat prairies of Saskatchewan; just as the beloved breadbasket of Canada contains few distinguishable features aside from expansive golden fields of blowing wheat, the cuisine of this wonderful African nation consists of almost nothing but mounds upon mounds of pearly-white rice! These small starchy grains account for a surprisingly hefty portion of the Senegalese diet, for they are widely-regarded as the fundamental building blocks of any filling meal. Rice is thus without doubt the official staple food of this country, and it plays such an indispensable role in the kitchens of Senegal that there are quite literally certain regions in which it is eaten for breakfast, lunch, and dinner -- often with nothing more than a light seasoning added for flavour! But it must be noted that the reason Africans are so incredibly passionate about rice has less to do with its delightful taste as it does the simple fact that this is the most inexpensive and hassle-free way to satisfy the many famished appetites found within a large family (it's thus the compulsary food of the hungry masses). 

Awa, one of our four 'mamans', hard at work in the school's kitchen.
Now as a handsome Canadian volunteer fully-integrated into the Senegalese way of life, I have by now become quite familiar with the ins and outs of eating African-style; I am graciously provided with three square meals a day thanks to our school's busy and bustling four women kitchen staff (whom we affectionately refer to as ourmamans), and I can thus personally attest to the fact that eating rice on a daily basis (while certainly not without its merits) can present a whole new set of complications to us foreigners (who are of course accustomed to a healthy diet composed of a wide variety of rich and nutritious foods).

But I must confess that it would be a slight exaggeration to suggest that all the food we eat at the Daara de Malika consists of rice and rice alone, for our daily petit déjeuner (breakfast) does in fact offer brief respite as the only guaranteed rice-free meal of the day. I arise at a bright and early 7:00 a.m. to share a rousing breakfast with forty bleary-eyed little boys, as we gather together to partake in French bread, oatmeal porridge, or (on particularly unfortunate occasions) a dull, grey, and lifeless gruel; these sometimes stomach-pleasing dishes are almost always accompanied by a steaming cup of hot coffee (in Senegal, it seems that no child is ever considered too young to begin a life-long caffeine addiction!). We all then set out to work at our respective posts and wait a stomach-gruelling seven hours before reassembling once again for the most important meal of the day: a sumptuous 2:30 p.m. lunch! This is the time at which all the stops are pulled out and we truly delve into the myriad of exotic flavours and flaring colours that give the cuisine of this region so much taste bud-scintillating pizzazz. At the heart of each and every meal lies the basic combination of fish and (how could we forget) rice, but these two stalwart ingredients can take on an astonishingly diverse array of shapes and forms thanks to the veritable rainbow of flavours introduced by the accompanying mountains of simmering sauces, colourful veggies, and zesty spices. 


A colourful platter of the traditional thiéboudienne.

The king of all Senegalese cuisine is of course the lean and meanthiéboudienne (pronounced "chey-booj-iyen", or quite simply "cheb" as the locals refer to it); this bright and festive dish contains heaping amounts fish, carrots, eggplant, cabbage, and sweet potatoes all piled-up on a steaming bed of flaming red tomato-sauce-soaked rice. A merry meal of thiéboudienne is generally served up five to six times per week, although slight alterations are sometimes introduced (such as replacing the fish with far more innovative fishballs or modifying the rice's colour and seasoning) to spice things up a bit. The other favourite traditional dish consumed on a regular basis is mafé, a hearty plate of potatoes and (what else) rice smothered in a thick and filling brown peanut-based sauce. A Senegalese lunch can thus make for quite an exciting gustatory adventure, and its generous portion sizes and myriad of flavours generally succeed in satisfying our stomachs until the evening meal finally makes its appearance at 8:00 p.m.. I must admit that dinner is my least favourite of the three daily meals, as it usually consists of nothing more than one of two rather unimaginative dishes: a dull mixture of unseasoned pasta noodles and small bits of tuna, or unappetising chunks of cold grey rice accompanied by the absolutely pungent-tasting bone-dry smoked fish (this wretched concoction is the last remaining element of Senegalese cuisine that I am still unable to tolerate). But in any case, these one or two culinary low-points are quite easy to forgive in light of the spectacular variety of other splendid meals the kitchens of this nation have to offer. 

Two of my little African brothers unveiling a delicious lunchtime meal.

Well my initial reaction to Senegalese cuisine was one of quite pleasant shock and amazement, for my first steaming platter of thiéboudienne ignited a carnival of new and exciting flavours in my mouth (my taste buds had never felt so alive!). But after consuming the same mélange of rice and fish meal after meal, day after day, and week after week, I quietly began to question whether I would actually be able to endure such culinary monotony for the entire five month duration of my stay. Well I am now glad to report that the answer to this question appears to be a resounding yes! Although it was not always easy to make the transition from eating rice a couple of times per month in Canada to a couple of times per day in Senegal, I have somehow managed to defy all odds in remaining madly in love with these spectacularly vivid flavours (the simple fact that I have not yet grown tired of rice and fish stands as a solid testament to the power and quality of Senegalese cuisine). But that's not too say that all is fine and well in the world of thiéboudienne and mafé, for I have in fact come across three major challenges that make eating in this country significantly more difficult: (1) the Senegalese are far too fond of explosively spicy red hot peppers (my poor stomach couldn't initially deal with the sheer spiciness, and I spent my first couple of weeks suffering from severe bouts of indigestion and massive build-ups of gas); (2) their diet is appallingly deficient in vitamins and nutrients, for fruit is so expensive that it is hardly ever eaten and each meal contains an overwhelming amount of rice and a rather underwhelming amount of vegetables (I would estimate that I consume only one mouthful of veggies for every seven or eight mouthfuls of rice); and (3) sometimes we are left just a little bit hungry as there simply isn't enough food to go around (it's not always easy for a not-for-profit school to feed fifty to sixty mouths per day when its entire existence depends on charitable donations alone). 

But in spite of a diet sometimes lacking in quantity and nutritional quality, I have remained fortunate enough to avoid becoming as weak and emaciated as the stereotypical famine-stricken African (there is actually a mild joke related to this that may just be worth telling: it turns out that one of the key indicators that an African child is suffering from malnutrition is that their normally jet-black hair turns dark red and frizzy; well when Africans take note of the unique colour of my flaming red hair, they must think I don't eat at all!). But I am at least able to quell my ravenous appetite by supplementing my diet with one or two of the small snacks so widely-available in the streets: the most common specialty is grilled peanuts (the roads are lined with thousands of well-aged women who spend their days next to a heated iron frying pan in which they stir burning hot sand and shelled peanuts), but grilled meat, traditional "Timbit"-style fried doughnuts, and sardine sandwiches are quite easy to find as well. I must also give well-deserved attention to the absolutely amazing selection of hot beverages available in this country, for one has never truly tried coffee until having gulped down a jolting cup of invigoratingly-spicycafé touba. Also unforgettably delectable is the warm and frothy lait à la menthe (prepared with milk, sugar, cheese, and mint candies), but even that pales in comparison to the ruling monarch of all traditional beverages: the stinging tea referred to as ataaya. This bittersweet concoction of tea leaves, sugar, and boiling water seems to play a dual role in Senegalese society, for it serves as a fierce afternoon pick-me-up as well as a wonderful excuse to gather together and socialise. It can take several hours to prepare a single pot of ataaya, but it certainly makes for an absorbing spectacle as the tea-maker quickly pours the steaming liquid back and forth between two glasses from dizzying heights in order to create the perfect froth. The only drawback to this delicious assortment of hot drinks is that they are absolutely packed-full of sugar, for the Senegalese simply adore loading up a regular mug-sized cup of coffee with as many as four or five heaping tablespoons of this white diabetes-inducing substance (I can feel the tooth decay setting in with each gulp I take!). 

The foul-smelling fish market at Saint-Louis.

Now I must also mention that the Senegalese have a distinctly different relationship with their food than we Westerns do, for we have become so disattached from the source of what we eat and are entirely unaware of all the blood, sweat, and tears that went into preparing it; we enter gleaming white supermarkets and purchase synthetic packages of mass-produced food without giving any thought whatsoever to the farmer who planted and cultivated our vegetables, the cow who gave its life for our meat, or the butcher who actually did that cow in. The Senegalese, however, have a much more direct relationship with their food, for they are continuously faced with clear reminders of the time, work, and actual living beings that go into the meals they eat. Here we head out to the beach-side market to buy buckets of entire fish scooped straight from the sea that very morning (after which we must clean, gut, and prepare them ourselves); here we purchase our vegetables directly from the farmers who cart their freshly-picked produce (still caked in layers of dirt) to the local market each and every week; and here we must look on as our butcher slashes away at en entire cow leg in order to prepare our slices of meat (one must learn to ignore the repulsive clouds of flies buzzing around the chunks of meat that hang in the open air). There is thus no consumer packaging or factory processing that cuts us off from the origin of our food as in the West, for here we head straight to the source and take care of the processing ourselves. This couldn't have become any clearer to me after bearing witness to my first ever execution a few weeks ago, for our school slaughtered a traditional goat in celebration of the end of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan. It was quite a thought-provoking experience to see a living animal (who had been quietly munching upon grass just a few moments earlier) suddenly reduced to nothing more than a pile of bones, meat, and horns strewn about on the ground (it certainly raises questions about the nature of life itself). It thus appears to me that the Senegalese have a much more natural relationship with their food than we do, for to them the reality of the food chain is a visible element of everyday life while for us it is almost hidden behind the carefully-designed packages so neatly-arranged on a grocery store shelf. 

Now after that brief digression, allow me to return to the subject at hand and explain that the only thing more interesting than Senegalese cuisine itself is the way in which we eat it, for setting oneself down before a plate of thiéboudienne means adjusting to a whole world of new customs and proper rules of etiquette. I have actually come to admire the unique attitude the Senegalese seem to have with regard to dining, for rather than eating in isolated separation upon our own individualised plates (as we Westerners do), they prefer to all dig in as one and share what little they may have with one another. A massive circular platter loaded up with mounds of sauce-soaked rice and fish is first set down upon the ground, and somewhere between six and ten people then crouch down all around to form a ring of hungry diners. A whirlwind of action breaks out as soon as everyone is assembled in place (head-starts are absolutely forbidden), as a flurry of eager hands suddenly launch into the meal and begin rolling-up the rice into handfuls of much-easier-to-ingest mouth-sized balls (one must always remember to eat with the right hand alone, for the left is reserved for the considerably less prestigious role of de facto toilet paper). An exchange of food soon begins to take place from one side of the platter to the other, as one person may take in hand an entire vegetable, divide it into several small but equally-sized pieces, and then distribute a single piece to each person sitting by his side (everyone dutifully waits for him to finish divvying up the vegetable before resuming the meal themselves). 

Several groups of diners gathered around their meals in the school's dining hall.

Eating African-style is thus about so much more than simply filling up the stomach with sustenance; it's actually a sort of community-like event in which you sit shoulder-to-shoulder with friends, family, and strangers and take part in a whirlwind of interaction, exchange, and discussion. These highly social meals are marked by a genuine concern for others, as we each strive to ensure that our fellow diners had their fair share of food and are left feeling full and satisfied afterwards (after finishing up my meal, I am always greeted by dozens of calls -- "Robert, viens manger!" -- from all the others gathered in the dining hall, as they are willing to give up what little food they have left in order to ensure that I happily ate my fill). I have now come to view the flurry of action taking place around a single platter of food as being quite indicative of African life in general, for rather than craving the personal space and individualised lifestyle that we Westerners do, Africans would much rather prefer to sit side-by-side and dig in all together as one; this is the sort of place where we live, breathe, and eat together as a community, and where sharing is not just a moral suggestion but is actually an entire way of life in and of itself. 

And to that, I have but one thing to say: bon appétit.