Book Review – Yolele!

Yolele! Recipes from the Heart of Senegal by Pierre Thiam 

Photography by Adam Bartos 

Lake Isle Press 2008

 I had never seen a cookbook concerning cooking in Senegal, so when I picked up Yolele! I didn’t know what to expect.  Having the occasion to read Yolele! provided a unique opportunity to learn about a cuisine from the part of the world that is usually ignored by the culinary main stream.  The dishes presented in the book seem as if the local people took ingredients and methods from Portugal, France and the Middle East, then combined local produce and spices and mixed it all together to create unique, but still familiar, dishes.  Senegal, being located on the west coast of Africa, has historically been a melting pot of European, African and Middle Eastern cultures.  The author, Pierre Thiam, who owns two critically acclaimed restaurants in Brooklyn, compares the cuisine of Senegal to that of Louisiana Creole cooking, where many different cultures have come together to create something new and delicious.

 The lovely photographs capture the ambiance of the marketplace in Dakar, the capital of Senegal.  The colors of the fresh produce, the pictures of the fresh seafood and the candid shots of street vendor’s food have inspired me to travel to Africa so I can explore the markets and meet the people.  After seeing the vibrant colors of the fresh ingredients I wish there were more photographs of the finished dishes.  When reading the book it is easy to understand why the IACP, last year, nominated Yolele! as one of the year’s best books in the category of Best First Book/Julia Child Award.

 The recipes use readily available ingredients that can easily be found at a local grocery store.  When the recipe does call for a more unusual ingredient the book provides a good description of the new ingredient and suggests some substitutes that can readily be purchased in an American megamart.  I was surprised that so many of the ingredients are common to American kitchens.  The Glossary and Notes found at the end of the book are helpful and can get any home cook quickly up to speed on Senegalese cooking.

Tempra is reminiscent of cerviche, where prawns are marinated with an acid and spices, but here the prawns are grilled first then marinated.  I am generally the most adventurous eater among my friends, but the Grilled Sea Urchin, which sounds fascinating, is going to have to wait for my palate to become a little more mature.  The Fish and Corn Fritters is reminiscent of a Cajun style dish that would be at home in any New Orleans restaurant.  Tilapia and Millet Porridge is a delicious main dish where couscous is cooked to the consistency of a creamy polenta and served with Tilapia that has been simmered in a broth with tomatoes, onions and habaneros.

The Black-Eyed Pea Salad reminds me of a Moroccan style garbanzo bean salad with its blending of beans, peppers, onion, tomato and cucumber.  Thiebou Jen, “rice with fish”, is the national dish of Senegal and is indicative of the Senegalese style of combining various cultures into something unique.  Here fish is served with rice, carrots, cabbage and okra cooked in a spicy tomato sauce.  In the recipe for Plassas, Thiam substitutes Swiss chard, in place of the traditional yucca leaves, as the wrapper for a thick mixture of beef, shrimp and onions.  You can’t cook a traditional Senegalese dinner and not serve dessert.  In the recipe for Banana Fritters mashed bananas are mixed with flour, sugar and eggs then deep fried.  The recipe calls for topping the warm fritters with powdered sugar but I couldn’t stop myself from drizzling some melted chocolate over the top and serving with a scoop of homemade ice cream. 

 Yolele! is a welcome addition to the list of international style cookbooks that I can recommend.  The dishes are not typically found on an American menu but are similar enough that even meat and potato types of cooks will feel comfortable expanding their repertoires to include an African style menu.  The ingredients are user friendly, easy to find and the recipes make a good introduction to a “foreign” cuisine that is not “too” foreign.


One Response

  1. Unadulterated words, some true words man. Made my day.

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