WHEN I FIRST MOVED TO DAKAR in 2011, I lived in a small apartment in the compound of a Senegalese family, an in-law unit with its own entrance through the garden. The apartment was basic. A hot plate and a dorm-style fridge became my kitchen. A small room with an air conditioner that never worked served as living room and office. The bedroom faced the front of the house, and I could hear the traffic on the busy road outside, the loud conversations of passersby, and the parties at the Catholic high school across the street. I always slept fitfully there, sensitive to all these sounds of life; it would feel as if I had just dozed off when the muezzins of at least three different mosques would start their morning calls.
There was no reason for me to get out of bed that early, though, and I would squeeze my eyes shut until I heard the metal shutters of the butik (corner store) open in front of the house. It was a place of orderly chaos: at the entrance, bottles of propane that everyone uses for cooking; at the counter, hard candies, cookies, and salty snacks for children; to the side, a refrigerator stocked with Fanta, water, and yogurt; in the back behind the counter where clients weren’t allowed, shelves of canned peas, beans, meat, containers of shelf-stable milk and juice, pasta, dish soap, bug spray—everything you might need in a hurry in the middle of cooking or cleaning. At the counter itself were big bags of ceeb (rice) and a scale to measure it out by the kilogram.
During the day, the shop owners alternated between news programs and music stations playing the latest from American to Nigerian and back to Senegal’s beloved mbalax, which mixes jazz, salsa, funk, and hip hop and subordinates all the forms that make it up to the implacable beat of traditional drums. All day long, a playlist of the greats, old and new: Thione Seck and his son Wally, Coumba Gawlo and Viviane Chidid, and, of course, Chidid’s former brother-in-law, the king of mbalax, Youssou N’Dour.
My defining mbalax experience happened down the road from that apartment, at N’Dour’s club Le Thiossane (a word that means “tradition” in Senegal’s dominant language, Wolof). The first time I went, the owner himself took to the stage after midnight and did not leave it for a few hours, swigging water now and again to keep that golden voice going. Occasionally, the drummers would speed up their hands and spin a dizzying beat, and the show dancers would move to those wild drums, hopping so fast their feet barely touched the ground.
One of the minor songs N’Dour is known for is a paean to Senegal’s pride and joy, ceebu jën: a mix of rice, fish, and vegetables cooked together in one pot. It’s not the most sophisticated piece of songwriting—basically a recipe set to music—but what it lacks in cleverness, it makes up in enthusiasm: “Ceebu jën . . . What could be better? It’s a blessing from heaven. . . .”
In Un Grain de Vie et d’Espérance, a meditation on the culinary culture of Senegal, novelist Aminata Sow Fall transforms a traditional ceebu jën of broken rice colored red with tomato concentrate into a “platter of tiny rubies” and covers it with a “kaleidoscope of beautiful gifts offered by the earth to the eye and palate.”
The first gift is the fish itself, whether a thick cut from a corpulent grouper or a skinny Sardinella filled with bones; both might find their way to the bowl after being stuffed with a mix of parsley, garlic, and pepper. Overshadowed by the glory of the fresh fish is the fermented shellfish, an essential element that imparts a bit of its funk to the whole meal. Then a rainbow of vegetables follows: a green cabbage, an orange carrot or pumpkin, a greenish yellow bitter eggplant, a red or yellow Scotch bonnet or two, and a white cassava root. And, finally, no ceeb could be called complete without a bit of the crunchy rice from the bottom of the pot for you to eat with your portion, or a dollop of a tangy tamarind sauce that includes the pods for you to suck on, or a bit of nététou, a mash made from fermented locust beans. If you are lucky enough to be served a variation called ceebu jën bu weex, white ceeb made without tomatoes, you might also get a slippery sauce made from a mix of hibiscus leaves and okra.
Eating the porridge, it seemed, was like waving a sign to proclaim how poor you were.
I am obviously a ceebu jën lover, maybe even a connoisseur. I have eaten ceebu jën in Dakar restaurants, seated at a table with a fork and knife, and I’ve eaten it in people’s homes, sitting on the floor around a communal bowl as is customary. I’ve eaten variations that could be barely identified as such, with just the basics, a mound of rice, a bit of fish, and a tired vegetable or two. And I’ve eaten feats of gastronomy, like the one my Senegalese sister-in-law pulled off at Christmas last year when she made a version with copious vegetables, shrimp, three types of fish, and dozens of bite-size fish meatballs. There is a ceebu jën for every occasion and an adaptation for every pocketbook.
When UNESCO added ceebu jën to its list of “intangible cultural heritage,” along with kimchi in Korea, lavash in Armenia, and the cuisine of Michoacán in Mexico, the whole of Senegal preened. Ceebu jën is, Fall writes, a dish that both sings and dances. And it does; ceebu jën is mbalax itself, a mix of the modern and traditional, its rhythm so insistent that you almost forget everything else.
GENEROSITY IS A CORE VALUE IN SENEGAL. If you come across a group of people sitting around a communal bowl for their midday meal, whether in a city or in a village, one of them will call out to you in Wolof, saying, “Kaay lekk”—Come eat. If you’re wise enough to accept, everyone will shift slightly on their knees until a sliver of space emerges, and you will be handed a spoon or encouraged to eat with your hand (always the right, never the left).
In the 1780s, French slave trader Dominique Harcourt Lamiral wrote about seeing something of this when he lived in the region: “The Negroes are very hospitable. They will never eat any food without offering some of it to everyone there. It even often happens that visitors arrive, sit down, and eat without being asked.” Today, that communal plate would almost always involve rice, but in Lamiral’s day it was a couscous made from millet.
When another slave trader, Alvise Ca’ da Mosto, sailed his ship down the coast of West Africa in 1455, he visited a country ruled by a leader called the “Budomel,” which suggests he was in the central part of Senegal—a region called Kajoor where a “Damel” reigned. There, he noted, the climate and landscape were not suitable for most cereal crops except millet, a hardy grass that grows in poor soils and resists the droughts so common on the desert’s edge.
For hundreds of years, successive mariners, slave traders, military men, missionaries, and gentleman scholars made similar observations, opining on how people used millet to make various types of porridges and couscous. Such travelers loved to talk about the spectacle of women working in pairs around a mortar to break down the hard millet grains into flour, putting their whole bodies into it. The women sang special songs to pass the time: “It was the good Lord who gave me millet / And asked me to grind it for him.”
Millet even shows up in Senegal’s most famous folktale, about a motherless girl named Koumba, who is sent by her evil stepmother to wash a spoon in the distant ocean. Along the way she meets an old woman with only one arm, one leg, and one eye, who gives Koumba an ear of millet to grind in a mortar and it turns into a copious amount of couscous before her eyes. (Koumba eventually makes it to the ocean to wash her spoon.)
Aminata Sow Fall begins her book not with ceebu jën, but with a sensuous description of a cere bassi salté, a couscous royale. Ideally, the millet couscous would have been rolled by hand and mixed with laalo, a powder made from baobab leaves. The cook would sprinkle some white beans and dates or raisins, along with a bit of stock, creating a kind of pilaf. The sauce is its own production, full of chefs’ secrets, but has a rich tomato base and is simmered with a hearty dose of lamb, beef, or chicken (maybe all three) and a selection of vegetables—carrots and cassava, sweet potatoes, and a special gourd. Once served, after eaters have made good headway into the tomato sauce with its veggies and meat, the hostess might pour a bit of milk into the bowl to mix with the cere for the perfect last bite.
Historical records tell us that people back then cooked millet-based dishes with meat or fish in much the same way as one does now with ceebu jën. And when something like ceebu jën made an early appearance, public opinion was lukewarm—mixed-race cleric David Boilat, writing in the 1850s about the customs of Senegalese society, noted: “The Wolof do not find rice as fortifying as couscous.”
Today, millet still appears at every key moment of a person’s life in most of Senegal. When a child is born, the family prepares a thick millet porridge to distribute to well-wishers. When a couple is married and move in together, their first meal should be millet. And when a person dies, millet must be served at the funeral. In times of uncertainty, people make and give away millet. Millet is for chasing away ill stars and calling in blessings.
But some millet dishes have suffered from a kind of prejudice over the years. My Senegalese husband likes to tell a story about the time he lived in Dakar as young man and went searching for a millet porridge called fonde. He grew up in a small town down the coast and was used to eating millet, a habit more common in the country than in Senegal’s cosmopolitan capital city. On this occasion, he was hanging out with his urbane Dakarois cousin, who saw him as a hick, so when my husband said he was off to a fonde stand in the neighborhood, his cousin drew him close and, in a low tone, told him to keep his voice down. Eating the porridge, it seemed, was like waving a sign to proclaim how poor you were.
My husband laughed it away, never letting a little snobbery get in the way of his love of fonde for breakfast, for cere taalaale (millet couscous with a light onion-tomato sauce) for lunch, for more fonde for dinner, and for millet beignets as snacks.
GIVEN THE LONG HISTORY OF MILLET and its cultural importance, why then has it now been consigned to the second rung in Senegal’s culinary landscape? Why is ceebu jën more a part of humanity’s “intangible cultural heritage” than cere bassi salté?
The emergence of ceebu jën in the late nineteenth or early twentieth century is likely due to a confluence of colonialism and cash-crop agriculture. It was a period in which the French were expanding their administrative footprint, conquering most of the country we now call Senegal and consolidating large swaths of the interior into a thing called the colony of French West Africa. During this time, Senegalese farmers started cultivating more peanuts, sparked by a demand from French soapmakers for a suitable oil for their industry. Farmers might have grown peanuts on a small scale before, but now the market was so insistent that they started to put more land into peanut production, land that might otherwise have been dedicated to growing millet. Early on, French administrators and merchants recognized that inciting farmers to abandon their staple crops might create food shortages, but instead of promoting a more balanced approach, they developed an alternate plan. In 1857, the colonial governor wrote, “Let Senegal produce [peanuts] instead of grains, and we will bring them rice”—rice brought on French ships from other colonies in India and Indochina.
Today, Senegalese people eat about 125 kilograms of rice a year, on par with South Korean (124 kilograms) and Chinese (126 kilograms) consumers. If you invite someone for lunch and serve anything else—say, millet—you might hear a variation on this phrase: Suma lekkul ceeb dafay mel ni lekkuma dara—If I haven’t eaten rice, it’s like I haven’t eaten anything.
Rice production has expanded, tripling over the last decade as part of long-standing attempts to make Senegal self-sufficient by growing it on the heavily dammed Senegal River. But Senegal’s population is growing, too, and the amount of rice each person eats per year keeps rising. The idea of becoming self-sufficient in rice production is an ever shifting target, one that becomes a bit more distant every year. Part of me always wonders if it’s worth all the effort—all the irrigation water, the fertilizers, the pesticides, the downstream water pollution, all that the process of growing paddy rice close to the desert requires. Meanwhile, a recent study showed that farmers have stopped planting millet in some parts of Senegal, a move that researchers believe is negatively affecting the diversity of the grain in the wild. Wild cousins retain traits that may be useful in a changing climate and are, the paper says, “a reservoir for future adaptation”—a reservoir now in danger.
Despite the effort to ramp up rice production, most of the country’s rice is still imported—more than 70 percent. Such dependence on imports means that Senegalese consumers are deeply vulnerable to the vagaries of world commodity markets. They are one bad Thai or Indian growing season away from a food crisis. All because some French colonial administrators nearly two hundred years ago decided that the peanut trade was too important for them to care whether people here could grow the food they needed to live.
SO, WHERE DOES THAT LEAVE the country and its culinary traditions? Yes, ceebu jën is a product of colonialism—and yes, it still ignites the ingenuity and creativity of millions of home cooks every day. Yes, colonialism and, later, urbanization, structurally altered the palates of people, priming them to desire rice to the exclusion of other grains. And, yes, no matter how diminished, those grains are still here—at least for the moment.
Millet couscous—the deluxe cere bassi salté itself—does make at least one yearly appearance in most Senegalese households, on Tamxarit, known to the rest of the Muslim world as the Feast of Ashura. On that occasion, there’s a run on precooked cere in stores, although traditionalists spend hours, even days, rolling tiny balls of couscous by hand. The sauce itself, with all its secrets, often takes all day, and cooks try their best to impress. In the evening, the family assembles to stuff themselves on couscous and meat, and then couscous and milk. After that, the Taajaboon starts, a festival of transgression, as boys dress up as girls and girls dress up as boys and they go from house to house with their bright selves, their joy, and their drums or makeshift instruments, dancing and singing and asking for gifts of money or even more couscous. This has always been my favorite holiday in Senegal, a sort of mix between Thanksgiving and Halloween. I like to think that the Taajaboon, which does not seem connected to religious commemorations of Ashura, is a survivor of some pre-Islamic harvest festival where the community celebrated the new millet crop with extravagant revelry.
At the end of her book, Aminata Sow Fall writes that there’s a story behind everything we put on our plates. “Our cuisine is the pure product of our history,” she says, both its triumphs and its sorrows. On Tamxarit, I’m always convinced that millet could, one day, reclaim its story. And maybe it can, starting with those boisterous children doing their enthusiastic Taajaboon. After all, you need to grow up with millet to fully appreciate its finer qualities, its rich and slightly sour flavor. Rice is a neutral vehicle for sauces; it conducts flavor instead of asserting much of its own. On the night of Tamxarit, some families leave a handful of couscous out for the ancestors, an offering, because millet is more than a food. It’s a conductor of a different kind, a mode of communication, an instrument to get closer to the gods.
Yann Lenzen is a traveler and documentary photographer from France who often embarks on long journeys to witness and photograph the gradual evolution of populations and cultures. His projects focus on social, environmental, and political issues. Find out more about his work at yannlenzen.com.