Pictures from Senegal

Sunday, January 16

Food Basics

I frequently get a lot of questions about Senegalese food, so I decided to create a week long diary of what it is that I actually eat. While I was on vacation in the US, I attempted to refuse to eat rice or onions… because they are in everything I’ve eaten for nearly a year and a half. Aside from that tid-bit it’s time to lay out a detailed description of what I’m consuming (and why I’m always asking for protein in care packages).

There are a few basics that apply to every meal that I figure are “must know.” So this installment I’ll throw out all the generalities (and the next one will have a blow by blow of an entire week of food).

First off, half of ever meal is prepared in the hallway. The kitchen is used for storage of utensils, cookware and the gas tank. Things may be cooked there but they prep work is done in the hallway. Mom pulls up a chair then washes, peels, slices, or mashes food in the most common area of the house. The refrigerator even sits in the hall way. Honestly, there just isn’t enough room in the kitchen anyways… it’s roughly the size of guest bathrooms you’d see in America. Seriously.

When I say there is beef in a meal what I mean is someone got a hunk of who-knows-what-part of cow from the butcher. It was probably killed within the last 48 hours. I hope. They don’t seem to know how to handle fat, so my family cuts through the muscle portion to form small bite sized pieces thus leaving the fat to ribbon through each piece; yummy. In any given meal there are only maybe 15 to 20 pieces of meat and 9 or more of us at the bowl. This is why I ALWAYS ask for protein in care packages.

The “table” is a piece of vinyl that is placed on the floor, either in the hallway (for lunch) or the living room (for dinner). Then the meal is served in a circular platter about 24 inches in diameter with a 1 inch high rim. Everyone is handed a spoon at lunch and a fork at dinner. My youngest brother has a mini fork and spoon. This is not the case in every home. Quite often you will hear of people eating with their hand- without utensils. This is normal, but as my family is well off we only find ourselves in this situation when many more guests are around than we have utensils. The women sit on their legs, butt cheeks on ankles, while the men sit on their left leg the same way with the right foot on the ground and knee to their chests. Guests are given a “bank” which resembles the foot stool we used as kids to brush our teeth in the bathroom sink. It’s not really all that comfortable and just makes you eat with your chest resting on your knees during the meal. Or at least that’s how I feel.

As for etiquette, we have only a few rules. Everyone eats with their right hand, while the left hand holds a piece of bread (at night only). It is not the biggest insult if I forget and chew a piece of bread with my left hand, I’ve seen my family do it, but I generally try to set my fork down, tear a piece off in my right hand, and then eat it. When you are done eating, it is then acceptable to find a drink (or be handed one if you’re a guest). No one speaks, drinks, or moves slowly during a meal. You snooze; you lose- your precious few bits of meat- as any given period of consumption lasts a maximum of ten minutes.

Breakfast in my house is always the same: bread. It’s therefore not worth mentioning 7 individual times. We each get about 6 inches of white baguette. My mother will spread butter on the insides for my brothers. Occasionally we’ll have chocolate, or fruit preserves (if I’ve brought them) on the weekends. During Ramadan we try to eat sandwiches with egg or meat and cheese on them as it is already 7p and we are dying for protein. And there are plenty of volunteers who eat breakfast out… and acquire cooked bean sandwiches or chalkery (yogurt and millet) but those options are a pretty long walk for me and who can stand to wait that long for breakfast?

To drink for breakfast the kids are handed a cup of heated water mixed with sugar and powdered milk (because of its high fat and vitamin content… and good taste?). Adults drink water with Nestcafe (instant coffee) or CafĂ© Touba (strong chai spiced coffee). A third option is Quinquilliba, a mild local green leaf boiled in water for tea.

An note should be made about dessert. After lunch, if we have the stock, fruit is served. We’ll eat slices of watermelon, melon, corossol or papaya, or share pieces of orange, apple, banana… generally anything we can find in season. For special occasions, such as birthdays or holidays (both American and Senegalese) we’ll make a cake. Last year on my mom’s birthday my dad drove to Thies and bought her a cake from the bakery. It was really cute. And finally, when bored or throwing a party, my family pulls out the ice cream maker and tries a new recipe involving sweet yogurt or eggs and condensed milk. Generally with fruit flavors added but we attempted a great chocolate version once! Any dessert is successful if my 2.5 year old brother is wearing more of it than he’s eaten (actually that rule goes for most meals, too)!

One of the most important points to keep in mind is that we are currently in “vegetable season.” This goes to say that veggies are abundant and inexpensive (read: affordable in appropriate quantities). The meals represented next, especially at night, are infinitely more nutritious this time of year than, say, the end of the dry season just before the rain hits and plants can grow again. Perhaps I’ll log another meal diary in 6 months for comparison…

And lastly, the timing of meals isn’t what you’d expect either. Lunch is served anywhere from 1:30p to 3:30p. Schools in Mboro don’t even let out for lunch until 1p. If its Friday then lunch can be even later as the most important prier of the week (read: trip to the local mosque) takes place at 2:20p. Dinner is then pushed back to 9:30p at the earliest, but generally around 10:30 or 11p. This is because my brothers get hungry around dusk… so they snack. If we eat too soon after snack time they won’t finish dinner and this greatly annoys my host mother. In addition, 2 nights a week my dad won’t even get home from work until 10:30p so we’re waiting for him to join us before eating. Frequently some of my youngest brothers won’t make it until dinner is actually served before passing out of the night. 

No comments:

Post a Comment