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Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Teranga and The Communal Dish

"Sharing food with another human being is an intimate act that should not be indulged in lightly" . . .  M.F.K. Fisher
I realize this is starting to resemble a food blog, something that will not be lost on those who know me well. I am certainly a foodie and a passionate cook. However, this entry is more a glimpse into the Senegalese culture than a study of their kitchens, although the two are closely intertwined. "Teranga" in Wolof means "hospitality, brotherhood and the art of sharing" and the Senegalese are famous for it. They welcome foreigners and kin alike into their country, their homes and their hearts.  Homelessness does not exist in Senegal (except in rare cases of mental illness or drug abuse) due to the two principles they prize most: family and generosity. There will always be someone willing to help someone else, bring them into their home, feed and care for them. Although food is sometimes scarce and poverty continues to varying degrees, few go unfed. The concept of a small nuclear family is unheard of, the average household feeding as many as 15-30 people, including parents, children, grandparents, cousins, brothers, sisters, aunts and uncles. When a meal is prepared, there must always be enough to feed the unexpected friend, religious leader, village elder or  passerby who happens to wander in for the meal.  The solution is the communal dish, prepared with a "stretch" base of rice or cous cous and served with vegetables, spices and usually fish, chicken or beef. Since I arrived, I have been fortunate enough to sample the communal dish in the homes of several new found friends, but it wasn't until Richard and I hosted lunch at our house that I truly understood how spiritual this meal was. Several weeks ago, we decided to invite the Earth House team, their children and a few friends for a Sunday of rest and repast at the beach. I immediately thought of potato salad, chips and salsa, burgers 'n dogs on the grill--you know, a good ole' fashioned BBQ. As I was making my shopping list, Richard looked over my shoulder and let out a little yelp. "These people wouldn't know what to do with a hot dog," he said. "Besides, most of them are Muslim, they don't eat pork." Oh well, so much for showing them a slice of Americana! I felt deflated until he explained to me that it would be much more a statement of appreciation if we provided them with something familiar-- a communal dish served with a side of Teranga. OK, I was on board. Just one small problem. I didn't know how to make it! Our friend Zorro's wife, Ami (pictured above), came to the rescue. She agreed to "let me watch" the lengthy preparation of a typical dish called "Tieboudienne" made with fish, root vegetables and lots of garlic served over copious amounts of spiced rice. As I helped Ami peel carrots and Manioc, I asked her why the communal dish was so important. She explained her ingrained belief that food is meant to be shared, that a meal feeds both the body and the spirit and that eating in numbers only increased the benefits. The more people who ate from the dish, the more grace bestowed upon it's partakers. How cool is that? When Emeril asks his Food Network audience, "Can you feel the love?", he is barely scratching the surface of this concept.
Ami spent the entire morning peeling, sauteing, boiling, simmering and watching over her enormous pot with all the love and attention of a gardener tending to seedlings. The result was a meal I will never forget. It was served in large, shallow bowls flanked by eager eaters hunkered down on their haunches. This meal is usually eaten with the fingers, but after several sad attempts and a few snickers from my neighbors, someone handed me a large spoon and I dug in with fervor. But what struck me more than the intense flavors was the camaraderie and joy that bubbled up to the surface. We all felt it--all 25 of us. As predicted, there were lots of leftovers which we promptly delivered to a nearby dwelling less fortunate than ours. Giving back a little Teranga sure felt good.

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