The cuisine of Senegal is an amalgamation of cultures. Senegal is among African countries strongly influenced by foreign culinary arts. These diverse influences came from Africa, France, the Arabic world, and Asia. The country is located on the western coast of the African continent and has a strong coastal cuisine. Even with dishes from other parts of the world, Senegalese food has a quality of its own. “For us, cooking is considered a celebration. It’s a way to showcase your talent, your passion, your love,” says chef Marie-Claude Mendy, winner on the Food Network’s “Chopped.”
Like most girls growing up in Senegal, Mendy began cooking when she was fairly young. At the age of five, she started baking cakes with her siblings for their father. Women in Senegal generally do most of the household chores of cooking, cleaning and child-rearing. Her right to passage started at the age of 11 when she prepared her first family meal for dinner. “We believe that cooking is one of the skills a good wife must have.” A Senegalese dinner should be served with dignity and elegance. As a matter of fact, food is considered serious business. Mendy mastered Senegalese cuisine from her mother.
“My mother always said that there are a few things to a good dish. It has to be appealing to the senses, the presentation has to be appealing to the eye and appealing to the stomach.” As Mendy was getting deeply grounded in her roots, they were also opening her culinary horizons.
Encouraged to Dream
After living in London, Paris, and Washington D.C., how could you not be an aficionado of food? But it was when Mendy moved to Boston that her dream became a reality. While working a full-time job, she often shared her lunch with co-workers. Soon after that, her co-workers started giving her money to make bigger batches of food. That later turned into people asking her to cater their events. “I’ve always wanted to open a restaurant. My family knew I had a passion for food. That’s why when I opened a restaurant, they weren’t surprised,” says Mendy. It only made sense to open a restaurant serving traditional foods from Senegal.
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Located in the historic South End neighborhood at the corner of Mass Avenue and Washington Street is the first and only Senegalese restaurant in Boston called Teranga. The restaurant offers an upscale and contemporary atmosphere with Senegalese music and authentic artifacts from Senegal.
Most people don’t know what to think when it comes to food from Africa. Teranga’s approach is to share traditional dishes. Start your journey with one of Mendy’s favorites, accara, which is a seasoned black-eyed pea batter-fried appetizer that is served with a zesty tomato-onion sauce. Or maybe nems would be more familiar to you. It’s a spring roll stuffed with finely chopped chicken, ground beef, rice vermicelli, grated carrots, scallions, and dried mushrooms served with nuoc mam dressing.
A Taste of Senegal
The dinner menu offers choices of one beef, two fish, three chicken, and three lamb entrées. Mendy’s favorite entrée is the homeland national dish, thiebou djeun (pronounced cheh-boo jen; from the Wolof words for rice [thieb] and fish [djeun]). It’s an herb-stuffed white fish cooked in tomato stew with broken jasmine rice served with cassava, cabbage, carrots, cauliflower, eggplant, and pumpkin. “I love this dish so much. If I was to have my last meal, I would request this,” Mendy says.
Mendy’s cuisine has also appeared on the reality cooking show “Chopped,” where chefs compete over three rounds using a basket of mystery ingredients and after each course, a contestant is eliminated. Mendy served a three-course meal of marinated ribs, lamb stew and gingerbread crepes. Although she was nervous about the competition she replied, “I’m letting my cooking do the talking.” Mendy’s dishes beat the other chefs and she took home the $10,000 prize. “I’m glad I won because it was the best form of publicity.”
If you haven’t tried African food, Mendy invites you to explore the delicious depths of Senegalese cuisine. There is a lot of pride and tradition that goes into Senegalese cooking that will be enjoyed across all cultures.
For more information about chef Marie-Claude Mendy’s restaurant, visit www.terangaboston.com. The restaurant is located at 1746 Washington Street.
Update: The restaurant has closed.