Chef Pierre Thiam grew up in Senegal, where he spent his childhood in the thriving Western port city of Dakar enjoying an umami-rich cuisine informed by the culinary traditions of Senegal, Morocco, Portugal, France and Vietnam. During the summers he journeyed to the southern countryside to indulge in dishes prepared by the matriarchs of his family, who infused their recipes with a complex amalgamation of traditional Senegalese techniques and ingredients laced with the flavors of the many cultures that have left their indelible mark on this extraordinary nation.
Pierre moved to New York City in 1987 but the gastronomic customs of his homeland have always defined who he is as a chef. In this interview, a continuation of one I conducted with him for Zester Daily, Pierre discusses his fascinating life that includes a split-second decision to forego college to become a chef, the impact Julia Child had on his career, and some of the touchstones that define Senegalese cuisine. These include the spirit of teranga, the significance of eating from a communal bowl, the role of the baobab tree as a flavoring ingredient, and fonio; the ancient grain that some believe created the universe.
Did you always know that you wanted to be a chef?
It was impossible for me to think of being a chef because I didn’t even know that it was an option for men. If you’re a woman and you can’t cook in Senegal, it’s almost unthinkable, but men rarely participate in the household cooking. But I always had such an interest in what was happening in my mother’s kitchen. [When I arrived in New York and saw my first restaurant kitchen] I had an epiphany. The way the food was coming out, the way it was presented, reminded me of those cookbooks my mother had when I was a child such as Larousse Gastronomique. I used to obsess over them. If I only had known as a young boy that I could have worked in my adult life as a chef I would have made the decision right then as a five year old. I would spend hours just looking at the pictures. I always had the passion for food but I never thought about it as a career choice.
My first job as a cook was just in a simple, Continental restaurant but the food was really good. I thought the kitchen was amazing. I found the way the dishes were coming out was beautiful and I couldn’t believe this world existed. [New York was just a pit-stop and I was supposed to be on my way to college in Ohio but after seeing a professional restaurant kitchen for the first time] I knew right then and there that I wasn’t going to make it to Ohio.
How did your parents react to that?
That’s a very good question. For many years I didn’t tell them. I didn’t know how. First, I’m cooking, and next I’m not in college. The natural thing when you’re in Senegal is to work for a few years and then to go to college in France. I was able to convince them that I needed to go to America to go to college but there I was working in a kitchen in New York. It was impossible to tell them what I was up to.
But then I came to realize that it was all in my head. I didn’t know it but one of my cousins finally told them, but they never told me they knew. When I finally worked up the courage to tell them, their reaction was the most natural thing. My mom was very supportive because she was so into food. My father, no problem at all. My uncle came to New York once and saw me working in the kitchen. He thought that cooking was below me but he said, “You have to do what you have to do.”
Did you do any additional training besides working in restaurant kitchens?
I checked books out. Any library where I could find cookbooks I would check them out and study them. Julia Child for me was my teacher from A to Z. When I saw Julie and Julia I thought, “This is my story.” I studied every recipe of Julia Child. She was one of my instructors and my mom was the other. And that was my learning period.
Did your mom ever have an opportunity to see you working in a restaurant kitchen?
Thankfully yes. She passed away but she did visit me at my restaurant in New York. She was very proud of me. I realized in the end that my parents knew more about the food world more than I did.
How did your mother’s cooking influence you?
My mother didn’t stick to traditional cooking. She was very experimental with food. She would be inspired by things she would see in cookbooks, she would have fun with it. In a traditional household, that was not common. They would work with traditional recipes. It’s not like she was doing elaborate things but she would use different ingredients and techniques that were not the standard in Senegal. My mother’s cuisine was a blend of Vietnamese, Portuguese, Moroccan and Senegalese traditions.
Why is there a Vietnamese culinary tradition in Senegal?
There’s actually a big Vietnamese community in Senegal. Senegal and Vietnam had the same colonizer, France. When it started to be really difficult for the French in Vietnam, they installed Senegalese soldiers to keep the peace. The soldiers were installed in any colony where the French had trouble, which was the case in Vietnam. They stayed there for quite some time so when the French and Senegalese community left, many of the Vietnamese who were running away from the Khmer Rouge came to Senegal and brought their cooking traditions along with them. For me, the cuisine was so incredible, especially because I had a godfather from Vietnam who taught me about the cuisine of his country.
Is grilling a big tradition in Senegal?
Oh yes. There’s one Muslim holiday that centers around grilling called Tabaski [the feast of sacrifice]. It’s similar to Passover. It’s a celebration of Abraham when he was about to kill his son but a lamb appeared and he killed it instead. In Senegal, Tabaski is the occasion to slaughter a lamb. The Muslim households buy the lamb, everything is used from it. There are many different ways to prepare it because of course you have a whole lamb to work with, but the head is especially prized. Grilling is the most important thing in Tabaski. You start to burn the wood and get it smoldering. You add onions and other aromatics and then as the pieces of the lamb are cooked, you snack on them throughout the day whenever they are ready as the rest of the lamb grills.
The baobab tree plays an important role in Senegalese cuisine. Can you tell me about a dish that features it?
There’s a dish Christians prepare on Good Friday made out of millet and served in a sauce from the baobob tree that also includes crushed peanuts. It’s an amazing tree. When you look at the picture of the baobab, you have a better picture of Senegal. It grows everywhere and is also considered the medicinal tree in Senegal. We use the fruit and the leaves, which have a brining effect on other foods they’re combined with. You crack the skin and inside you have a white, sweet and sour tasting fruit that you can eat as is or extract the juice by just soaking it in water.
Muslims in Senegal look forward to receiving this baobab dish from their Christian neighbors on Good Friday and on Tabaski, Christians anticipate receiving lamb from Muslims in their village. This sharing and reciprocity defines who the Senegalese are as a people.
You have said that the word teranga is the spirit of hospitality and that in Senegal, embracing teranga equates to your success in life. Can you please give me an example of what teranga means?
Everyone stops to eat lunch in Senegal. You return home from work or school or whatever you’re doing to enjoy a meal with your family. Traditionally, families eat on straw mats sitting on the floor in a circle surrounding a communal bowl of food. You always leave an extra space within the circle. If someone happens to be around your house, or visiting, or even a stranger, you invite them in for the meal. Even if they are an expected guest. There’s always room for one more person in the circle. This is the spirit of teranga.
Please tell me more about the flavors of Senegalese cuisine.
The dishes themselves are sometimes very simple, but the flavors that emerge are deep and rich. For example, in the yassa ginnar dish, which is grilled chicken with a lime-onion sauce, the main ingredient is the onion but the onion is cooked very slowly, until it comes to almost a melting point. It takes a long time but the charcoal flavor and the caramelization from the onion is infused into the dish. It’s simple but when you invest the time, the flavor becomes rich and complex. The sweetness of the onions gives you comfort. It’s served over a bed of jasmine rice. You only have a few ingredients: lime, chicken, onions and rice, but the way it emerges makes it unforgettable.
We also use a lot of fermented products in our cuisine, similar to the way Asians incorporate fish sauce into their dishes. These things impart the umami flavor to our recipes. One of the most common of these is netatou which is a fermented African locust bean. It has a very strong smell to it. For one rice dish, netatou is processed using a large mortar and pestle with onions and garlic and sometimes honey. When it becomes a paste, it is shaped it onto a ball. You steam a pot of rice and once all of the water has evaporated, you open the pot and make a hole in the rice and place the netatou ball inside and cover it with the rice. Then you close the pot and continue to cook it until the flavor permeates the rice. It’s an intensely flavored dish. I bet you’ve never had rice like that. As a substitute for netatou, I’ll go to Chinatown and buy Asian fish sauce because it imparts the same salty, fermented fish flavor. I learned this trick from my Vietnamese godfather who often used it as a substitute.
Please tell me about fonio.
Fonio is the oldest grain in Africa. It’s so old that even in ancient Egypt it was buried in the tombs of the pharaohs. The grain was connected with the mystical. In Senegal, especially in the south where I’m from, it’s believed that the seeds of fonio protect you. People keep fonio seeds in their houses for protection and some even wrap up a few seeds and carry them in their pocket. There is a connection between food and the spiritual and this is illustrated in the relationship the Senegalese people have to fonio. The [indigenous] Wolof people, have a mythology that fonio is the seed that started the universe.
Fonio disappeared for many years as a result of colonization. It was our greatest grain but when the French arrived in Senegal, they came with the belief that African ingredients and African food was second rate and that was part of the colonial mission in a sense. Colonization was about creating a market for European products. This was represented in the food and in the raw materials.
When the French came they invested in ingredients and crops that they needed in Europe. For instance, the agriculture started to focus more on peanut production because this was what the French used to make peanut oil. The Senegalese farmers had more interest in growing peanuts because this would provide them with guaranteed cash. The French also began importing ingredients from their other colonies into Senegal. For example, they imported rice from Thailand, which was terrible since we have a long tradition of rice production in southern Senegal. Because of the belief that our products were inferior that was instilled during colonial times, ingredients such as fonio disappeared. It was only grown in the country and was considered poor people’s food. Thank god it’s now coming back because it’s one of the healthiest grains available. The Senegalese people are proud of fonio once again.
Fonio, an ancient grain from Africa, is the star of this vegan, gluten-free salad. The tiny grain is slightly smaller than couscous yet is packed with nutritional virtues. It's rich in methionine, cysteine and amino acids vital to human health and deficient in today's major cereals including wheat, barley, maize, rice and rye.
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- 1 cup fonio
- 1 tablespoon kosher salt dissolved in 1/4 cup water, plus an additional 1 teaspoon salt
- 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 1 cup peanut or canola oil
- Juice of 2 lemons
- 1 cucumber, peeled and diced
- 2 plum tomatoes, diced
- 1 bunch parsley, finely chopped
- 1 bunch mint, finely chopped
DirectionsFor the fonio: Wash the fonio under cold, running water until the water runs clear. Drain well. Place the fonio in a cheesecloth-lined steamer and set over a pot of simmering water. Cover with a lid and steam for 15 minutes. Remove from the heat and fluff with a fork. Drizzle with the salted water and steam once more until the fonio is tender, about five to eight minutes. Fluff with a fork once more. [Alternatively, fonio can be prepared in a bowl in the microwave: Add enough salted water to just cover the surface and microwave until tender, about six to eight minutes.] For the salad: In a small bowl, whisk together the pepper and remaining salt with the lemon juice until the salt is dissolved. Add the oil in a slow, steady stream and whisk the dressing until emulsified. In a larger bowl, toss together the fonio, cucumber, tomatoes, parsley and mint. Drizzle the dressing over the fonio and gently stir until everything is glistening. photo credit: www.ambres_bio.fr
This rice pudding recipe is brightened by the addition of mango and a spritz of lime. Elevated by the infusion of coconut, it's a welcome twist on traditional rice pudding, concluding a meal with exotic warmth.
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- 1/8 cup honey
- 2 mangoes, peeled and sliced lengthwise
- 2 cups unsweetened coconut milk
- 1/4 cup agave (or brown sugar)
- 1 vanilla bean, slit lengthwise and scraped, seeds reserved for recipe, pod reserved for another use (1 teaspoon vanilla extract can be substituted)
- 1/2 cup shredded coconut
- 1 cup cooked short grain rice
- 1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
- kosher salt, to taste