Alec Yeh - Senegal

October 26, 2009

So I’ve recently gotten into this cooking thing. I want to study gastronomy in school and I figured since I’m in Senegal, why not learn some things about Senegalese cooking? I talked to Gaya, one of the fellows, and she actually invited me over to cook with her family. I was so excited. It was awesome. And since Gaya is pretty much fluent in French, if I had a question, I could actually ask it.

Gaya’s family is really nice. Her house is full of kids, and all of them are so adorable. There was this one girl that wanted to cook with us. She was maybe 7 years old. She was so cute, and she followed her mom everywhere, even though her mom kept yelling at her to get away from the flame. But together, we made yasa-jen, which is a traditional Senegalese onion sauce with fried/grilled fish, over a bed of white rice. So we began by making the rice, which was simple. Then we prepared the sauce. We had to cut the onions, grind up some spices, and squeeze some lemons. So the first thing about Senegalese cooking is that they LOVE to smother everything with oil. And their oil isn’t very good quality. The oil actually came in packets, like pouches of oil. You begin with the onions and oil. Then you add this paste you made with garlic, peppercorn, chili pepper, and this MSG stuff. You add it to the pot, and add some vinegar and some mustard. Oh, then add more oil. You want the onions to caramelize. Add the lemon juice as well. You need a lot since yasa is quite sour. After your done with the yasa, you have to prepare the fish. You have to scale and gut the fish since all fish the Senegalese buy are whole. You smother them with lemon juice and some more spices, the same ones used in the yasa. Then you basically fry those suckers to death. But after you fry them, you have to grill them to get that smokey flavor. Since we didn’t have charcoal, we had to go out and buy some. After, we put it on a huge plate, and crowded around on the floor, and ate.

What’s interesting about Senegalese cooking is that it takes forever. We started at 11 and ate at around 2. So that’s three hours of cooking. And the reason for that is there’s only one flame to cook on. You have to do things in succession, not just all at once. And on top of that, you buy the ingredients right when you need them, which I find so interesting. For example, we didn’t have charcoal, so we had to pause our cooking to go out to one of the stores to buy charcoal. But since there are so many stores, it only took like 5 minutes. In the US, we stock up on ingredients and buy more when we run out.

I was also thinking about the ingredients. If you cook Senegalese food without Senegalese ingredients, do you lose the Senegalese-ness of the food? In my opinion, one of the big things about Senegalese cuisine is that the ingredients are all local. The onions are from some street vendor who grows them. The salt is from somewhere in Africa, maybe Lac Rose. The fish are all super small, but are Senegalese nonetheless. All the ingredients could be bought from your neighbor. That’s the essence of Senegalese food. So if I were to make yasa-jen in the US, with American onions and American fish, and American everything, is it still Senegalese food? Or do you lose some of its authenticity?

Alec Yeh