This evening while helping one of my host mothers cook dinner, I made a very unexpected discovery. Tonight’s meal was grilled chicken, which in Senegal means chicken that has been cooked in a very oily sauce, then deep friend in pure oil, and then grilled. To go with the chicken there were fried potatoes, chunks of the same old machine-made baguette and a thick, pungent, oily, brown onion sauce. My role in “helping” basically amounted to stirring the stuff in the pan every once in a while, but I was happy to be sitting in the hot kitchen, on my little wooden stool in front of the gas stove, and to be able to say in wolof “mangiy togg” (I am cooking) and I think my host mother was happy too.
But anyway, I was surprised to learn that one of the secret ingredients of that thick brown sauce is…basil! I was talking about Italian food and how I wanted to make them some Italian “pates” (French word for pasta apparently) one night, as so far I have encountered pasta here served in one of three ways: with powdered milk and sugar, deep fried (of course!) with scrambled eggs or with ketchup. (Oh how my friends at Gran Gusto would cringe! Although, I have to admit the scrambled egg one was pretty good). And so as I was chatting about Italian cuisine, my host mother tells me that she cooks with basil all the time, and that there is a plant in the courtyard that she takes leaves from. Mami Sekk, my little sister, drags me over (she likes to do that) and I’m thinking this must be some sort of African herb that just happens to be called basilique, but no – it smells just like home! This little plant that I pass every day, it turns out, is one of just many enormous, beautifully blooming basil plants tucked in a corner in the back room. I feel like I’ve just discovered a treasure hole and I am already devising ways to put these overlooked plants to use. Being sick has provided a fortunate excuse to cook for myself, as the doctor had instructed me to cut oil out of my diet, which basically ruled out all Senegalese meals. The oil generally used here, bought in little plastic sachets, is apparently of a very low quality (a step or two up from car oil) and difficult to digest. I recently saw my host mother pour the same oil she uses for cooking over the coals in the small grill used to boil tea. During these past few days of recovery, I have very much enjoyed concocting various boiled dishes, stopping by vegetable stands on my way home to pick up a carrot or two, or a sweet potato, or even an aubergine, and bring home my little brown paper package and add the contents to a pot of boiled meat or fish for a delicious soup – despite the looks of pity from my host mother as she watches her poor “cherie” eat such a meager (oil-free) dinner.
But being very well recovered and one of the cook’s helpers this evening, I was happy to join around the chicken bowl. The platter was placed on a slight stoop on a large colorful plastic mat on the ground. Everyone gathered around, shoes off, some on stools, some crouched, and started to dig in, literally, with the right hand and a chunk of bread. Even though I couldn’t quite taste the basil, it was of course delicious!