Often times when there is news from a country that does not always make the front page here, it causes me to schedule an outing to eat their food. Other times, the news just happens by coincidence. In between visits to Pikine, a Senegalese restaurant in Harlem, I noticed the over two decades serving president of Gambia was defeated in an election, with street revelling photos to go along with the story.
Pikine is a small six table establishment run by three Senegalese women. Two are visible and run the dining room and another is in the kitchen. This third woman briefly came out for a break in her apron, revealing herself as head chef. As in Senegal, I never saw a man cooking. On our first visit, a mixed couple with child and two groups of Senegalese men were dining alongside us.
My dining companion arrived before me starving and ordered a plate of fataya ($7, below), fried pastries with ground fish. Nems ($7, not pictured), another "appetizer" that has it origins from Senegalese soldiers fighting for the French in Vietnam and bringing home wives, was never available during our visits.
It does not get more classic than thiebou djeun ($12, below), the "rice and fish" dish that is Senegal's pride and joy. The version here is served with a full accoutrement, the fanciest plate you may find in Dakar. Surrounding the rice are root vegetables, spicy pastes, crispy dry rice, a wedge of lime, and a very spicy pepper. The fish is full of zest from citrus and herbs, and almost melts in your mouth from freshness. It may almost seem cliché, but thiebou djeun is a great way to begin understanding Senegalese cuisine.
Mafe is always a favorite, but on a Sunday it was unavailable so we instead ordered a bowl of sulukhu ($12, below), another peanut butter stew served with lamb, fish, and okra. The first flavor that hits is smoke, while the textures in general are silky. Scoops of the white rice and soup seem made for each other.
Also of note is the thiebou guinar ($12, below), a grilled chicken with mustard sauce served over rice with vegetables. This is thoroughly enjoyable as well, although asking for some more of the sauce might behoove you.
Also on the menu, and the "Gambian" reason for being here is domoda ($12, not pictured), the national dish of the country written about on Eating in Translation. On these two meals and another attempt in between visits, it was unfortunately never available. After the third, Yahya Jammeh, the aforementioned president of Gambia has decided to reject the election results and the country is in turmoil. Seems like the news might be current for a good amount of time.
When another customer overheard me asking about domoda, he asked if I had been to Senegal. I said I had but never had the chance to try the dish, which is eaten in both. If my fortunes ever change, I will of course update the post here.