Where to stay
L’Hôtel Djoloff A chic, medium-sized hotel, combining modernised colonial architecture and Senegalese designer fabrics and furniture, overlooking the little fishing beach and market of Soumbédioune. It has a pleasant rooftop bar and restaurant. Doubles from £90. 7 Rue Nani, Fann Hock, 00 221 33 889 3630, hoteldjoloff.com
Hôtel Madou The nicest place to stay on the peaceful little island of Gorée, a 20-minute ferry ride from Dakar. Five attractive and comfortable rooms in a well-run, historic townhouse with a roof terrace, restaurant and all mod cons. Doubles from £72. 1 Rue du Port, Île de Gorée, 00 221 33 842 7709
Pullman Dakar Teranga A 247-room luxury business hotel, slightly impersonal but very conveniently placed for walking around the historic centre just off Independence Square. Great views over the ocean and Gorée island. Popular bars, including one beside a pool fringed with swaying palm trees. Doubles from £157. 10 Rue Colbert, 00 221 33 889 2200, pullmanhotels.com
Radisson Blu Dakar Sea Plaza Dakar’s latest and most luxurious hotel is a low-rise complex set into the seafront off the main Corniche road near the city centre. Sleek, smart and contemporary, but only accessible by vehicle or a lengthy walk. Doubles from £146. Route de la Corniche Ouest, 00 221 33 869 3333, radissonblu.com
Villa Racine Senegalese-owned hotel decorated in eclectic African style. Expect well-equipped rooms, a lovely roof terrace bar and restaurant, and an excellent position in the heart of the city near the Presidential Palace. Doubles from £102. 37 Rue Jules Ferry, 00 221 33 889 4141, lavillaracine.com
Dakar is the capital and largest city of Senegal, West Africa. It is located on the Cap-Vert Peninsula on the Atlantic coast and is the westernmost city on the African mainland. Flights from the UK to Dakar’s new Blaise Diagne International Airport, which has replaced the city’s Léopold Sédar Senghor International Airport, take around 9.5 hours with one connection. Currency is the CFA franc (XOF) and time is the same as GMT. In November, the average high temperature is 28C and the average low is 22C.
Air France offers daily flights from London Heathrow to Dakar Blaise Diagne International Airport via Paris Charles de Gaulle. airfrance.com
Brussels Airlines flies to Dakar from London Heathrow, Birmingham and Manchester with a connecting stop in Brussels. brusselsairlines.com
Visit Senegal is the official tourist board and its website is packed with useful information to help you plan your trip. visitezlesenegal.com
So Long a Letter by Mariama Bâ (Heinemann, £10.20), published in 1981, begins when Ramatoulaye, a Senegalese woman living in Dakar decides to write a letter to her old friend Aissatou, who lives in America, following the death of her husband. The novel is regarded as an important work on the theme of women’s roles in post-colonial Africa.
To offset your carbon emissions when travelling to Dakar, visit climatecare.org and make a donation. Return flights from London produce 1.27 tonnes of C02, meaning a cost to offset of £9.55.
Where to eat
Prices are per person for three courses with half a bottle of wine,
unless otherwise stated
Le Bideew A big informal courtyard restaurant at the centre of the great walled city centre precinct of the French Institute. Where all of Dakar goes through the airport-like security to meet, drink and eat very reasonable French and Senegalese food, from a snack to a full meal. From £18. 89 Rue Joseph Gomis, 00 221 33 823 1909
La Calebasse A bulky roadside building overlooking the ocean, La Calebasse hides several floors of dusty tribal artefacts, objets d’art, a performance space and a pleasant wood-lined top-floor restaurant with a small terrace. Expect a good range of well-prepared traditional dishes and grills as well as thieboudienne, yassa, maffe, and brochettes. From £18. Route de la Corniche Ouest, 00 221 33 860 6947
Chez Loutcha Plenty of bustle and atmosphere amid tall-ceilinged
rooms, with no-nonsense servers handing out salvers of very decent
Senegalese and Cape Verdean grub from the huge menu as fast as
they can. From £14. 101 Rue Mousse Diop, 00 221 33 821 0302
Club de Pêche Inside the port complex beside the Gorée ferry is this very good Lebanese-run, classic French-style fish restaurant. Top-quality fresh fish to choose and have grilled or fried to order, fresh seafood, a good fish soup and moderately priced French wines. From £30. Embarcadère de Gorée, 00 221 33 821 8698
Le Gastronomique Set in the Terrou-Bi hotel, this is one of Dakar’s
most sophisticated restaurants, standing out for the quality of local
ingredients, finesse of classic French sauces and patisserie. Think thiof
in salt crust, mille-feuille de foie gras and gelée de bissap. From £60.
Boulevard Martin Luther King, 00 221 33 839 9039
L’Hostellerie du Chevalier de Boufflers This old auberge on Gorée does decent traditional French and Senegalese dishes, and has a wonderfully dowdy bar and pretty, vine-draped terrace overlooking the ferry landing stage. This one is worth a visit for the ambience alone. From £20. Île de Gorée, 00 221 33 822 5364
Le Kermel An old-fashioned French market restaurant, buzzing with vitality. Could be Les Halles circa 1970, but it’s the Kermel Market today. Terrific versions of classics such as cassoulet, harengs pommes à l’huile, and rarer treats like local pork in cream sauce. From £20. 7 Rue Aristide Le Dantec, 00 221 33 822 4970
La Mer à Table Set on a pretty and fashionable stretch of rocky coast and little beaches, this good beach restaurant serves Senegalese, Cape Verdean and plenty of other fish dishes, and has an excellent live band. Don’t miss the Moroccan-style couscous. It stands beside Noflaye Beach, the celebrity crêperie of the late French pop star France Gall. From £20. Corniche des Almadies, 00 221 77 803 0589
- The powdered dried leaves become lalo (reputedly high in vitamin C and calcium), which is mixed with the millet in Senegalese couscous and used in a variety of sauces. The fruit, known as pain de singe (monkey’s bread), is used for juices and desserts
- Pulp of hibiscus flowers, widely used as a fruit juice drink and ingredient for numerous dishes. Other popular fruit-based drinks are corossol (soursop), tamarind, madd and kinkeliba. The last, a tea served either hot or cold, is one of Senegal’s most prized domestic drinks
- Small aubergine
- A little shop or roadside stall serving grilled meat
- Common variety of pumpkin
- Smoked, pungent dried fish used to flavour stews
- Kola nut
- The chewing gum of an elder generation of Africans, believed by many to have strength-giving properties. The bitter-tasting nuts are passed around and masticated by groups of elders, and no traditional village meeting would take place without a supply
- Meat, usually chicken, with a rich brown peanut sauce
- Cassava, a nutty-flavored, starchy root vegetable or tuber
- A paste made of stock, peppers, garlic, herbs, and onions– added to rice and other dishes to add flavour
- Palm oil
- Common oil for cooking
- Soupou kandja
- A thick soup/stew, whose slippery texture is imparted by the main ingredient, okra, and by the addition of palm oil. Contains a rich variety of fish, seafood and meat
- Rice with grilled fish and a number of vegetables. Comes in two versions: red, with a tomato-based sauce, and white, with a more tart sauce of bissap leaves
- Fluffy millet couscous, steamed and served with a diverse variety of accompaniments
- Chicken stewed with onions and limes
- The dried flesh of a large sea snail, rubbery lumps of which are used to flavour dishes such as thieboudienne
Food and Travel Review
Fishing doesn’t get much more spectacular than the tableau assembling on Yoff Beach this afternoon. As a handful of wooden boats approaches the shoreline, each balancing 20 oilskin-clad crewmen and buckets piled high with gleaming fish, dozens of porters dash shoulder-deep into the waves to ferry the precious cargo to a waiting log jam of horse carts and lorries. Liveries of local family names – ‘Mbengue’, ‘Yoffi Guedj’ – adorn the long, slender hulls of some pirogues. Others are dedicated to the leaders of Islamic sects, such as Limamou Laye, the revered prophet of the Layene, whose white mausoleum overlooks the strand just past the ranks of wood and canvas stalls where the fish-gutting women are sharpening their knives.
The fishermen need all the help religion can provide. Voracious overfishing by the foreign ocean trawlers that cruise offshore oblige the Senegalese to venture out ever further, to bring in ever fewer fish. Or else they have to diversify dangerously – among these communities are desperado skippers who could transport a cargo of migrants through 15m-high waves as far as the Canary Islands, before the Spanish coastguard put paid to the route
Dakar’s peninsula location makes the city a fishing hotspot, with half a dozen other beach landing points supplying the markets, restaurants and refrigerated lorries. Anything from sardines, sole and red mullet to octopus, tuna and shark comprise the catches, but the star is the thiof, the white grouper, prized for its cod-like flesh, a fish of such status its name is local slang for a successful playboy. A fine thiof – the fish sort – is perfect grilled over charcoal and is also the top choice for Senegal’s national dish, thieboudienne, essentially grilled fish with rice and an assortment of vegetables.
A few miles south of Yoff among the early 20th-century shopping streets, squares and monumental buildings of the central Plateau district, a bustling bistro called Chez Loutcha turns out a quality take on the dish, a stainless-steel salver heaped in sauce-rich rice under big chunks of fried fish and an array of chunky steamed vegetables – carrot, onion, yam, pumpkin and pepper. An underlying smokiness indicates the presence of the various preserved fish, leaf and nut condiments that distinguish West African cooking.
It’s said that the Wolof, Dakar’s major ethnic group, are so chaotic and undisciplined that if you ask ten Wolofs to cook a dish, they’ll do it ten different ways. I haven’t got time for ten thieboudiennes – yet numbers two and three might have their differences. At top L’Avenue restaurant in the Radisson Blu, a brand-new menu features Franco-Senegalese fusion dishes such as John Dory with a sauce of the tart fruit madd and ceviche of tuna in a traditional Senegalese light coconut broth. Its take on thieboudienne – ‘revisité’ – is deconstructed and arranged artfully on a mound of rice, with a selection of fish and a crown of grilled prawns.
However, the real Senegal doesn’t buy in to star chefs just yet. There are certainly candidates though, chief among them being Pierre Thiam, a New York-based cook who thrust himself into the media spotlight as the late Anthony Bourdain’s TV sidekick for his programme on Senegal, and is right now flitting around Dakar giving lectures and cooking at charity banquets. I could nominate another: the Senegalese version of Mary Berry, an elderly woman who happens to be the mother of the country’s biggest pop star turned tycoon, media baron and politician, Youssou N’Dour.
Several years ago, Youssou and his mother Sokhna produced one of the best books available on Senegalese cuisine. Today I’m meeting Sokhna in her spacious house in the middle-class Mermoz-Sacré-Coeur district in the hope her thieboudienne will be sample number three. Alas, Sokhnaisthieb’d out, having just catered the society wedding of her second son.
Though now rich and famous, the N’Dour family were originally griots, a retainer caste akin to troubadours, charged with memorising and recounting in song at ceremonies the genealogy and deeds of their aristocratic patrons. Does this include the transmission of cooking lore and recipes? ‘Not exactly,’ says Sokhna, ‘but as the griots have much to do with the organisation of feasts, we have to know about cooking and these recipes are passed down from one generation to the next in a similar way.’
Sokhna is a mine of culinary information and tips: the necessity of resisting the ubiquitous ready-made stock cubes that have come to replace traditional dried seafood flavourings like yete and guedj; the importance of a family’s heritage of cooking pots, of which she once had 50 – ‘never try to borrow Sokhna’s marmites,’ says Youssou, ‘she doesn’t take cooking pots lightly’.
We repair to the home of Youssou’s friend Dudu Sarr for a textbook Dakar lunch, prepared by his wife Fatou and their cook Khady. Cool glasses of homemade juices – bissap, baobab, ditakh – little fried pasties of fish, a splendid ‘white’ thieboudienne containing both guedj and yete, plus hibiscus leaves, and netetou – fermented pumpkin seeds. With khogne (crispy burnt rice) at the bottom of the dish and a lovely piece of barracuda bought that morning at Yoff enthroned on top.
But the Dakarois don’t live on rice and fish alone. Thieboudienne has its chicken equivalent, thiebou yapp, and chicken also features in yassa (a citrussy braise) and maffe (stew) – two more in the trilogy of classic Senegalese dishes. Lamb and mutton are popular, too, and sheep tethered on pavements or apartment balconies are a common sight in the run-up to big religious feasts like Tabaski. Countless little dibiteries, cheap popular street barbecue stalls, serve tasty brochettes of local lamb and vegetables, and grilled meat features on many restaurant menus.
However, upscale European-style restaurants – as well as numerous, expertly run Lebanese establishments – have their own take on the local produce. Until 1960, Senegal was the headquarters of the French colonial administration of West Africa. French executive chefs dominate the top kitchens, backed up by excellent Senegalese second-in-commands. Yann Manceau, chef of the Radisson Blu, tells me it’s his two sous chefs, Youssef Coly and Alione Badou Diop, who are largely responsible for the authentic savouriness of the revisited thieboudienne.
Dakar also contains examples of a breed heading for extinction in Africa: old-school French restaurateurs serving food that’s disappearing in France itself. Beside the iron carapace of the central Kermel Market, Cédric Doat, a former garden designer from Toulouse, runs Le Kermel in what was once a colonial-era brasserie and music hall. It serves terrific versions of harengs pommes à l’huile, cassoulet, and many more dishes from the French canon.
Doat is part of a colourful cast of expat characters, which includes fellow Toulousian Brother Jean-Marc Grousseau, a monk from the Benedictine monastery of Keur Moussa, just east of Dakar, who makes cheese with milk bought from the nomadic Peulh people, who are cattle and goat herders. Then there’s Norbert Jan, an Asterix-like oyster breeder who flies seed oysters in from his native Brittany to rear against all the odds in the warm salt mangrove inlets of Somone, located south of Dakar.
French colonialists initiated the mass development of Senegal’s great culinary staple, the peanut. It is a crop that has enriched the dignitaries of the Mouride sect, landowners of the peanut belt around the pilgrimage city of Touba – and remains big business today. Lately though, a new style of peanut oil called seggal, made by small artisans, has become popular, as have quality home-produced roasted peanuts, peanut butter and other products. The place to find these is the monthly farmers’ market at the foot of a gigantic hilltop statue called the African Renaissance Monument, where rows of stalls of organic honey, juices and cosmetics attract expats and middle-class Dakar families.
The peanut’s culinary role is still important as the basis of rich, deep-brown arachide sauce, found in maffe, and some versions of another Senegalese classic, thiéré, Senegalese millet couscous.
The place to buy staples such as couscous and rice is one of the half-dozen big traditional markets. Sokhna N’Dour uses several: Moussante for meat, Gueule Tapée, near the fish market on Soumbédioune beach for ‘bits and pieces’, and one of the main ones, Tilène, in Médina, the old French-built Senegalese quarter, for everything else. Under the cavernous and cobweb-festooned roof of one of Tilène’s many huge halls, you can spend hours inspecting dozens of sacks of different rices and thiéré as well as admiring a colourful array of vegetables.
It’s generally considered that couscous originated in sub-Saharan Africa, and its earliest form was millet, rather than wheat as in North Africa. Thiéré is lighter and nuttier in taste, and has a range of regional variations. In search of one, a rare salted couscous, I drive out to the edge of the Sine Saloum Delta. On the tiny island of Fadiouth, essentially a low hill of ancient oyster shells, pigs root for molluscs beside the mangroves, and village women preserve the ancestral method of washing the grain in the seawater of the estuary – imparting a delicious saline quality on the palate.
The oysters for sale on Fadiouth are mainly small, dry and smoked, for use as cooking additives in the traditional manner, unlike Norbert Jan’s splendid Somone specimens, which are served raw as a delicacy in smart Dakar restaurants. As a bonus, I finally locate a prized yete sea snail, previously only glimpsed in Tilène Market as rubbery chopped cubes of challenging aroma. The 30cm-long leathery molluscs drying in the Fadiouth sun are also daunting, but my driver snaps two up eagerly at ‘a quarter of the Dakar price’. I choose to leave him to it.
There are more obvious nearby excursions. Top of the list is the small island of Gorée, from which shiploads of slaves were once dispatched across the Atlantic. In spite of its sinister past, Gorée today is a delight – narrow streets of pretty colonial houses and small squares, a row of beach restaurants and L’Hostellerie du Chevalier de Boufflers, an old auberge so perfectly faded and French that you half expect to see Philippe Noiret at the bar in sweat-stained cream linen sipping a pastis to camera. Then there’s Lake Retba, known internationally as Lac Rose, due to the way in which it takes on a shocking pink colour in the early morning sun.
Yet it isn’t necessary to stray outside the city. When I first visited Dakar, Yoff was a seaside village out beyond that distant thing, the airport. The brand-new airport is about an hour’s drive inland, and outlying districts like Yoff and Les Almadies have been absorbed and are now part of the city. The charm of Dakar still lies in its seafront, but it’s no longer confined to the funky old dockside and the few smart corniche hotel terraces.
Sitting outside a rickety seafront café at the Pointe des Almadies, the most westerly point of Africa, eating cheap and delicious clam brochettes while admiring the gulls swooping and soaring against the dramatically orange and red sunset, I muse on the vastness of the Atlantic sitting at the end of my table. A flotilla of pirogues emerges onto the horizon, and I consider myself very lucky that I don’t have to venture out there to survive.
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