We’re sitting in a circle on a straw mat on the ground. A piece of fabric is spread in the middle. A big round covered tray is brought from the kitchen and placed in the center of the fabric. The cover is lifted revealing a pile of vegetables and fish (or chicken) on top of spiced rice. Everyone digs in and eats from the area closest to them. Some scoop up the food with spoons, others with their hands. Every now and then, someone distributes pieces of veggies and meat to other corners so people don’t have to reach too far.
Whatever is left goes to the animals; fish bones to cats, rice and veggies to goats, crumbs on the ground get devoured by chicken, pigeons and birds. Nothing goes to waste. Not many dirty dishes to wash either. Just the main dish and the spoons that were used. 2 or 3 medium sized fish (or half a chicken) can easily feed 10-15 people.
I never would’ve imagined that would be enough for such a large number of people, but Senegal proved me wrong over and over again. We never left hungry.
Wherever you go in Senegal, you’re bound to experience the heart warming Senegalese “Teranga” (hospitality). People invite you over for lunch, Ataya (Senegalese tea ritual) or both. The most popular lunch dish is “Thieboudienne” (pronounced tiabojen. Means rice and fish). Even though rice was introduced by French colonialists, it’s now a staple in Senegalese diet. People here love spicy. A pile of Senegalese “harissa” (super hot chilli peppers in oil) is typically tucked in one corner of the dish for those who want an extra kick.
After the meal, the tray and the cloth underneath it (typically containing food debris) are removed. We lounge on the straw mat, some sit, some lie down, kids mill about, birds peck at the crumbs. Ataya is served and we enjoy a relaxed afternoon.
Ataya is Senegalese green tea leaves, with mint, cloves or other flavors, boiled with sugar for a long time, aerated and served in very small cups. It’s very sweet so it acts like dessert. The aeration process takes time and a lot of skill. It cools the tea down and renders a layer of bubbles on top which makes it pleasant to drink. After 2-5 cups, I’m usually sugared out.
I couldn’t help but compare this simple, efficient, environmentally friendly food sharing tradition to the more wasteful ways of the Middle East or the West, where there’s typically more food than can be possibly consumed in one sitting. People overstuff themselves. Hands touching food is taboo. Leftovers go in the garbage…etc. It’s definitely nice to have choices, but I’m not sure going overboard with the amount of options or the irrational germophobia is the right answer.
The best part of Senegal’s shared meal is the social aspect! We’re all eating from the same plate, inevitably touching each other, touching food, handing food to each other… there’s something natural and primal about it that’s very satisfying. No separation between each other, food, Earth and sometimes, animals. We’re all one organism.
Maybe when we eat for pure nourishment, without the need to fill any emotional or psychological lack, we are satisfied with less?
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