I’m sitting back-to-back with a woman from Senegal. I’m with three of my friends, and she’s with three of hers. We’re speaking English, and they’re speaking a mix of French and Wolof. Despite being from countries thousands of miles apart, I was struck by some things we had in common: we’re both in Madrid and we’re both eating Senegal’s national dish: ThiebouDienne.
MADRID: THE CITY OF IMMIGRANTS
Madrid is populated almost entirely by people whose origins lie elsewhere. Since 1606, when Madrid became the capital of Spain for the second time, Lavapiés has been the city’s first port of call for many new arrivals. Back then, an immigrant meant someone from Andalucía or Galicia, but the definition is now much more wide-ranging. According to Madrid’s 2015 census, a whopping 121 nations are now registered as living in the Spanish capital, many of whom live in Lavapiés – Madrid’s most multicultural barrio.
Like Madrid’s economic immigrants from other parts of Spain, many of today’s foreign immigrants have opened restaurants serving the cuisine of their home region, giving us a mind-boggling selection of foodie options. But it’s not just a taste of the exotic that these restaurants offer; it’s also a neutral territory for foreigners and natives to come together and eat. Inside Dakar, everyone is equal, no matter whether they’re from Senegal or Spain, or anywhere else.
When Mohammed brought the laminated menus to the table, he told us what dishes they had that day, and even though this limited us to only half of the menu, the selection changes daily. All ingredients are as fresh as possible, and the aim at Dakar is to finish everything so that no food or money is wasted. Having a limited menu is one way to ensure this.
One dish that is always on the menu is ThiebouDienne. Much like a cocido madrileño, it’s cooked in one pot and separated out onto the plate. ThiebouDienne consists of white fish, cabbage, carrot, yucca and a dollop of sour pickle, served on a bed of tasty rice, all for just €6. There’s a vegetarian option that omits the fish in place of more of everything else.
Another dish that regularly features is Thiou Curry: a bowl of tomato and meat curry with a separate plate of rice. It’s up to you how you mix the two, but traditionally you use your hand to scoop up a bit of curry and a little rice, then curl your fingers to create a loose ball and, using your thumb, nudge it into your mouth as elegantly as possible. Many Senegalese have adopted the former French colonialists’ habit of eating with cutlery – as has this restaurant, you may be relieved to know.
One of Senegal’s iconic national symbols is the baobab tree, indigenous to West Africa. Photos of the baobab tree and its large fruit adorn the menu, and you can try a baobab milkshake. Imagine a light horchata with the tang of pomegranate molasses – a lovely drink that’s definitely worth a try.
A BIT ABOUT SENEGAL
Senegal is a semi-arid West African country with a long, windy coastline. Its capital, Dakar, is Senegal’s westernmost point, jutting out into the zone of the Atlantic where some of the world’s most destructive storms are born. Fishing is one of Senegal’s largest industries, and this is evident in the cuisine, but pork rarely features as around 95% of Senegal’s population is Muslim.
There are few places in Madrid where both immigrants and locals dine alongside one another, but this humble little Senegalese eatery closes the gap. It’s a well-known meeting point for the Senegalese community, and a place for absolutely everyone else to come and eat. Food brings people together, and always will – especially when it’s this good.