Little Senegal: West Africa on the Upper West Side

EM3-LowRes10Forget about suitcase bombs, just pray that Ahomka ginger candy isn’t unleashed on the public. These fiery little hard candies, deliciously flavored with ginger and chilis, were bestowed on me as a parting gift by a friendly shopkeeper at the New Harlem Mini Mart in “Little Senegal,” a delicious stretch of 116th Street between Lenox and Frederick Douglass Boulevard. I’d just spent 45 minutes perusing his products and pestering his butcher with questions like, “What’s namougoufing powder?”

Like many West African food stores, the shop sells halal meats, primarily lamb and chicken, along with a great many foods unfamiliar to the Western palate. But I know a bargain when I see one, and snapped up a rack of lamb for 11 bucks. The butcher, at my request, cut it into chops, which varied in thickness from half an inch to an inch and a half. I guess chops are not the favorite way to prepare lamb in Senegal. Lesson learned.

The neighborhood has been a thriving community for nearly two decades; New York’s Senegalese population more than doubled in the 1990s, from 31,000 to 73,000 according to census figures, and the number of stores catering to homesick Africans has grown accordingly. At least a half-dozen businesses on this stretch sell West African ingredients, along with an interesting mix of other unexpected ethnic specialties.

New to me were the four or five forms of millet available in every store. I purchased a bag of arraw, a puffy incarnation. “How you going to cook that?” one employee demanded in a tone of deepest scorn. I had been in this shop about 20 minutes, doing my best to charm the staff into revealing their culinary secrets, but they were having none of it.

“Well,” I quavered, “I thought I would cook it kind of like couscous…you know, pour boiling water over it and let it sit covered?”

“Nahhh,” said one of the owners, exasperated. “You put it in boiling water and stir it, but don’t cook too long or it will become paste! Then you put milk and sour cream.” Who knew? In my search of recipes from Senegal, Mali, Nigeria, Ivory Coast, Guinea, Ghana and other West African nations, I hadn’t spotted a one for millet in any form, much less dressed with dairy. But if the huge tubs of sour cream and yogurt featured in shops here are anything to go by, cow’s milk is a major part of the diet.

It was on a Sunday afternoon stroll that my intrepid culinary companion and I discovered the New Harlem Mini Market (2132 Frederick Douglass Blvd.), which advertised itself as closed. But as we peered through the thicket of peeling signs and papers, the door opened and we were ushered in by a departing customer. Most of these food stores are pretty tiny, with the real estate dominated by pallets of sacked rice, but this location boasted a rack of powdered condiments with unfamiliar names and no description of what was contained within. We saw Gnagna in two forms: powdered and whole dried berries with little seeds spilling out; namougoufing powder, which we were told makes things “slippery”; sumbalah, which looked like tamarind—maybe; baobab, which is manioc; fish powder; shrimp powder; and okra powder, which came in multiple forms and with multiple names. Also on offer were large jars of ginger paste and ginger-garlic paste, clearly the sofrito for much of the cuisine.

We bought the lamb—which came in units of half or whole side of the rib cage—from the gregarious butcher who lounged behind the meat counter munching peanuts. A Neanderthal meat, it was entirely untrimmed with foot-long rib bones, but it was clearly quite fresh, with no discoloration, and an unbelievable deal at $4 a pound. We also nabbed a bottle of palm oil: thick, opaque and pimento red, with a pleasant nutty flavor. (Palm oil, we later discovered, is a core ingredient of Palmolive soap. It was also used as an industrial lubricant for years before finding its way from Jakarta to West Africa and into the food chain. And, yes, it is that bad oil, very high in saturated fats.)

Every store has ample fresh habanero peppers and shelf after shelf of bottled hot sauce. One shopkeeper told me he must have hot sauce on everything, and warned it would probably be too spicy for the likes of me, but I demurred, and I was right. Hot, yes, but by no means excessive. I also bought a bottle of Cassava Casareep, thick as molasses and seasoned with cloves, thyme and caramel; the label proclaimed it as “ideal for Pepper Pot, Fried Rice & Chow Mein, and Barbecue.” (Chow mein? Based on a sampling straight from the bottle, I recommend it with pork.)

Peanuts are Senegal’s the principal export crop. Introduced to Africa and Asia in the 18th century by Spanish explorers who’d “discovered” the plant in South America, they later returned to our side of the ocean with the slave trade and were planted extensively in the South, providing food, oil and forage for livestock. They remain a staple of the West African economy and cuisine, and all the stores we visited sold bags of peanuts in different states of dress and undress—even peanut powder. We picked up some peanut butter, too, with no salt or sugar (though they were also selling Skippy) to make mafe, a vegetable-chickpea stew to which one can add beef, lamb or chicken.

The mix of products on the shelves traces a timeline of industry and cultures. Many ingredients are clearly holdovers from the days when Senegal was under French control. Some seem like relics from wartime rationing: bouillon cubes of every stripe, evaporated milk, powdered milk, sucre vanillée, tinned turkey loaf, tinned chicken and beef loaf and other dubious concoctions. Despite this dismal roster, it’s easy to see the cross-pollination of cuisines from Indonesia, India and Southeast Asia from the spices, rice paper, sambals and other foods typically associated with those cultures.

Language and culinary differences can be a challenge, so you might want to bring along a French-speaking friend—most of the people we encountered have a good command of English, but had an easier time explaining in French the many strange (to us) and wonderful foods and spices so important to their cooking.

Nearly all the stores sell interesting medicinal teas, as well as more old-fashioned packaged remedies such as gripe water. I was looking for paregoric, every mother’s favorite opiate, but no such luck. I guess my opium dreams will have to wait.

Not disposed toward kitchen experimentation with unfamiliar ingredients? Let a restaurant do the work.

The rather grand Africa Kine (256 W. 116th St.) offers a full menu of Senegalese specialties such as yassa, a chicken dish made with onions and lemon; thieu djeun, a favorite fish stew; that peanut stew, mafe; and numerous fish and meat combo dishes, along with a few curries.

Across the street, the modest Dibiterie Cheikh (231 W. 116th St.) offers two dishes daily, such as chicken or red fish. The rice is “broken,” dressed with palm oil, and the bottom crisped in a similar fashion to the Korean dish bibim bab. Delicious.

No passport needed. The West African stores along 116th Street offer a great many foods unfamiliar to the American palate, including Gnagna berries, garlic-ginger paste and several kinds of millet. Photo credit: Max Flatow.