Tasting France in Senegal

Photo credit: Kumar McMillan

The ocean there, it’s infinite, a place where horizon and water meet like a seam in a dress, a little bump and then smoothness again. Sunlight pierces the dawn’s fading blackness and, overhead, the parasitic gulls swirl, their curved yellow beaks moving incessantly, filling the air with their own peculiar songs.

And then human voices join in, throbbing, shutting out the pounding noise of the waves.

Senegalese fishermen singing

Men, women, and children rush to the boats, thrusting their hands toward the glistening fish lying in mounds on the bottom of the boats or in crude wooden boxes.

Photo credit: Tagon

An idyllic picture in so many ways. But one fraught with uncertainty.

A fishing crisis exists in Senegal. Fishing, an occupation forged by tradition. And necessity. Fish comprise a significant part of a culture nurtured by the sea and its creatures. Dried fish provides much sustenance for the local people, including economic livelihood and crucial protein for diets not known for rich sources of it.

According to a story from AllAfrica (February 16, 2012),

However, West African waters including those of Senegal have been subject to overfishing for decades, the effects of which are being felt by local communities. The scientific community recognizes that fishing capacity of many stocks must be reduced in order to ensure the long term sustainability of West Africa’s marine resources.

After overexploiting fish stocks in their own waters, foreign fleets, in particular Russian, Asian and European have moved their focus to the waters of countries like Senegal. These fleets are plundering our seas, thus compromising the food security and livelihoods of coastal communities who have been depending on artisanal fishing for centuries. The fish is caught, processed and then frozen on board, with little or no benefits for the local markets.

The French first arrived in Senegal around 1600 and became more entrenched in the nineteenth century when Senegal served as the administrative headquarters for the metropole, or the French government. Traces of French culinary influence tend to be hidden, as this recipe for Mullet Stuffed with Spices illustrates. It comes from the old colonial city of St. Louis. The signs of French influence include the manner of stuffing the fish ( à la ballotine), thyme, and bay leaves, as well as the braising method of cooking.

Mullet Stuffed with Spices

1 whole large mullet, around 2 pounds, cleaned

1 bunch chopped parsley leaves – save the stems for the stock

2 garlic cloves, minced

1 bunch green onions, chopped, white part only

2 bay leaves

1 lb. tomatoes – finely chop half of them and quarter the other half

½ lb. stale bread crumbs

1/2 cup milk

1 medium onion, chopped

2 tsp. fresh thyme, chopped

1 habanero pepper, seeded, deveined, and finely sliced

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Peanut oil

Preheat the oven to 325F.

Carefully remove the skin of the fish so that it remains whole. Remove the bones and save for the stock. Save the flesh of the fish and set aside.

To make the stock, add 2 cups of water to a large pot, toss in the fish bones, parsley stems and the bay leaves. Let simmer while you make the stuffing.

Take the boneless flesh of the fish and pound or process it in a food processor with the garlic, green onions, parsley leaves, salt, and pepper. Place the breadcrumbs in a bowl, add the milk and let soak for a few minutes. Add the processed fish mixture and stir until well mixed. Stir in the finely chopped tomato and a few tablespoons of peanut oil. Sew up the fish along the place where the guts were taken out. Note that in Senegal, the cut is made by the dorsal fin.

Place the fish on a lightly greased baking sheets with sides. Drain the stock and reduce it to about 1 1/2 cups.

Scatter the chopped onion, sliced pepper, and tomato quarters around the fish. Pour the stock over the fish. Bake 30 minutes.

Before serving, lightly score the fish and drizzle with a tablespoon of peanut oil. Serve with rice and a fiery hot sauce if desired. Garnish with chopped parsley if desired.

© 2012 C. Bertelsen

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  1. Cynthia, I love your posts but this recipe is confusing me – looks as though we need two fish or am I missing something? Thanks for all your wisdom and experience – Sue

    • Sue,

      I think this might have been because I failed to make it clear that you separate the flesh from the skin and then you stuff the fish skin with the fish flesh/breadcrumb mixture. I added a phrase about saving the flesh and setting it aside. Does this help?

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