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The Most Essential Tool for a Proper Senegalese Meal

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If Senegal could be captured in one word, it would be teranga, which in Wolof means “hospitality” or “welcoming generosity.” In a culture that emphasizes the community over the individual, the word teranga embodies how highly the Senegalese value the act of giving. Here, wealth is measured not by how much you have but by how much you give.

Pierre Thiam's just-released book, Senegal.
Pierre Thiam's just-released book, Senegal. Photo by Lake Isle Press

In Senegal, come lunchtime, everyone rushes home. It’s a moment we cherish and spend with friends and family. If you arrive at a Senegalese home at mealtime, whether you are expected or not, you will be invited to come share the meal. We believe that when food is shared, our bowl will remain plentiful. Nothing symbolizes teranga better than eating around the bowl because there is always room for unexpected guests; there is no need for extra chairs, plates, or other utensils.

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Before eating, we are invited to wash our hands. There are different ways to do it. The simple way is to use a basin of water or a spout with running water. The more formal way is to use a satala to pour water over a guest’s hands with a calabash placed underneath to collect the washing water. (The satala is a kettle also used for a cleansing ritual before Muslim prayer.)

Washing hands before eating is an essential part of the meal.
Washing hands before eating is an essential part of the meal. Photo by Evan Sung

After the hand-washing ritual, everyone gathers around the bowl, which is centered on a straw mat. In a jovial atmosphere, family and friends squat or sit on low wooden benches in a convivial circle. Some use a spoon, but others, like myself, prefer eating with the hand. There is a personal connection and the food tastes so much better this way! The trick is to grab the food with your hand and mold it to the size of a small ball before eating. However tempting it may be, refrain from licking your fingers until after the meal when everyone is finished, or it would be seen as rude.

Also remember to always eat with the right hand, even if you are a leftie. Just like everywhere in Africa (and India and the Middle East), the right hand is seen as the noble one with which you greet people. Eating around the bowl with your hand is considered a sign of love and trust toward those sharing the food with you, so you should use that noble right hand in respect.

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While eating, you must imagine a triangle in front of you as your “territory”—do not cherry-pick around. The meat, fish, or vegetables are usually placed in the middle of the bowl and it is bad manners to directly reach for them when eating. As a rule of thumb, it’s the role of the people (typically women) who cook the food to equally distribute those foods to everyone around the bowl.

The person who cooked the food typically distributes the meat and vegetables grouped in the middle of the bowl.
The person who cooked the food typically distributes the meat and vegetables grouped in the middle of the bowl. Photo by Evan Sung

If you are the honored guest, you might also find that your dinner companions will stop eating before you to ensure that you’ll have enough. When you’re finished eating, tidy up your eating area and leave the bowl to make room for anyone else who wants to eat.

Mealtime is often extended with attaya, the tea ritual. Three cups of green tea with mint are prepared and served in a sequence from strong to sweet. This is the time when the conversations flow, bonds are strengthened, and daily stress is relieved.

Eating around the bowl is also an opportunity to teach certain values to children. As they’re taught only to eat from the part of the bowl in front of them, children learn the idea of being content with what they have. Other expressions of bowl etiquette, such as finishing what’s in your mouth before grabbing for more and not rushing at the food, instill a sense of patience and moderation.

Photo by Evan Sung

Rules of the Bowl for Kids

  1. Only eat the food in front of your spot; don’t reach across or pick around the bowl.
  2. Finish eating what’s in your mouth first before putting your hand back in the bowl for more.
  3. Don’t rush at the food.
  4. Wait for Maman (your mother) to distribute the meat or vegetables (usually placed in the center of the bowl) before grabbing for it.
  5. Be silent and learn to master your tongue.
  6. Keep your eyes lowered to learn self-control.
  7. Hold the side of the bowl with your left hand, a sign of politeness and humility (and also a way to ensure that you will only use your right hand to eat).

What's a tool essential to the way you cook and eat? What wouldn't mealtime be the same without? Tell us in the comments.

Tags: senegal, pierre thiam, communal bowl