Tag Archives: immigrant cooking

My Hyphenated Culinary Culture

Another place where we carry our original culture is through the foods we eat and how we cook them. I love cooking and spend a considerable amount of time in the kitchen. The majority of dishes I make are Senegalese. But Senegalese food in itself is very hybrid since like with their fashion culture, the Senegalese borrow from around the globe when it comes to food. Growing up, I thought nems (Vietnamese eggrolls) were native to Senegal because they are so ingrained in the culinary culture. Senegalese food is also heavily influenced by French and other West African food cultures. So when I say “Senegalese food,” I mean the blend of recipes that I used to eat in Senegal. But despite the fact that many dishes come from other places, one aspect of Senegalese cooking remains. No matter where the original recipe came from, Senegalese women would make it spicy and savory by marinating, stuffing and simmering everything. Looking at Senegalese women prepare food is a delight and one is tempted to say that they passionately make love to the food (It is a voyeuristic practice I indulge in when I go to Senegal.). Because of the process it takes in order to make the food savory, most Senegalese dishes take a long time to prepare. For example, it can take up to three hours to make our national thiebou djen (rice and fish).


As immigrants, we cling to our food culture like we do our languages and sometimes we feel that when we tweak or cook a recipe differently than it would have been done in Senegal, we are not getting the real deal. During my first couple of years in the US, I cooked Senegalese food only with ingredients from Senegal. Although I could find most condiments in the US such as peanut butter, dried fish, smoked catfish, or palm oil. I would delay cooking a specific dish until I made the trip to Little Senegal in Harlem and splurged from the overpriced shops where fellow country men and women abused our nostalgic palates. Coming back from summer trips to Senegal, my suitcases stunk of dried or smoked fish and other ingredients wrapped in mint leaves that did nothing to mask the smell. Once, a greyhound bus driver refused to let me on at the New York City port authority because my overstuffed suitcase smelled so bad that he feared I was carrying a dead body (This is a true story but of course it was before 9/11 or I would have been taken to the police station for questioning.)!


The longer I stay in the US, the less inclined I am to stick to an original Senegalese recipe or cooking process. I have become more realistic in the way I cook, taking into consideration health, time and space. I have eliminated some steps of the food preparation and although one might say that it has changed the outcome, I cannot see the difference in most cases. Often Senegalese food has a lot of salt and oil, though my mother says that with the increase in food prices, the amount of oil used by Senegalese women has drastically reduced. My reduction of oil and salt in the dishes that I make is health related.  It is hard to live in America and not freak out about too much oil, salt, saturated or trans fats and other bad things found in the majority of our foods. Rossi, the practice of heating oil to its highest capacity before adding tomato paste or onions to brown, is a staple of Senegalese cooking.  But besides the trans fat it triggers, rossi also has a negative aspect related to space. In Senegal,  kitchens many kitchen are located in the yard or far enough from rooms that smell does not get spread throughout the house. Also, with the routine of burning incense daily, food smell is less likely to stick around. To the contrary, American homes are closed and kitchens are in a central part of the house. I find that when I cook, the whole house smells for days. I cannot tell you how many times I reached out for a coat in the hallway closet and smelled a blend of all the foods I prepared over the weeks.  Also, because of the amount of smoke that emerges from rossi, one runs the risk of setting the smoke detectors off like I once did cooking thiebu jen at my uncle’s apartment in Boston, causing the fire fighters to come over (another true story). So I have done away with rossi altogether. Not just because I do not want to disable the smoke detectors every time I cook, but I have also found rossi unnecessary even though I am still fascinated by how dramatically Senegalese women perform it during their cooking by masterfully swinging the ingredients into the burning oil and braving the resulting smoke with such elegance. 

In the same manner I tweak the Senegalese dishes, I also alter American recipes which are too bland for my taste. But I like to make American dishes because they are less time consuming and simpler in process. Like Senegalese food, American cuisine is also a mélange of global culinary cultures. However, unlike the Senegalese, I find that Americans seldom take risks in their cooking. Recipes are religiously followed with the exact measurements and often spices are minimal. When I make burgers, I marinate the ground beef and add herbs, orange zest, and what have you to make it as spicy and savory as possible. When I grill, I marinate the meat days ahead instead of following the American practice of rubbing it with barbecue sauce just before the grilling. American food is also very dependent on processed foods even if recipes such as pasta sauce could be made easily at home with fresh ingredients. Despite the fact that I want to accelerate the food making process, I still abide by the traditional Senegalese practice of cooking with fresh ingredients. That is one thing that I am not willing to change.

I would love to hear about your culinary practices.

Happy New Year!