Wednesday, June 5, 2013

A Gourmande Living in Senegal

Today I want to talk about food and living abroad. 

Preparing for a HUGE meal at Magal, a yearly pilgrimage to the Mouride holy city, Touba. February 2011. I wrote about my experience attending this event here

I love food. To be more specific, my first love is cheese {its the Frenchie in me}. I love rich, creamy dishes. I love gourmet French and Italian meals coupled with aromatic sauces. I love a good Mexican burrito. I love high quality steak, fresh vegetables, succulent fruit. Eating out is one of the pleasures I regularly indulge in; very little compares to the joy I derive from a delectable meal. I am sure I spend more money on eating out than shopping, and I'm ok with that.  

I will admit that I'm bit of a food snob. The sight of Kraft mac and cheese makes me gag. Sorry, friends, who had to deal with my obnoxious ways in the high school cafeteria. I'm not proud. That being said, I brought blue cheese and crackers and sometimes artichoke with vinaigrette for snack in middle school and I'm pretty sure I got quite a few stares myself.

All in all, I am definitely gourmande (French for a mixture of foodie and glutton ;).  And so is pretty much everyone else in my family, so blame it on genetics!

Now to the topic at hand: eating habits and living abroad. 

I was very lucky to spend a lot of time in Europe as a kid visiting my grandparents, so I've been familiar (and obsessed) with French and Italian food for as long as I remember. Fresh baguette every day? A cheese course at every meal? Creamy sauces with every meat dish? Melt in your mouth pastries and fresh fruit tarts? Yes, please.

Parisian brunch? Yes, please! With Ben, my cousin's now-husband :)
One exception to this love of French food was a dish my grandfather once made when visiting us in the U.S.: cold fish with gelatin. Thankfully my dad took pity on me and allowed me to opt out and snack on something else instead. I also remember how strict my French friends' parents were about snacking outside of regulated once-daily snack-time (4pm, Nutella and baguette). One summer afternoon, my friend and I hid in her closet to snack on chips without her mom discovering our secret.

At the end of high school, I spent a summer practicing Spanish in Tenerife, in the Canary Islands. I was shocked by the lack of flavor in Spanish food. I was served grilled meat with oil in a bottle as a "sauce"! I distinctly remember my host sister telling me her parents didn't like French food because it was too "flavorful." Blasphemy! I also distinctly remember thinking, "Hmmm... maybe I'm not so open to new foods as I thought I was..." when offered an enormous octopus for dinner one night. I admit I declined.

The view from my balcony in Tenerife. My home-stay was not exactly "roughing it," as I had imagined...

That being said, I looooved the tapas I had in Madrid and Barcelona. You win some, you lose some. 

Which brings me to food in Senegal. Living with a host family in Senegal, I ate local Senegalese food for the vast majority of my semester abroad... and I loved it! It was difficult adjusting to the spiciness when I first arrived (especially eating while hot, and waiting to drink water after the meal, as is customary in Senegal). Families also eat around a communal bowl, which took some getting used to in those hot months when I worried about sweat dripping off my nose into the platter. Not to mention waiting to eat dinner until midnight during Ramadan. Ok, fine, meal time was a little stressful for awhile there ;)

Fellow study abroaders learning to eat with their hands for the first time. 
That's my hand on the right!

But my time in Senegal absolutely influenced my taste buds! I can't stand bland food anymore.... I almost always add lots of pepper to my pasta (obviously something I eat a lot ;) and have a generally increased appreciation for FLAVOR. And this is definitely typically Senegalese, as a meal with no spices isn't considered well prepared or appealing to the Senegalese. Example: I made potatoes au gratin for a Senegalese friend and her family. No one liked it! Cheese, potatoes, and cream? TOO BLAND! On our next cooking adventure we made quiche à la Sénégalaise (adding looots of spices and vinegar) and it was a huge hit. 

Go figure.

One last point before I bring this novel to an end. After leaving Senegal, I studied in Paris for six months. And I developed a LOVE for Swiss cheese on my pasta. Most Americans aren't fond of this application, as Swiss cheese is pretty strong and not what we're used to on pasta or pizza. Well, I totally adapted and grew to find such comfort in my pasta with creme fraiche and Swiss cheese (and lots of pepper!). I returned to the U.S. for my last year of college and would hunt down shredded Swiss cheese at Whole Foods to complete my pasta dishes ;)

Now I'm back in Senegal, where the only cheese you find easily is Swiss cheese (... the French influence)... and I've come full circle. I had pasta with creme fraiche, swiss cheese, and pepper for dinner last night. Delish.

How has living abroad influenced your taste in food? Have you embraced the local cuisine, or been more eager to find substitutes for the foods you miss from home?


  1. I agree whole-heartily! I didn't even have to move abroad just living in East LA I got addicted to chile, salt, and lime on any kind of fruit!I love traveling to a new place and trying the local delicacies its what makes traveling FUN! Hopefully, I won't get traveler's sickness when I go to Oaxaca and try cow's head tacos! This might be going a little far but Silvia is making me!!!

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