Kristina Sepetys reviews
Simply West African: Easy, Joyful Recipes for Every Kitchen by Pierre Thiam with Lisa Katayama (Potter, 2023).
Teranga, a word from the Wolof language of Senegal, refers to the spirit of generosity, love, abundance, and warm hospitality that author Pierre Thiam shares throughout his new cookbook, Simply West African: Easy, Joyful Recipes for Every Kitchen. This renowned East Bay–based author hopes his readers will find these qualities in their daily lives, and he shows us so many ways how as he shares the wonders of West African cuisine while extolling the importance of eating healthy, climate-friendly foods.
“Traditional West African cuisine is among the healthiest in the world, with its lean meats, abundant vegetables, leafy greens, legumes, and hearty beans and grains that honor the integrity of the source ingredient,” Thiam writes in his new book’s introduction.
Thiam grew up in Dakar, Senegal, and while living in New York, he ran three restaurants. He now lives in El Cerrito with his young daughter and wife, Lisa Katayama, who is the co-author of Simply West African. “Lisa and I were expecting when the pandemic hit New York City,” he said. “Hospitals were all full, and we wanted a safer environment,” he told me in a recent email. “Lisa [had] lived in San Francisco for 15 years and always wanted to return.”
Since settling in the Bay Area, Thiam has done pop-ups at Chez Panisse, the Claremont Hotel, and other high-profile locations, and he hopes to do more. “But I’m not rushing to do brick and mortar yet,” he adds, and, clearly, he has plenty of other projects to keep himself busy, such as running Yolélé, the African food company that he co-founded with a mission toward sharing West African foods and supporting small West African farmers. He’s also established a casual restaurant chain called Teranga, with a flagship location in Harlem and another location in Midtown Manhattan.
Thiam has three previous cookbooks to his name. Among them is The Fonio Cookbook: An Ancient Grain Rediscovered, which is dedicated entirely to recipes using this small, seed-like, gluten-free super grain from West Africa. Broader in scope, his new book is a collection of sauces, snacks, meat and seafood dishes, vegetables, and grain dishes essential to West African meals. It’s aimed at bringing readers in touch with what Thiam describes as a “unique blend of African ingredients with flavors, methods, and inspiration from literally every corner of the world.” One finds familiar ingredients like tomato sauce, fish sauce, coconut, and peanut butter (used as a thickener and flavor-bringer in stews and sauces), along with complex West African combinations like kankankan (a spice blend made of peanuts, smoked paprika, cayenne pepper, and other spices); nokos (a savory fresh mixture made from green bell peppers, scallions, garlic, ginger and chiles); Ghanaian shito sauce; everyday hot pepper Kani sauce, and many other flavorful additions that make everyday dishes strikingly memorable.
Thiam features common produce items like hearty greens, yams, black-eyed peas, and okra in his recipes as he demonstrates the prominent role of vegetables in West African cuisine. His rendition of mafe, a mix of root vegetables in a deeply seasoned peanut-based sauce that’s not unlike Mexican mole, forgoes the typical lamb, chicken, or fish in favor of hearty root vegetables—cassava, carrots, sweet potatoes, and turnips—and he does something similar in his Spinach and Mushroom Efo Riro, a bright green and orange Nigerian dish often made with goat meat or beef that Thiam prepares strictly vegan. Readers may want to seek out some of the Yolélé foods—fonio chips, spice blends, and flours—which can be found at quite a few Bay Area markets, to complement dishes.
When I asked which recipes Thiam recommends to cooks who are new to West African cuisine, he suggested his easy, one-pot recipe for Ginger Chicken Kedjenou. Made with eggplant and tomato, this delicious dish from Cote d’Ivoire is easy to assemble, cooks in the oven, and requires no water or oil. For late-fall or winter meals he recommends his Coconut Collard Greens with Butternut Squash and Crispy Roasted Harissa Brussels Sprouts.
Simply West African is filled with simple, accessible recipes, helpful headnotes with intriguing background information, and serving tips from a chef clearly passionate about his culinary heritage. It’s a great introduction to a nourishing, flavorful cuisine.
The following recipes and drink-pairing advice are reprinted with permission from Simply West African by Pierre Thiam with Lisa Katayama, copyright Pierre Thiam © 2023. Photographs by Evan Sung. Published by Clarkson Potter, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Buy this book at your favorite local independent bookseller. Find it on Indiebound.org.
Big Boss’s Chicken
(aka Poulet Dg)
Big Boss’s chicken represents the perfect balance of power and humor, West African–style. DG is an acronym for “directeur general”—which means CEO in French. This dish, often found in Cameroon or Côte d’Ivoire, has some similarities with the classic French poulet fricassée in that it is a chicken and vegetable stew, but instead of being drenched in cream, it’s cooked gently with ginger, plantains, and tomatoes. The uncompromised juiciness of the chicken thighs, the kick of intensity from the ginger, and the occasional sweetness of the plantains make this unforgettable dish a delight no matter where you stand on the ladder of authority.
- 6 bone-in chicken thighs (about 2 pounds), skin on or off, or 1 whole chicken (about 3 pounds), cut into 8 parts
- 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- 6 garlic cloves, finely chopped
- 2 teaspoons chopped fresh thyme
- 2 teaspoons fine sea salt, plus more as needed
- ½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 4 large, firm plantains (not overly ripe)
- Peanut or sunflower oil, for frying
- 1 cup chopped yellow onion
- ½ cup chopped green bell pepper
- ½ cup chopped red bell pepper
- 1 tablespoon coarsely chopped fresh ginger
- 8 plum tomatoes, coarsely chopped
- ½ cup chicken stock or water
- 1 large carrot, sliced into ¼-inch-thick rounds
- 1 handful of green beans, trimmed and cut into 1-inch pieces
- 2 tablespoons Nokos Seasoning (a savory fresh mixture of green bell peppers, scallions, garlic, ginger, and chiles; recipe is in the book)
- 1 small bunch of fresh cilantro, coarsely chopped, for serving
In a large bowl, add the chicken and season with the olive oil, half the garlic, the thyme, salt, and pepper. Cover and marinate for 30 minutes at room temperature, or at least 2 hours and up to overnight in the refrigerator.
Meanwhile, peel the plantains and cut them into 1-inch-thick rounds. In a medium saucepan, add enough peanut oil so it goes about 2 inches up the sides. Heat the oil over medium-high heat. Add the plantain slices and fry until golden brown on both sides, 1 to 2 minutes per side. Remove the plantains from the pan, then remove the pan from the heat to allow the oil to cool slightly. (Do not discard the oil.)
Preheat the oven broiler to high. Line up the chicken on a sheet pan, skin-side up, and place under the broiler, ideally 5 to 6 inches from the heat source. (If you don’t have a broiler, use an oven preheated to 500°F.) Broil, adjusting the pan as needed for even browning, until the skin is deeply browned, crispy, and charred in spots, 10 to 15 minutes. Using a pair of tongs, flip the chicken and continue to cook under the broiler until browned and charred in spots, about 10 more minutes. Remove the sheet pan from the broiler and let it sit at room temperature.
In a Dutch oven or large heavy-bottomed pot, heat 2 tablespoons of the oil used for frying the plantains over medium heat. Add the onion and stir until soft and translucent, about 5 minutes. Add the green and red bell peppers, the ginger, and the remaining garlic, and cook, stirring continuously, until fragrant and the onion is a slightly golden brown color, about 3 more minutes. Add the tomatoes, raise the heat to high, and cook, stirring occasionally to avoid scorching, until the tomatoes begin to release their juices, about 3 minutes. Add the chicken stock, allow the mixture to come to a boil, then add the carrots and chicken, along with the juice that has accumulated in the pan. Reduce the heat to medium-low, then cover and simmer until the carrots are soft and the chicken is tender and cooked, about 15 more minutes. Add the green beans and nokos (if using), and cook until the beans are tender, about 5 minutes. Taste and adjust the seasoning with more salt as needed. Add the fried plantains and gently fold them into the stew. Transfer to a large platter and top with the cilantro. Serve immediately.
Seafood Okra Soupou Kanja
The name soupou kanja may not ring a bell, but you’ve likely heard of gumbo, a mainstay of New Orleans cuisine. Soupou kanja is the origin of that Creole seafood stew. Here, I offer a twist on the classic African version, using scallops and mussels instead of shrimp and sausage, which gives it a freshness and elegance reminiscent of the atmosphere of my ocean-side hometown of Dakar. For a slightly smokier flavor, take the option of adding some mackerel, which you can buy in a can or at your local fish market.
- 1 cup bottled clam juice
- 1 cup finely chopped yellow onion
- 2 cups crushed tomatoes (about half of a 28-ounce can)
- 1 tablespoon fish sauce
- 1 Scotch bonnet or habanero chili, left whole (optional)
- 1 smoked mackerel, skin off, bones removed, and cut into 1-inch cubes, or about 1 cup canned (optional)
- 1 teaspoon fine sea salt
- 1 pound large sea scallops (about 12)
- 1 pound fresh or frozen half-shell New Zealand mussels
- 20 to 24 okra pods, as needed, cut into ¼-inch slices
- ¼ cup sustainably sourced red palm oil
- Cooked rice, folio, or fufu for serving
In a large pot, combine 1 cup of water, the clam juice, and onion. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, then reduce the heat to medium-low. Cook until the onion is softened, 5 to 7 minutes. Stir in the tomatoes, fish sauce, and Scotch bonnet (if using). Return the heat to medium-high, bring to a boil, and boil for about 2 minutes. Reduce the heat to medium-low and continue to cook until the sauce thickens, about 10 minutes. Stir in the smoked mackerel (if using) and salt. Stir with a wooden spoon to incorporate, being careful not to crush the Scotch bonnet.
Raise the heat to medium-high and cook until the broth begins to boil. Add the scallops, mussels, okra, and oil, and stir to incorporate. Cook until the scallops are opaque and starting to slightly break apart at the edges and the okra is still green, about 5 minutes. Serve with the rice or another starch of your choice.
Boozy Pairings for Your African Meal
Almost as important as cooking the right food is pairing it with the right beverages. While cocktails are fun to make, I’m going to go out on a limb and say that nothing pairs better with the rich, hearty dishes in this book and the intense spices and flavors of West African cuisine than a good old beer. Brands like La Gazelle, Flag Spéciale, and Castel are popular in West Africa, but any blond or lager beer from your local grocery or liquor store is sure to be a great complement to our food. (Guinness, the globally renowned Irish stout, is hugely popular in Nigeria, though I never really understood why.) If you’re looking for a healthier and lighter option, you might enjoy the fonio beer brewed by my friend Garrett Oliver from Brooklyn Brewery.
Wait, what is this you’re saying? You’re not a beer drinker? No problem! A good wine will elevate the experience of eating West African food at home, making it a slightly more buttoned-up affair. For recipes that use chilies like Scotch bonnet or West African Piri-Piri Sauce, you might consider an easy, fruity, light-bodied wine to balance out the heat from the spices, like a chenin blanc from South Africa. Heartier meat dishes and stews might benefit from a pairing with a full-bodied red like pinot noir or burgundy, whose higher acidity levels will cut through the richness of ingredients like red palm oil. Light white wines, like a Riesling or a Sancerre, work perfectly with the fish and seafood recipes in this book. And, of course, let’s not forget that a little bit of sparkly is always a good option for any occasion.