Onion Sauce and Other Whipped Delights

Originally Published from Dakar, Senegal

I’ll be honest – I had no idea what to expect to eat when I came out here. I knew the basics: a lot of rice, fish, vegetables? I’ve always been an adventurous eater, and I’ve certainly always enjoyed food, so I wasn’t too worried. When my first dinner here was a plate of Spaghetti Bolognaise, I realized I knew even less than I thought. Especially since I detected more than a hint of soy sauce in the sauce…

Luckily, my brush with pseudo-Italian cuisine was not the norm, though the Senegalese version of bolognaise is popular around Dakar. My off-the-plane impressions were pretty vague, but they were also vaguely correct. Food here is pretty meat and potatoes – literally. Rice, pasta, and couscous (the food so nice, they named it twice) form the base of most dishes, topped with beef, goat, fish and whatever vegetables are around.

Now, that last paragraph is admittedly a gross over-simplification of the culinary scene. Yet this basic formula of sorts is the basis of 90% of dinners I’ve eaten. I’ve wanted to write about food for a while, but I have yet to feel totally confident on the subject, and part of the problem is that I’ve had to get a handle on the more nuanced spices and ingredients. Still do, frankly.

I wish I could say these were a rare purchase, but...

I wish I could say these were a rare purchase, but...

But I have pieced a few things together, especially about lunch. So let’s leave dinner for a later date and focus on what little I know about the rest of the day. Breakfast is pretty easy to sum up – fresh baguette and butter each morning, every morning. Some other families do chocolate spread, others have jam, but we like to keep it simple chez Diallo, my residence. If I wanted, I could very easily grab an egg sandwich from one of the many carts on the side of the road, but I’ll get to that later.

For many families lunch is the most important meal of the day, but I only see that on Sundays. Most days I’m out in the neighborhood streets to eat however we see fit. Early on, I hit up the more “modern restaurants,” but by now we know that they just charge more for something that usually isn’t as good. As I got more and more adventurous, I caught the local students crowded around small blue carts, where hardboiled eggs sit next to a bowl of tuna and a pot of coffee. For 2-300 CFA (75 cents), I could grab an 8-inch baguette sandwich (take that, Subway), and still have more than enough money to grab fruit from another stand, or a pastry from the corner store boutique.

All of these three pop-ups are ubiquitous in Dakar, and join the legions of coffee stands, peanut vendors, bread stops, and fast-food joints on every street, at every hour. No matter where I am, I can be sure to grab an orange and an egg sandwich. The boutiques constitute the major economic centers of every street in a city where supermarkets are both expensive and rare. The 12-foot tall walls are packed with toiletries and tea leaves, fresh bread and Fanta, laundry detergent and ice cream (didn’t have another alliteration in me, sorry). And it’s cheap – 1000 CFA for 10 liters of bottled water, 100 CFA for a loaf of bread, and sodas for under a dollar if you’re willing to haggle over your plate. Peanut butter, a secret craving over the last three months, tastes even better when you get it for half price.

Still, most days I feel like something more substantial than eggs and bread. Luckily, “fast-food” restaurants are as popular here as they are in the States, though they serve a slightly different purpose. Fast-food refers more to the menu than the speed, though most meals only take 5-10 minutes to prepare. But you can be assured of the menu wherever you go – Fatayas (West African cousins of the empanada), Beef Chawarma, Nems (Vietnamese egg-rolls), hamburgers, and fries. There’s little reason to order French Fries though, as they are literally put in everything here. Every sandwich, every wrap, and every sub is almost sure to be packed with fires, mustard, ketchup, and onions. If you find a good spot, they’ll toss in some tomatoes and lettuce too, and all of this for 500-1500 CFA. Don’t expect cheese though. God do I want a block of cheese...

My hole-in-the-wall lunch classic

My hole-in-the-wall lunch classic

By now, I’ve established my favorite joint at a literal hole in the wall, complete with three tables and a kitchen in the same small room. But the owners, a woman hostess and a male cook, are happy to see me most days, and they have made the best food for the best prices I’ve found so far. And they’ve started hooking us up a bit, as my Fatayas have been getting fatter and fatter every day.

If it sounds like all I’ve eaten is meat and starch, it’s because it is. Despite producing a ton of vegetables, people don’t really eat many here. And I can’t really order a salad, because the water they use to wash it all is going to wreak havoc on the plumbing. I never thought I’d say it, but I would kill for something green on my plate. I do eat a lot of onions though, as most sauces and flavorings here use small but sweet onions as a starting point.

This is especially true for the bigger dishes such as Yassa Poulet and Ceebu Jen, which you can order anytime for lunch as well. But, to me, they constitute an entirely different menu – something more traditionally Senegales -- and I’ll save that discussion for a time when I am much less hungry. For now, bring my the West African egg roles and some more Asian-fusion Bolognaise (even if it would make my Sicilian grandmother faint with scandal). For an adventurous eater, this country is going to give me my stomach’s worth.