One of the most important ingredients prior to cooking any great feast for me is peace of mind. Clean spaces. Good light. There is a sense of promise and intention that permeates this space and generates my creativity. At the start of the day my mind slowly starts to assemble flavor combinations, delegating each task with its duration of time, and visualizing the dinner table. It was such a day when my good friend and I decided to invite many of the good people we know for an African Winter Feast.
We wanted to bring the west African kitchen and its warm and earthy flavors to Stockholm. Both my friend and I had tried a plethora of west African dishes and felt that it was going to be an exciting challenge to try to mimic these savory, flavorful, and powerful dishes. For the evening we decided to cook dishes from Ghana, Morocco, and Senegal. And trust me…there were a few moments where the sense of serene potential and meditative contemplation were replaced with ones of panic and “what the hell am I supposed to do with this palm oil?” and “Are you sure that we are supposed to use the dried/smoked cat fish for this dish?” and my personal favorite “Is it supposed to look like this?” and the panic went on.
Making Thierre was, however, pretty straight forward. Its a time consuming dish and the mise en place is super important (always is) in order for the steps to pass with fluidity. This is a dish that is not meant to be eaten alone, I have found that African dishes seldom are. Dishes stemming from the continent of Africa are meant to feed many mouths and are a social glue. My kind of dishes. Thierre, similar to other Senegalese dishes, is somewhat of a all in one plate. You have your grains, proteins, and vegetables. After having cooked this dish several times, I find that the essential ingredient and whose flavor must be en point, is none other than the tomato sauce. The tomato sauce of this dish is like the living room in which all the other ingredients hang out in and get their flavor. The protein and the vegetables are served on a bed of Millet that, once cooked, is mixed with gradual ladles of this glorious tomato sauce until all the millet grains have absorbed all the flavors whilst maintaing their grainy texture. You also deck the millet with raisins (that are also soaked in the tomato sauce) white beans, and kidney beans. Its a decadent dish. Where every spoonful is packed with flavor. While you can, of course, prepare this dish on your own it is by far more fun to make it with good friends. My favorite part in making such dishes is of course, eating them! Something I think about quite often is the idea of table manners and how different cultures have different ways of expressing respect and gratitude to both the company around and the food on the table. Whether it is to burp if you feel the food tastes good, to slurp your noodles, to have a different fork for each course, or using chopsticks.
Similarily to Arabs, Indians, and many other members of various different cultures, some countries in African will eat their food using their hands. You see, I have endless and immense respect for eating food with your hands. For me, it is more intimate and closer to the food you eat. There is no seperation from you and what you just cooked- it makes the intimate experience of eating…well…more intimate. Furthermore, you actually have better control over how you eat the food and the access you have to properly consuming it. I like to think of myself as a child again, enjoying my food uninhibetedly. Feeling the textures of the food I am eating both through my fingertips and in my mouth. Lastly, my most favorite part of eating a traditional African dish is that everyone eats from the same plate. It is an invitation for everyone to partake of a communal occasion. The plate at the center of the table urges everyone to physically come closer to one and other and for a split second creating a sense of unity. Furthermore, no one pays attention to how much or how little the other has on their plate- its the food on that one plate that is there to feed us allthe focus is shifted on something else. Believe it or not, I have never seen food go to waste or anyone leave the dinner table hungry each time I have chosen to eat food this way. It is definitely one of my favorite ways to eat food. How about you, what dish are you cooking tonight and how are you choosing to eat it?