5 Steps to Eating a Group Meal in Senegal

Updated: Jul 6, 2020

So your Senegalese co-worker that you've been friendly with over the past few weeks, invites you over for lunch to her home. You find the invitation to be so generous! You don't want to be rude by saying no, so you enthusiastically accept.

Later that day, you have a wave of anxiety. What should you expect? You've never been to any Senegalese person's home before. While there are lots of customs to keep in mind, that are much different than back home, it's nothing you can't handle. After all, these are the moments that make your mission in Senegal worth it - all these cultural interactions and interesting memories!

Fear not! Here are some tips for eating over at a new person's house.


1. What to Bring & Wear?

What to wear? The key word is always "modesty," when going to someone's home. No need to cover your hair, if you are a woman, necessarily - but be sure that you are modestly covered, including legs and above the elbows, and nothing too tight.

It goes without saying that you should never show up at a dinner/lunch invitation empty-handed. While back home you might bring dessert, appetizers, or a bottle of wine, Senegal is a bit different.

If the family is Christian: You are more than welcome to bring a bottle of wine, if the family is middle-upper class. Or to be on the safe side, you can bring the same as what you would for a Muslim family.

If the family is Muslim: No alcohol! You can bring 2 bottles of juice, or carbonated beverage, or a mix of fruits (bananas, oranges, or apples). A safe bet would be 2-3 kilos of fruit, since the families are most likely larger than you are used to.

Don't feel pressured to bring a lot - they will be pleasantly surprised with anything you bring! They appreciate the gesture. No need to shower them with gifts, as it can be seen as flaunting. Moderation is best.


2. Greeting Family Members

The person who invited you with undoubtedly take you around the home to introduce you to the family members. (Don't worry if you can't remember everyone's name!) They may or may not explain the person's relationship to them, but typically they will say the person's name. There will typically be some brothers, sisters, cousins, children, and elders in the home.

If you are a woman: When you are introduced, especially to an older person, you can bend your knees in a quick dip while you shake the person's hand. Be aware that some religious families will not shake your hand if you are a woman, which is simply a way that a man shows respect to you. Instead, you can place your right hand over your heart.

You can simply say, "Ca va? Enchante" when introduced.


3. Main Senegalese Dishes

Senegal has a wide spectrum of delicious and unique dishes that you will surely be exposed to - the best-tasting versions are absolutely those you will have at someone's home! So if you've been invited over for a meal, consider yourself lucky!

Main Lunch Dishes:

  • Yassa Poulet (Ginaar in Wolof): This is the most simple and common dish - without sacrificing flavor! It's made with chicken, or fish, white rice, and a delicious onion sauce made with garlic, dijon mustard, vinegar, and many other spices and vegetables.

  • Chep bu Jen - rouge ou blanc: This dish is the national dish of Senegal. It literally translates into Rice and Fish, white or red. It is wonderfully aromatic and flavorful, and includes a broiled whole fish, various boiled vegetables, delicious, slightly acidic rice or tomato-based rice (like joloff rice, in Ghana).

  • Chep bu Yapp: This dish means Rice and Meat in Wolof, and often includes a yellow, curry rice with small carrots of peas, and slow-cooked lamb.

  • Maffe: This dish hails originally from Mali, but the Senegalese have made it their own. It is a tomato and peanut-butter based, thick sauce which has boiled vegetables such as carrots, cassava, and sweet potatoes, as well as slow-cooked meat over white rice. It can often be a bit spicy, depending on the family's tastes.

  • Soupa kanja: This is one of the most expensive dishes for a Senegalese family to cook - so consider it a big compliment if they make it for you! For 10 people, it can cost well over 15,000 CFA ($30). It is a gumbo-based, thick and slimy textured sauce, with plenty of delicious seafood and smoked fish throughout. It's eaten over a bed of white

Dinner Dishes:

  • Chérré: In Wolof, this refers to millet-based couscous, a thick, textured base for a variety of sauces (creamed gumbo sauce, tomato-based sauce with meat or chicken, or a thick peanut sauce). Be careful when eating this dish - it's so delicious, that you are bound to eat a lot, quickly - which can lead to stomach aches after dinner! The couscous seems to expand once in your stomach.

  • Slow-Cooked Chicken or Meat, Fries, and Salad: This is a very common dinner dish, which includes delicious meat or chicken that has been slow-cooked and broiled, along with potato fries, and salad, garnished within a common bowl.


4. How to Eat Around a Bowl

The Senegalese eat communally, on the floor (on a mat), as is the custom in North Africa, as well as most of the Middle East and South Asia. With the exception of some Christian Senegalese, usually upper-middle class, be prepared to eat around a bowl with the family.

When it is time to eat, you will notice at least one young girl come into the room, and put down a large mat on the floor. They will also bring out a large, silver bowl (perhaps a smaller bowl which has extra sauce), several spoons, and cloth napkins for guests (you!) so you don't worry about spilling rice on your lap. Everyone will begin making their way to the bowl, and sit carefully around, so as to be sure not to bump anyone next to them.

Sometimes, the maid will bring around a basin of water and some soap to wash your hands. She will spill water over your hands, while you rub them together, including in between your fingers, to prepare for the meal.

It is best to sit with your legs to the side, or underneath you, with your legs as close to your body as possible to make room. It is not recommended to sit Indian-style. They will ask if you want a spoon or to eat with your hands -- unless you are skilled at eating with your hands, I would recommend taking the spoon for beginners!

Imagine that the bowl in front of you is divided up like a pizza. Your portion is a triangle section in front of you. You shouldn't eat from your neighbor's section, nor reach across the bowl - if you see something you'd like to taste, you can politely ask the woman of the house to get it for you. She will be the one to make sure you are getting pieces of chicken, meat, or fish, as well as vegetables, so don't worry about serving yourself. OH - and don't be alarmed if she serves you with her bare hands:)

How do you stop eating? Seems easy enough...can't you just stop eating when you're full? Not so fast. The minute you slow down, everyone around you will ask if you don't like the food. Once you reassure them, and begin to eat, you then realize you are getting very full. When you stop, and say you are full, they will all insist that you keep eating, sometimes even piling on more food into your section.