Growing up in Senegal, chef Pierre Thiam had never seen a man cooking in the kitchen. In Senegalese tradition, women were the caretakers of the family.
That is, until he met his godfather—a Vietnamese immigrant who loved to cook. For the first time, Thiam thought it was possible for a man to enter the kitchen.
But his academic interests in physics and chemistry kept him busy. It wasn’t until massive university strikes in 1987 forced him to look abroad for schooling options that fate intervened.
On his way to Ohio for school, Thiam stopped in New York City, intending to visit for a few days.
“I was staying in this hotel in Times Square. But back in the day, Times Square wasn’t like how it is now,” he said.
Thiam’s luggage was stolen. He had no way of continuing on to Ohio, and he had to find a job quickly.
A Senegalese immigrant who stayed in the same hotel suggested that Thiam try his luck as a busboy at the West Village restaurant where he was working. Since then, Thiam has worked his way up through the ranks of the kitchen brigade and never looked back.
A Culinary Ambassador
Since rediscovering Senegalese flavors as a professional chef, Thiam has become a culinary ambassador for his native country, both to fellow Africans and Americans.
For his recent James Beard Award-nominated cookbook, “Senegal: Modern Senegalese Recipes From the Source to the Bowl,” the chef-restaurateur traveled to different regions of the country, documenting the history behind dishes and speaking with food producers who are often invisible to consumers—for example, a local fisherman, a small-scale red palm oil producer, a yogurt maker.
“We just arrive at lunch or dinnertime, and the food is here. But we forget that the rice or grains have been cultivated by a farmer. We know nothing about the farmer. I wanted to correct that,” said Thiam.
In Senegalese cuisine, rice is a staple. “Thiebou jenn,” considered a national dish, is made by simmering broken rice, seafood, vegetables, and aromatics (click here for Thiam’s recipe).
But broken rice—bits of grains that have been broken during the milling process—is actually a remnant of French colonial policies. Farmers were encouraged to cultivate cash crops like peanuts, while subsistence crops were imported from another part of the French colonial empire, Vietnam.
Vietnamese broken rice became the primary type of rice eaten by the Senegalese, despite there being a more nutritious, native variety grown in the Casamance region in southern Senegal. The native rice, called Oryza glaberrima, is considered sacred by the indigenous Diola people. Through the enslavement of Diola people, the rice was eventually brought to the American South and cultivated as a lucrative plantation crop, called Carolina Gold.
In major cities today, though, people favor imported rice and look down on local grains—and traditional cuisine in general, Thiam said. “To them, this was for backward people, for the country people.”
Changing People’s Minds
Thiam wants to change this colonial mentality by promoting the culinary and health benefits of native ingredients used in traditional Senegalese cooking, such as fonio, an ancient gluten-free grain filled with nutrients. Thiam prepares fonio in many ways, from pairing it with a traditional lamb mafé (stew), to using it to make sushi (click here for Thiam’s recipe).
In his cookbook, Thiam highlights a women-run cooperative that strives to process fonio on a large scale for worldwide distribution. “As a chef, I could appreciate local food and its value. Not only for patriotic reasons, but because it is better [in terms of taste],” he said. That is why Thiam is working on a project to distribute West African food products in America.
Getting Senegalese to embrace their own cuisine also means tracing the ways it has influenced other culinary traditions around the world. From the American South to Valencia, Spain, West African ingredients and dishes have traveled far. Captive slaves brought their cooking and knowledge of rice cultivation to the New World, while the Moors influenced the cuisine of their conquered territory in Spain.
“Soupou kandja,” a Senegalese seafood-okra stew, is like Louisiana gumbo, while “accara,” black-eyed pea fritters, resemble the “acarajé” found in Brazil. Paella has all the makings of “thiebou jenn,” and is even traditionally eaten in the same way as in Senegal: people gathered around, eating straight from the pan.
“It’s important for people’s identities. It’s important that connection is made. I think it makes you freer, stronger in a way, just to know that your ancestors played a crucial role in what became a cuisine that’s feeding a country,” he said.
Thiam is hopeful that his role as an activist will change people’s attitudes toward African food. The growing success of his newly opened restaurant in Lagos, Nigeria, Nok By Alara, is already proving that diners are hungry for African flavors. “People who take pride in their food are a stronger people. Not just physically because they’re better nourished, but also stronger in mentality,” he said.