To paraphrase Flannery O’Connor,* a good African cookbook is hard to find.
And so when such a book appears, the bubbly comes out and the music crescendos.
Senegal-born Chef Pierre Thiam wrote the first cookbook on Senegalese food, Yolele! Recipes from the Heart of Senegal, and ended up nominated for a prestigious IACP (International Association of Culinary professionals) award. Alas, this year someone else won, but that doesn’t really make much difference. As the chef said in an interview, his biggest goal was to get the book published.
Chef Thiam strives to make African cuisine accessible to Americans at his New York City restaurant, Le Grand-Dakar.
And about time, I say.
What a lot of people don’t realize is this food is healthy, close to nature, and just plain delicious. The subtle playing of flavors surprises, with layers of taste resulting from simple culinary techniques, many similar to Italian. For example, the frying of tomato paste before the addition of vegetables or meats, or sometimes a sofrito-like concoction going into the pot first.
Why haven’t we taken to it like we have to other ethnic cuisines?
Good question. Because if we take the ingredients — almost all of which can be bought at the local grocery in these days of international trade (we won’t discuss the carbon footprint here, but it looms large some of the time) — there’s nothing untoward or wholly exotic about them. What’s different lies perhaps in the combinations of food and the steps in the cooking process.
Chef Thiam says:
The recipes in this book reflect my personal odyssey, my travels through West Africa, Europe and, finally here, where from my New York address, I’ve seen the world. They showcase the repertoire of contemporary Senegalese home cook, representing a mix of the age-old (thiebou jen, spicy stuffed fish with vegetables and rice), and the more modern (Vietnamese-influenced shrimp and melon salad).
Senegalese traditions are given life through the griots, men and women who transmit our history through the spoken and sung word. They often sing for their suppers, praising the hands of noted cooks in their incantations as a way of ensuring delicious and plentiful food in their bowls. Our cuisine has been passed down through oral tradition, too. For hundreds of years, women taught their daughters and nieces and neighbors their culinary secrets, and it is only recently that we’ve felt the need to make written records of our recipes.
Chef Pierre’s book, lush with the food photography of Adam Bartos, takes many elements and ingredients — African, French, Vietnamese — and honors them with a true contemporary African cuisine, every bit as exciting, delicious, and authentic as any other in the world.
(*O’Connor wrote a short story, “A Good Man is Hard to Find.”)
© 2009 C. Bertelsen