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Off the Bee-ten Path: Little Dakar, Big City

Posted Thursday, October 30th, 2008 at 10:20 am by Russell in Cultural Bees. More in 10128

As Mulberry Street was to Italian immigrants, Mott to Chinese, and Manhattan Avenue to modern Poles, so is West 116th to immigrants from the West African nation of Senegal. It’s a place to shop for clothes, buy plane tickets, pick up a some music, pray, celebrate, eat.  All you want from the Old Country, basically, between 5th and 8th Avenues in Harlem.

Every day offers a glimpse into another world. Women promenade dressed in purple, orange, or yellow iridescent robes, their hair wrapped up in turbans higher than Marge Simpson’s beehive. And often, you hear the quick bursts of French or Africanized Creole. If you want to practice your high school français, there’s probably no better neighborhood in New York to do it.

Now if you visit, you’ve got to eat. Here’s my quick guide to Senegalese foods you should try. This is a hearty cuisine, based around roots, red palm kernel oil, peanuts, and secondarily meat and seafood. Of course, in this country it’s morphed into more a protein-centric approach, especially for dinner, when pseudo-continental grilled meats reign. Better to go for lunch, when the homestyle stuff is served just like maman used to make.

So, if you’re bored by the no-longer exotic dishes from elsewhere, give these a shot:

Thiebou Djenne (pronounced CHEB-ou jen, often shortened to simply “cheb”)
The national dish of Senegal, and a culinary base for innovation, much like paella. Basically, seasoned fish served with rice and vegetables like carrots, yuca, or even eggplant, along with a bit of sour tamarind and unctuous red palm kernel oil. Flavors combine and burst with uncommon deliciousness.
Where to find it? Sokhna. (225 W 116th)

Creamy, peanut-based sauce, often served atop lamb or chicken. Rich and savory, not as weird as you think.
Where to find it? Africa Restaurant.

Spicy, lemony sauce often used on chicken (for yassa poulet) or fish (for poisson yassa). Easy to like, this is the one dish you want your less adventurous friend to order.
Where to find it? Baobab (120 W 116th)

A Vietnamese fried spring roll, transplanted to Francophone Africa.
Where to find it? Les Ambassades (2200 8th Ave).

Pain au chocolat
It’s a chocolate-filled croissant, of course. No twist here.
Where to find it? Les Ambassades

Wash it all down with the ubiquitous ginger or bissap (sweetened hibiscus tea, much the same as you’ll find in Mexican “jamaica.”)

Vas-y! Bon appétit!

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