The 5 Pantry Essentials in My Senegalese Kitchen
“Release whatever romantic idea you have in your mind about what it means to live here and cook authentic cuisine.”
Welcome to Monifa Dayo’s pantry! In each installment of this series, a recipe developer will share with us the pantry items essential to their cooking. This month, we're exploring five staples in Monifa’s Senegalese kitchen.
When it comes to Senegalese cooking, the techniques are pretty straightforward. Release whatever romantic idea you have in your mind about what it means to live here and cook authentic cuisine. For example, sauce piment (sometimes known as purée de piment), a staple hot sauce, may sound complex, yet literally calls for all of the ingredients to be ground up and fried with seasonings added—that’s it. Yet what is rendered in the balance is one of the most pungent and tasty hot sauces. Another example: A morning staple, the beignet (different from the ones you’d find in New Orleans), calls for mixing together a quick batter, letting it rest, then frying it in small morsels. This simple recipe rivals any fried dough found in top-notch restaurants, in my opinion. Yassa is another example of simple yet classic Senegalese fare: Find every allium you can get your hands on, chop, fry, season appropriately, and simmer. Traditionally, you’ll see yassa with marinated-then-fried fish or chicken served over piping-hot broken rice. Young Senegalese cooks in training start with this dish before learning the more technique-driven dishes.
Each morning at my home in Somone, Senegal, the scenario is as follows: clear skies, sun bursting through the window, welcoming yet another gorgeous day of existence. I live on what I call a “poor woman’s beachfront,” as my home is technically across the street from the beach. (The properties that sit directly on the beach are exorbitantly expensive, yet when you cross the street the prices decrease significantly.) The gardener is watering succulents, mango trees, and my tiny fruit garden of watermelon and bell pepper. The one-eyed feral cat creeps onto the property from the rear, looking for food and an opportunity to terrorize me. We have a stare down; I wonder if today is the day I finally run this creature off my property. As I look at the cat, I ponder, Am I posing as the dominant colonizer, arriving at a land I claimed for myself following a monetary exchange, seeking to banish anything unwanted while I carry out my personal vision? Maybe colonizer is too strong of a word. After all, I am committed to understanding the nature of this community, as opposed to complete denial of their existence. The feral cats, babies and all, roam the streets and chill at the market. They yearn for food. I try to get over my disdain, but I just don’t like cats, and they’re everywhere. I’m constantly reckoning with my privilege here, and my acceptance of the culture of Senegal—but the cats, they have to go. For now, the feline acquiesces; I head toward the kitchen.
Each morning, I drink some water, have a cup of coffee, and check my refrigerator. Upon an informal inventory, I assess which ingredients I need for the day. Sometimes, I need ingredients I wouldn't necessarily call "staples," since I don't always buy them, like okra, lamb, or peanut flour; always on the list, however, are the ingredients for nokoss, a spicy paste made of alliums, peppers, and tomato paste that becomes the base of myriad dishes (more on that soon). I may not even need any of the items, but their presence on the list keeps their importance top of mind. Furthermore, I never want to get caught without, as I like to call them, the supreme five: palm oil, tomato paste, Liquid Aminos, habaneros (green and orange), and black peppercorns. This presents a relatively seamless task, as all of the markets in Senegal, and even most neighborhood boutiques—in the U.S., we’d call them corner stores—carry these items (with the exception of one, which I’ll explain!) year-round.
I take the short half-mile walk to the market every morning instead of buying groceries in bulk. My “stroll” there is in fact anything but as I navigate what is common terrain for a Sénégalais. I’ve already mentioned the daily staring contest with feral felines. That first left turn outside, I’m often met with a flock of larger-than-life horned cows sifting through the garbage in search of breakfast. I chat with a bashful nomad named Muhammad, dressed in traditional Muslim garb with a North African–style headdress. I pass women who have just left the market, carrying a bounty of produce atop their heads in beautiful woven baskets.
I finally make it to the market. I love the market. It can be a scary place if you don’t know the rules—or if you come off as insecure. Densely populated, it smells of fermented fish, onions, and butchered beef. Freshly caught fish is sold here, too—I pass by the section of women whose sole job is to clean, gut, and scale fish for a fee of 150 CFA (25 cents in the U.S.). There’s a chaotic order to it all: I find myself living for this thrill.
I make my way to each stall. The green onion lady and the habanero guy have what feels like mountains of each item. The yellow onion ladies offer onions whole or chopped, if you prefer. Everything here seems to be a miniature version of what is typically found in the U.S. A green pepper can fit snugly in the palm of my hand; a yellow onion can be the size of a lime. Once I have procured all the items on my list, I take one last look around and try to prevent myself from turning back to buy a few of the super-affordable eggplants or delicate heritage beans that practically call out my name when I pass by. I have to walk away, head back home, and know that I will live to see another market day in the very near future—tomorrow.
1. Palm oil (Huile de Palme)
My late stepmother Mama Kaddy used palm oil generously in her cooking. This deeply red-hued oil was a staple in her kitchen as a child, and remained so throughout her adult life (though it wasn’t my father’s favorite!). Most commonly referred to as huile de palme in Senegal, this robust oil is super-saturated in fat, similar to butter or lard, and can be used as a substitute for animal fats. In my opinion, it lends much more flavor than other tropical oils, such as coconut oil or its fraternal sister palm kernel oil.
Huile de palme provides a silky texture, with deeply nutty and earthy flavor notes. I use it liberally as an ingredient for plasas (a dish of greens like cassava leaf and peanut flour) and as a garnish for c’est bon (also known as thiebou djiola, a dish of grilled whole fish, bissap purée, and caramelized onions). Albeit a controversial ingredient (due to its link to deforestation), huile de palme is a quintessential West African flavor. Use it as a secret ingredient when steaming rice by adding a few tablespoons in before cooking. Guests will marvel over the color and aroma of your grains.
2. Tomato paste (Pâte de Tomate)
Of the five basic tastes (the others being sweet, sour, salty, and bitter), umami triggers a reaction within your palette that makes your mouth water. Tomato is a great source of umami, therefore the concentrated version of the fruit in the form of pâte de tomate makes your taste buds fanatically excited. Found at every market in Senegal, whenever I want a soup or stew to have a deeper, more complex flavor, I add pâte de tomate—or any other tomato product, like crushed or whole tomatoes.
The most common Senegalese dish featuring pâte de tomate is called thiou: imagine a velvety tomato sauce built upon fresh alliums and crispy fried fish, stewed and adorned with poached vegetables, served over the fluffiest steamed broken rice. Here in Senegal, you’ll also see all kinds of beautiful art created out of the thousands of cans of pâte de tomate used here.
3. Black peppercorns (Poivre Noir)
There are no Senegalese meals without freshly pounded black peppercorn, hard stop. Crucial to the authenticity of the meal, this underrated spice is the backbone of the culinary process in Senegal. Here, you won’t see it in a shaker on the table at your favorite restaurant. Black peppercorn is bought whole and pounded using a standing mortar and pestle, called a guna, every time it’s used.
I was blessed with a stage, a chef’s tryout, in a kitchen in Dakar some years back when I was doing research for a book. The chef refused my assistance in the kitchen until I cooked a traditional Senegalese meal for her. It was only after she tried my mafé, a nutty, aromatic stew, that she allowed me to pound peppercorns in the kitchen. That’s how seriously some Senegalese people take their poivre noir.
Black pepper doesn’t pack a lot of heat, but when used properly, such as fried with the garlic and onions for a sauce, you open up its warm and woody essence. Yassa, the dish composed of marinated poultry or fish with caramelized alliums, heavily relies on poivre noir. Without this modest ingredient, Senegalese dishes simply won’t have the same appeal and splendor.
4. Bragg Liquid Aminos
There is no French equivalent to Bragg Liquid Aminos, a seasoning sauce similar to soy sauce, yet it’s a staple in my pantry nonetheless. The closest Senegalese comparable is the Maggi brand bouillon cube. While you would be pretty hard-pressed to convince a Senegalese woman to break up with Maggi, I prefer the flavor and nutritional properties of Liquid Aminos. (And that’s what makes this collection my pantry!) Just like pâte de tomate, Liquid Aminos pack an enormous amount of umami into dishes. However, it is impossible to source here, so I’m typically that person smuggling it into luggage, having to choose between hair products and my liquid (amino) gold!
5. Habanero Peppers (Piments Habanero)
I saved this ingredient for last, but it is definitely not least. Of all of the ingredients listed above, habanero is of the utmost importance. Simply put, Senegalese food just doesn’t taste right without its floral, sweet heat. There is no modifying a dish's spice level for children or people who don’t like the pepper. At its peak maturity, this orange and at times red pepper isn’t just about heat; it's about the unique flavor it lends to hot sauces, warm beverages, and savory repasts alike.
I add a whole pepper to pots of beans, then crush the cooked pepper into the legumes once they are cooked. When making mulled cider or a hot toddy when I’m under the weather, I add a whole habanero—the pepper’s strength will burn through any cold or flu. Senegalese culture is spicy and full of character, which is reflected in the beautiful cuisine through habanero.
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