Passion for ‘street food’ in Senegal: traditional food takes to the streets | future planet


The painting is everyday. Attached to schools, offices, bus stations, taxi stands or markets in any Senegalese city, every day around seven in the morning small food stalls begin to be set up to satisfy the early needs of passers-by. Sandwiches of egg, peas, niebe (local legume) with onion and chips accompany the piping hot glasses of Nescafé or Touba coffee, a traditional spicy drink.

“I leave home at six in the morning and I don’t have time to have breakfast,” says Habibatou Diallo, at a small stall on Dakar’s Avenida de la Independencia. Despite the difficulty of putting figures on this mostly informal sector, experts estimate that millions of Senegalese eat one of the three main meals of the day outside their homes. According to the FAO, the street food sector (street food) has acquired an important dimension in recent years in African urban centers, where rapid urbanization and economic difficulties have encouraged an increase in the number of street food vendors.

The chef, “great consumer” and organizer of the Dakar Street Food Festival, Tamsir Ndir understands this phenomenon as “an art”. “People meet and exchange at these street stalls. They are benchmarks in cities, part of the urban landscape and a sector of infinite creativity and resilience”, he explains.

At the beginning of December, the second edition of the event was held, of a mobile nature and which this year is installed in the garden of the Theodore Monod Museum (Ifan), in the Plateau district, in the capital. In it, the different aromas of the meals of the day merge: first thing in the morning, breakfast, the mythical La Grotte stall in the Sandaga market guarantees meat skewers for 100 CFA francs (one and a half euros).

Around noon, several women from the Kermel market area begin to arrive, with the so-called “pension dishes”: traditional Senegalese recipes, such as ceebu jën (recently included in the list of World Heritage Sites by UNESCO), the mbaxalu saalumthe keebu kethiakh… It is now rare for families in urban areas to prepare these dishes on a daily basis, as is still done in rural areas, so buying it prepared is an irresistible option for many people, who eat with limited time. “It had been a long time since I had eaten such good rice with dried fish,” Ibrahima does not hesitate to say, passing through the culinary festival, in which about a thousand people participated in 2021.

In a shaded area, the local nuts and juices made from hibiscus (bissap), fruit of the baobab (oops) or ditakh They are combined with board games, which are usually played outdoors also in urban centers, sheltered from the heat under any tree, on any sidewalk.

For Ndir, this event is a moment of “tribute to street food”, since he considers that many people “minimize its significant role both economically and nutritionally”. The kitchen manager of the well-known Bideew Bi restaurant works with some of Dakar’s vendors to organize his work and invites them to invest a little in their stalls to make them more welcoming and pleasant. “For example, I advise them to change the paint for tiles to facilitate cleaning,” he explains, acknowledging that the lack of hygiene controls is one of the barriers that stops the social recognition of the street food.

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Imperialism at the table

Yoro Sow sells grilled meat in Saint Louis, Senegal. It comes from the Fuuta (interior region of the country, on the banks of the Senegal River). These vendors are known as forox caaya (in Wolof, literally dirty pants). “The hygiene issue is not an easy one to address among vendors, and humorous terms are sometimes used to address it. Forumx is a Wolof word that means rotten, poorly preserved, but also spicy, or delicious. “Forox ciaya neex dibi“, It is said that. And it means: even if the pants are dirty, the meat is good. People love to eat at street stalls, but hygiene is always in question.” This is explained by Bruno Faye, a member of the Saint Louis Action and Critical Studies Group (GAEC), a group made up of professors and students from Gaston Berger University, as well as residents of the neighborhoods surrounding the university campus.

In mid-December, the group organized the Saint Louis Pan-African Street Food Festival, whose title for this first edition was Food as a decolonial weapon. To introduce the event, they paraphrase Thomas Sankara, when someone asked him what imperialism is. “Look at your plates when you eat: imported grains of rice, corn and millet: that is imperialism,” the Burkinabe leader declared in a mythical speech that now serves as the collective’s motto.

“Street food is a metaphor for our times and an invisible door to work on many topics such as history, economics, nutrition, sociology…”, says Faye. For the GAEC, this topic has been serving, for five years, to test new pedagogies based, not so much on books, but on other tools such as objects or places to learn. “The goal is to reconstruct a complex story through something concrete like food, which can be used to do science, to understand how a neighborhood is configured or to analyze the structuring of care,” adds Gaston Berger University professor and member of the group, Abdourrakhmane Seck.

The festival is the culmination of this process and groups from more than 10 African countries have participated in it, as well as friendly groups from different regions of Senegal, which in turn represent different ethnic groups. “Memory is very important in life. street food: There are stalls that present the cuisines of different territories, testimonies of the miscegenation of the population and where people meet their flavors again, ”he explains.

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The event also brought together experts from different disciplines, interested in the link with street food. The nutritionist Dr. Saer Ba Diallo explained to an audience basically made up of university students, the relationship between a poor diet and “chronic non-communicable diseases”. “The excess of salt, sugar, oil and spicy, culturally very accepted and even demanded, causes hypertension and diabetes, whose prevalence rate in the Saint Louis region, 40%, is the highest in the country”, According to the doctor.

The geography professor at the Cheikh Anta Diop University in Dakar, Salimata Wade, also feels challenged by the subject. “Food is closely linked to urbanization, to the bridges between city and countryside, to the supply of cities, to the insertion of women in the market economy, to the management of public spaces, to whom does the street belong? ?” he wonders. For her, a key issue is time: “Cooking is a physical-chemical process that takes time. If women are not helped to have it, they will use chemical flavor enhancers because they save money and minutes. Likewise, to reduce the duration in the kitchen, it is important to support the mechanization of the transformation and preservation of food”.

“Eating yourself has to do with the project of society that you want,” reflects Wade. “And for this the key is education, so that people can complain to the authorities that regulate the food market.”

“Let’s strengthen the local production chain!” invites the transformative businesswoman Bate Boye, presenting the work already carried out by hundreds of women’s groups in the creation of natural products “and healthier than the commercial ones”, such as homemade ketchup, cubes of organic broth, cactus fruit juice or products extracted from moringa (known as nebeday), and that, “with help, they could promote and reach more consumers,” he says.

More than 40% of family expenses in Senegal are used for food; and of these, almost 95% go to the informal sector

Mohamed Ba, an economist and professor at Gaston Berger University in Saint Louis, for his part, is interested in the issue of food. “Changing the way we eat would improve the country’s economic situation: economic sovereignty is linked to food sovereignty,” he says. The professor insists on promoting the consumption of local products, and complains that the food habits inculcated since colonial times are maintained: “The colonial economy introduced rice as a substitute for millet and other imported products that have been changing habits and tastes. of consumers. As much as they value it, the ceebu jën It is not a national dish! Of the 1,000 CFA francs (one and a half euros) that a plate of rice with fish costs, 800 go abroad. To eat ceebu jën it is a deficit!”

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Senegal has just gone through three days of strike in the bakery sector, which highlighted the social anchorage of wheat bread, also imported, as opposed to local cover, made from cereals of the country. “Without prior awareness and social deconstruction, any public policy that promotes another way of eating will fail,” says Ba.

Street food is closely linked to the economy of families. According to the Senegalese Ministry of Economy and Finance, more than 40% of family expenses are allocated to food and of these, almost 95% go to the informal sector, which is closer and has modest prices. “Street food in these countries is food for the disinherited,” says Abdourrakhmane Seck. “We are not in societies of abundance in which the fact of eating out represents a small luxury or breaking the routine, we eat out out of necessity. When I was little, those who ate in the street were those who were not from the neighborhood and could not return home or did not have family ties, today it is still cheaper to eat out,” he says, alluding to the fact that, among other reasons, Senegalese society took to the streets in March 2021 to protest the high cost of living.

Canteens as places of popular education

“The intervention and even the study of the eating habits of families is complicated, as it enters the private sphere,” explains Bruno Faye. “This is why street food is so interesting: because it concerns us all. Introducing its improvement in the political and citizen agenda is the way to reappropriate food, and through it, work on other issues”.

“As barbershops were spaces of popular education for the black population in the United States in the 1960s, here too canteens could be, transforming a problem into a factor of social transformation,” explains Abdourrakhmane Seck, from the GAEC.

The sociologist proposes, for this, a change of perspective: the street vendor “as a sort of pharmacist or dietician”, who analyzes the needs of his potential clients and presents solutions. “When a construction site begins in a neighborhood, there is immediately someone who sets up a canteen. This person should be able to understand that a breakfast of fog (legume) can be a good option for workers, who expend a lot of physical energy. Instead of accepting the invisible condition that is given to them, the challenge is to train them to be able to transform their gaze and their job”, explains Seck, who has promoted a mapping of street vendors in Saint Louis, identified by the population, and with which are already working in network.

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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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