We just got back from Dakar, where we made an authentic Senegalese gumbo with smoked seafood and several other dishes with my host, Pierre Thiam, the well-known New York chef and cookbook author who grew up in Dakar. He is the author of “Senegal” and “Yolele!”

In the late afternoon, we headed down to the beach, where dozens of fishing boats (brightly painted wooden longboats) were hauled up onto blocks. It was sunny and warm, and at least a thousand people crowded around. Women wore the colorful gele, or headdresses—royal and pastel blues, stripes of orange and yellow, finely printed brown and white checks, blacks and greens, maroons and purples, and, most of all, bright yellow, and the boubou, the long robes worn by both men and women (a rough translation from the local wolof dialect “mbubb”).

We visited the Tilene Market, a giant indoor space with vendors selling everything from fish (we saw a six-foot barracuda) to meat to spices to produce. An amazing experience. Almost everyone in Senegal cooks with Maggi seasoning cubes–there are lots of different varieties sold at the market. They drop one or two cubes into a soup or stew to add flavor.

Dakar is known for its cars rapides, the brightly painted mini buses that are used for public transportation. They are going to be phased out in the next year, so book a flight soon.

The first day, I cooked with Amsi, who made the gumbo. The next day we went to the house of a friend of Pierre’s and cooked stews, salads and rice dishes. We learned to use the large wooden mortar and pestle (gravity does most of the work, not the cook) and fell in love with the Scotch bonnet peppers that are common in Senegal. One of the cooks we met, Alice, makes her own salsa of Scotch bonnets.

Amsi with Pierre and her son Saleem. Amsi cooked a wonderful Senegalese gumbo using lots of smoked seafood.
Pierre using a typical Senegalese mortar and pestle.

Alice, a wonderful local cook, showing off her homemade Scotch bonnet pepper salsa.

Common nonalcoholic drinks are guava juice, bouye (a thick, caramel-colored juice from the baobab fruit) and bissap, made from the hibiscus flowers sold in the markets. It tastes like an exotic grape juice.

The most interesting meal was at an indoor barbecue joint. Braziers built into tables were used to grill thin skewers of chicken, livers or beef. Packets of onions were also cooked on the fire. One could order any combination of skewers, and the cook would throw them on the fire. The meat was served in a sliced-open baguette with mustard, spices and hot sauce, or it was piled onto a sheet of old-style computer paper with ground ginger, spices, mustard, hot sauce and cooked onions. You dipped the meat into the various piles, and then ate it off the skewer.

The spices including powdered chiles and ginger, mustard, hot sauce and cooked onions are served on a sheet of old-style computer paper. You tough the skewered meat to each of these condiments before eating.
You can have the meat served in a baguette or you eat it right off the skewer.

One small detail. Half-mannequins are popular in Dakar, slicing off the torso above the waist. These are used to display pants, the top half of the body not required. This made for an odd roadside vista—half bodies stretching along the road in brightly-colored pants!

The central portion of the Tilene market is devoted to fish.
A good view of the central aisle of Tilene. Colorful, packed, noisy and thrilling.
Many streets are full of small shops and street vendors are everywhere selling everything from peeled oranges and hot roasted peanuts to windshield wipers.
A side of beef hung up for butchering.
Red palm oil is a key ingredient in many Senegalese recipes including gumbo.
These fishing boats are similar to the boats in Jamaica which are also brightly painted. They are long wooden canoes that are day boats although some fisherman will actually make the trip up to Spain to carry immigrants. In the afternoon, you will find dozens of these boats hauled up onto the beach.
For lunch, we stopped by a small indoor barbecue place. The braziers were tables - you select the skewers you like (beef, liver, chicken, etc) and the cook puts them on the fire.
The brightly painted car rapides have been around for half a century and are central to the look and feel of Dakar. They are being phased out soon.
A dump right next to the outdoor fish market which has a sign, in French, which says "No Dumping."