In Senegal, a Return to Homegrown Rice
In Senegal, a Return to Homegrown Rice
The country has remained mostly dependent on the grain’s importation since colonization in the 1800s. But some locals are trying to change that.
At Phare Des Mamelles, a restaurant in a lighthouse in Dakar, Senegal, grilled thiof (a white grouper fish) is served with cups of tamarind sauce (left), sauce moyo (right), roasted vegetables, limes and riz de la vallee (“rice of the valley”), which is grown in one of the country’s primary areas of cultivation, the Senegal River Valley. Beside the dish are some of its raw ingredients, including (clockwise from bottom) tamarind fruits, tomatoes, a bowl of dried peppers, fresh pepper fruits, onions, miniature eggplants, miniature green bell peppers, baby carrots and potatoes.Credit…Manuel Obadia-Wills
By Angela Flournoy
Photographs by Manuel Obadia-Wills
- Nov. 11, 2021, 5:00 a.m. ET
NEAR MIDNIGHT, AT the top of a lighthouse in Dakar, the westernmost point of the African continent, I sat before a grilled whole fish as long as my forearm and accompanied by a dome of rice. Thiof, a white grouper, is such common Senegalese restaurant fare that the Wolof word itself is slang — a handsome man is also a thiof, a “good catch.” I’d eaten beachside thiof south of Dakar in the vacation area of Saly, and cliffside thiof at breezy restaurants in Les Almadies, the Dakar neighborhood known for its nightlife. This thiof, though rubbed with spices like the others — I tasted ginger, garlic, cardamom, maybe turmeric — was served with a tiny cup of warm tamarind glaze. If there were vegetables on the plate, I have banished them from my memory; only the sauce, fish and rice were in conversation. The skin of the thiof was crisp and juicy, the sauce tangy and rich. The rice was not as long as basmati, nor as short as sticky rice, but a size in between, round through the middle with little adhesion and a firm but pliant texture. If food encapsulates pleasure, innovation and community all at once, then tasting the Platonic ideal of a simple dish can bring a place and its people into focus, even if you encounter that ideal in an unlikely setting — a lighthouse restaurant known for its brunch.
I asked to see the menu again, to verify that I had indeed ordered the same dish I’d eaten at so many restaurants in town. It was late June, and being this close to the ocean at such a late hour meant that the steady heat of the day had faded to a light chill. Nearby, along the coast, was Africa’s tallest statue, the African Renaissance Monument, hulking in the semidark: A cartoonishly muscular man gripped his woman by the waist with one arm and held his child with the other, all three of their colossal copper bodies leaning out over the water. My dinner date, a Senegalese nonprofit executive in town from Paris to co-host a fashion show, read the menu alongside me. “Ooh, riz de la vallee,” she said. “Interesting to see that mentioned.” “Rice of the valley” is a phrase used to refer to rice grown in the Senegal River Valley, one of the country’s main areas of cultivation. It was my first and only time seeing the phrase on a menu, but by then — my final evening in Senegal, which is among the largest consumers of rice in West Africa — I had come to understand that rice, for the Senegalese, is often the subject of interest, and sometimes the subject of debate.
A trip around the world through the lens of a vital grain.
– Tracing Mexico’s history through its ambivalent relationship to rice, a staple inextricable from colonialism.
– When scorched on the bottom of the pot by a skilled cook, rice transforms from bland supporting actor to rich, complex protagonist.
– Mansaf, a Bedouin dish of lamb and rice, is both a national symbol in Jordan and a talisman of home for suburban Detroit’s Arab American diaspora.
– Senegal, which consumes more rice per capita, most of it imported, than almost any other African nation, is attempting to resuscitate homegrown varieties.
Less than half the amount of the rice consumed in Senegal — estimated at 2 million metric tons in 2019 — is grown domestically. I am Southern Californian. I know something about living with the knowledge that a resource you hold dear is consumed at a higher rate than it is readily available, about depending on another place to supplement that demand. If we’re honest with ourselves, many of us are familiar with this problem, whether it concerns water (as in my case), fresh produce, fuel or some other necessity. Precarity is the subtext of our days. For Senegal, a country that gained independence from the French in 1960, its history of rice consumption and dependency on its importation is a centuries-old colonialist saga.
In pre-colonial days, the grain was consumed mainly in the country’s southern Casamance region, where local rice still holds sacred and ceremonial value. Its spiritual connection among the Diola of Casamance — its cultivation figures into their cosmology — and several other West African ethnic groups helps explain the accounts I’ve heard of enslaved women carrying seeds of rice in their braided hair all the way to the Americas. They were smuggling nourishment of an existential kind. In the north during this same period, millet, sorghum and barley reigned day to day, but rice was more labor-intensive to cultivate and therefore seen as a luxury.
Enter the colonizers. The French, in the mid-1800s, seeking to increase profits from their various colonial outposts, shifted the focus from a diverse agricultural output to one focused on cash crops. By the end of the colonial era, Senegal had become one of the biggest peanut exporters in the world and had begun importing the bulk of its rice from Indochina — current-day Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos — another French colony. As the population of Senegal grew and became more urbanized, so did its preference for rice, which was convenient for the office dweller to transport, reheat or eat cold, and was considered more cosmopolitan than the traditional grains, which were associated with rural living. Today, India, Thailand and Brazil are the country’s largest rice suppliers. Thus, the rice that accompanied the thiof I had enjoyed at the lighthouse was a rarity — from the Senegal River Valley, as opposed to imported from elsewhere. (The valley produces about 60 percent of the rice cultivated in the country, with the remaining 40 percent grown in the southern regions, where transportation costs are higher and the grain is mainly farmed as a subsistence crop.)
I’D BEEN INTERESTED in visiting Senegal since college, when I first read the poetry of Leopold Sedar Senghor, who had also served as Senegal’s first president (from 1960 to 1980) and was a progenitor of the Negritude movement, one of Pan-Africanism’s ideological forebears, in the 1930s. In more recent years, I’d observed a resurgence of Pan-Africanist feeling on my social feeds — an uptick in celebrations of traditional West African spirituality, healing and adornment practices, for instance — among Black Americans, and wondered if the same was true for the Senegalese. “Pan-Africanism is everywhere in the school of political governance when you talk about the autonomy of economy and money,” Malick Ndiaye, the curator of the Theodore Monod Museum of African Art in Dakar, explained when I visited the museum, which houses over 9,000 pieces of ancient art primarily from West and Central Africa. Self-reliance is one part of the Pan-Africanist, decolonial mission, so it follows that building a more self-sufficient relationship to the continent’s most popular grain would be in keeping with that ambition.
On one of my first days in the country, we left Dakar at five in the morning to drive four and a half hours north to a tiny village in the arrondissement of Ndiaye, 45 minutes beyond the city of Saint-Louis in the Senegal River Valley. The sky was dark and the world quiet as we drove past unpainted cinder-block homes and squeezed through narrow streets of low-slung structures that opened up onto large neighborhood mosques. With sunrise, vendors spread their wares by the side of the road and drowsy teenage merchants opened boulangerie doors. All around, in the road and swirling in the air: red dirt, like midsummer Georgia clay.
Once in the valley, rice farms began to appear. Every few miles, a flat, green velvet square, and occasionally a lone person or pair tending to it. These were not rain-fed paddies, with water pooling at their edges in abundance, nor stepped rice fields like the kinds I’d seen on Bali, nor the marshes that were cultivated by enslaved Africans and made plantation owners rich in the coastal Carolinas. Senegal River Valley rice fields are irrigated with precision, I surmised, as the land around them seemed nearly as dry as any I’d seen up to this point of the trip.
We were on our way to the Sahel Center, an outpost of AfricaRice, the Pan-African research organization that began operations in 1971 to help meet the rising consumption of rice in West Africa, with an emphasis on increasing self-sufficiency. It now has 28 member countries across the continent, including Madagascar, who participate in research exchanges and whose farmers are trained by AfricaRice’s experts. Baboucarr Manneh, an irrigated-rice breeder and the regional representative of the center, oversees activities in seven countries in the Sahel region: Guinea-Bissau, Gambia, Senegal, Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger. Born in Gambia, he grew up eating both local and imported rice, and remembers a Mandingo song that warned children against eating imported iterations of the grain, lest they encounter weevils. My visit was right before the planting season, which usually starts in May or June, leading to harvests in October or November. Manneh’s technicians were busy packing up seeds of new rice varieties to send to member countries, particularly Mali, where the wet season would soon be underway.
In the cooler confines of his office, Manneh explained to me how rice gets to our plates: Rice is a grass, and the part that we consume grows at the end of the blade, or stalk. As it matures, the stalks begin to droop and turn from green to yellow. The stalks are then cut and sent through a thresher to separate the grain from what is now essentially hay. The grains are dried out, then removed from their hulls. In the old days in Senegal, this was done by hand with a mortar and pestle, but now it is more commonly done with a machine. At this point, the rice is edible but still bears its bran, the outer coating that is the distinction between brown and white rice. A milling machine then removes the bran, and a polishing machine smooths the now-white rice.
There are two different types of domesticated rice species in the world, Manneh told me: Oryza sativa, or Asian rice, and Oryza glaberimma, African rice. Oryza sativa is by far the more popular, and more famous, of the two; variations of it — from long-grain basmati to short-grain arborio — have been shipped, cultivated, diversified and cooked around the world for centuries. Asian rice was introduced to the African continent by the Portuguese in the 16th century, but African rice had been cultivated long before: likely 3,000 years ago in the Inner Niger Delta area of northern Mali. It never went extinct, but by the early 1900s, farmers were more likely to opt for higher-yield Asian varieties. Manneh attributes the popularity of Asian rice over African rice, from a cultivator perspective, to the centuries of money, experimentation and attention invested into its development. “It’s like sports,” he said. “You put a lot of money into sports, you find you get a lot of talents that are coming.” The aim of his lab, and others like it, is to leap over the lost centuries of African rice development via breeding, resulting in varieties that local farmers would want to plant and local consumers would want to buy.
I followed Manneh to a bright green shipping container that housed the lab. A single sprouted seed, its thin green shoot reaching out and curling in on itself like an ampersand, sat in a petri dish among dozens of others. The lab itself is a partnership between AfricaRice and South Korea, a nine-year project to share knowledge about the grain in hopes of improving African varieties by isolating those with favorable traits — African rice, particularly the kind grown in the Senegal River Valley, is especially tolerant to heat — and combining them with the taste and durability of certain Asian varieties. There had been setbacks and successes. First there was Sahel 108, which was introduced in the early ’90s and has been widely cultivated in Senegal since. It was long, translucent and tasty when warm but grew hard once cold. Sahel 210 improved on taste and texture, and Sahel 177 is an aromatic option, as aromatics have been increasing in popularity in the region.
African rice, of course, has certain environmental advantages over Asian rice. “Since it’s indigenous to Africa, that means it’s also adapted for the local conditions, the local difficulties that are here,” Manneh explained. “Soil problems, climate problems.” As the region grows hotter and dryer, the need for a rice variety that requires less water will only increase and, as sea level rises, a rice variety that can withstand higher soil salinity will be paramount. After a new variety is developed at the center of the Senegal River Valley, Manneh’s team sends seeds to partnering countries, where they test their adaptability to local farming conditions and palates. As a result of these efforts, the amount of land used for cultivating rice in Senegal more than doubled between 2010 and 2019, which is also part of the reason a diner might see the words “riz de la vallee” on a menu today.
BEFORE LEAVING AFRICARICE, I asked Manneh where I might be able to find good thieboudienne, Senegal’s national dish of rice and fish. He made a call, held a brief conversation in Wolof and gave me directions to a shop in Saint-Louis. The story goes that a cook named Penda Mbaye created the first thieboudienne in the 1800s in Saint-Louis, which was then the capital of the French colony of Senegal and later of French West Africa. Mbaye was cooking for an event and ran out of barley, so she substituted rice in her one-pot dish of tomatoes, meat and vegetables. The substitution was a hit. Word spread fast.
Given that Penba Mbaye was cooking for the colonizers, the rice in her thieboudienne was probably unbroken, but subsequent riffs on her recipe likely relied on riz brise (broken rice). During the milling process, some grains are inevitably fractured by the machine, creating shorter, irregular-size pieces that are sifted from the unbroken grains. In the colonial era, the French tried to sell the broken rice to European markets but, after people there refused to pay for broken rice, they sold it to Senegal instead. In his cookbook “Senegal: Modern Senegalese Recipes From the Source to the Bowl” (2015), Pierre Thiam, who is the executive chef and co-founder of the Teranga restaurants in New York City and the signature chef at the Pullman Dakar Teranga Hotel in Senegal, calls broken rice an inferior, substandard product. He laments that what are essentially the leftovers of the milling process “became the rice of choice in Senegalese households,” with broken rice sometimes priced higher than unbroken. Manneh is of two minds about this. “Quality is subjective,” he said. To much of the world, broken rice is indeed considered low quality, but in dishes like thieboudienne, “it really can absorb the sauce much better than whole grain rice.”
Senegalese cooks finding a way to make unwanted food products feel special and worthy of consumption sounded familiar; it’s what Black Americans had been doing with cuisine since we were snatched from one way of life and forced to endure another. It also reminded me of something the artist Kehinde Wiley, who founded the artist residency Black Rock Senegal in Dakar in 2019, said when I visited him earlier on my trip. “To be able to create an identity under duress is the defining feature of an African aesthetic, even an African American aesthetic,” he told me. “I call it the nomad’s aesthetic.”
In Saint-Louis, I ate thieboudienne at Patisserie Darou Salam, a tiny shop on a dusty street not far from the Senegal River. The front of the store was casual, with people catching up over pastries and tea; the smaller, more formal restaurant area was through a set of saloon doors. The rice in the thieboudienne here was broken, and oilier than in the versions I’d eaten in New York and Paris, probably because of palm oil, which is harder to procure in the West. The rice tasted more complex for the use of it, and crispy in some parts, like the socarrat on paella. The fish carried a slight funk of fermentation — likely from the use of netetou, a ground, fermented bean — which worked well against the sweetness of the cooked-to-softness vegetables: cassava, carrot and squash. Comfort food, perfected. I took a long nap on the ride back to Dakar.
WEST AFRICANS TALK about rice the way Europeans discuss wine, or the way Black Americans debate sweet versus salty grits, whiting versus catfish. Which regions prefer which kinds, and why. Unbroken and parboiled for the Nigerians, long grain and aromatic for the Ghanaians, aromatic and broken for the Senegalese. Jollof rice reminds my tongue of Louisiana, where my mother’s people are from. Like jambalaya, it is also often stewed, also with meat, also as spicy as the cook wants it (and if that cook is Liberian, the jollof is spicy) and occasionally smoky, depending on the cooking method, like the Nigerian jollof I’ve had at parties. “It has an identity value among people in Ghana, Nigeria and Liberia that we don’t actually have with thieboudienne,” said the photographer and conceptual artist Omar Victor Diop, whose 2014 “Diaspora” series highlights the role of Africans outside of Africa. “It’s also a uniting element.” Thieboudienne is thought to be the ur-jollof (the Kingdom of Jolof was in what is now Senegal), but the dish itself seems more of a meditation on the interplay between umami, earthiness and acidity than its offspring.
On the penultimate night of my visit, at the Pullman hotel, Thiam offered a compelling alternative to rice. A firm piece of white fish sat atop squid-ink fonio, a tiny, pearly grain grown in the Sahel for thousands of years. Like rice, fonio did an admirable job of absorbing the flavor of the squid ink, but it had a softer bite to it. Fonio is gluten free, quick growing and extremely drought resistant, which is why chefs like Thiam see it as a way to increase self-reliance and promote agricultural sustainability. The grain — which is grown by small farming collectives, often led by women, mostly in an eastern region of the country called Tambacounda — also has a lower glycemic index, and thus could help reduce the risk of diet-related health issues like Type 2 diabetes in Senegal. A supergrain. Perhaps the future of rice in West Africa isn’t rice at all.
In restaurants, at least, it seemed to me that rice traditions are changing. Canonical dishes like thieboudienne and mafe, a luxurious peanut or groundnut stew, were always served to me with broken rice. But less elaborate dishes like thiof and yassa poulet (grilled chicken), both staples on the menus of beachside restaurants and lunch spots throughout Dakar, often came with unbroken rice, possibly because the stakes were lower with these dishes. My most memorable meal, sauce gombo aux crevettes (stewed okra with shrimp), which I ordered at a restaurant and lounge called Bazoff, was served with unbroken rice. The dish reminded me of home; I only missed a bay leaf. The clientele at Bazoff was largely middle-aged and middle-class — the D.J. was fond of ’90s American R&B — yet no one was demanding that their rice arrive broken. As Senegal continues to be a place in conversation with the rest of the continent and the wider world, broken rice may fall out of fashion on its own.
On the Cover
As I ate the fish and fonio at the swanky hotel restaurant, I thought of a gathering I’d attended earlier that week on the terrace of a French photographer’s loft near the Medina, a neighborhood along the Route de la Petite-Corniche, a highway that hugs Dakar’s southwestern edge. Local and expat writers, gallerists and visual artists drank cocktails, ate canapes and talked about their dreams for the remainder of the summer, which felt pregnant with the potential for some sort of normalcy after the long months of travel restrictions and self-isolations. Over the terrace railing, the Muslim cemetery of Yoff sat dark and silent, this final resting place of generations of Dakarois a somber counternote to the multilingual hum of the party. Walking to the artist’s loft, I had woven through carpenters hammering wood into furniture — dining tables, bed frames — in the middle of the street at 9 p.m. They stacked the beds like Jenga blocks.
At the party, a suspicion of mine was confirmed: Senegalese people are proud of thieboudienne, but getting a restaurant recommendation for it is difficult. Manneh, the rice breeder, had also seemed hesitant to name a place, but I’d hoped to try the dish again. Most people at the party politely demurred when I asked, instead mentioning other restaurants for other dishes: Get the soup kanja at Chez Loutcha, a Cape Verdean restaurant, or the fish kaldu at Le Djembe, a lunchtime staple on Dakar’s Plateau.
The best thieboudienne is made at home, they insisted. This made sense to me. The best gumbo I’ve eaten, aside from my grandfather’s, was at a backyard zydeco party in Compton. But in Dakar, the reason wasn’t just that restaurants tended to get the seasonings wrong. “The ritual with other people you love is the most important aspect,” a photographer told me. The best thieboudienne wasn’t served on individual plates but on one communal platter, with people taking turns to grab mouthfuls, a physical manifestation of teranga, the Wolof word connoting hospitality and sharing. Eating the very best thieboudienne struck me as a foreigner’s rite of passage, then, from outsider looking in to an individual participating within the group. It was an idea that felt related to all I’d learned about rice while in Senegal, and the need for a collective approach to bring about meaningful change. It was something to aspire toward.
Production: Baker and Co.