With coronavirus making travel a tricky and even potentially dangerous prospect this year, we’re embracing the summer staycation. All week (and all summer) long, we’ll bring you transportive flavors and travel-inspired ideas from around the world, so you can take your tastebuds on a trip and give your mind a mini vacation while you’re still at home. Here, chef, writer, and activist Pierre Thiam shares his recipe for a West African grain bowl with yassa, grilled chicken, plantains, and black-eyed peas.
Pierre Thiam serves Senegalese-inspired grain bowls (the ultimate power lunch) at his fast casual restaurant, Teranga, but he aims to do more than simply feed people’s hunger. Chef Thiam’s mission is to educate health-conscious American consumers on traditional African superfoods, while also improving the lives of producers by restoring biodiversity to the planet through highly sustainable ancient crops.
Our senior video producer Guillermo Riveros visited Teranga in 2019 to chat with the chef and make a Yassa Bowl using West African red rice, a super grain with great nutritional value.
Man on a Mission
Chef Thiam grew up in Senegal, where food was all around him, but cooking was very much a gendered activity; his mother and aunts were the ones who cooked, and while he may have loved food, he would never have expected to make a career in the kitchen. Once he moved to New York City, his roommate convinced him to take a busboy job and that changed everything. The initial culture shock he experienced stepping into the kitchen and seeing only men was real, but so was Chef Thiam’s determination to bring West African flavors to the city.
He was inspired early in life by Senegal’s first president, Léopold Sédar Senghor, who talked about a new humanism and “the rendezvous of giving and receiving,” of a universal civilization in which all cultures would gather together as equals around a communal table, each with their own contribution to share.
Ancient Grains: Good for Everyone
In that spirit, in addition to running the kitchen at Teranga, speaking around the world as a guest lecturer and chef about world hunger alleviation, responsible tourism, and Africa’s diverse culinary history, Chef Thiam has also written cookbooks and become a champion of traditional African grains.
In doing research for his first cookbook, he came across fonio, an ancient grain that may be the oldest cultivated cereal in Africa (with a history going back at least 5,000 years). Called “the seed of the universe” by Mali’s Dogon people, fonio is indeed a powerful food. It’s packed with protein, fiber, iron, and other nutrients, while also being gluten-free and low-glycemic—and it’s a hardy crop, growing where most other grains won’t, without requiring much water.
Yolélé Fonio, 3 bags for $19.95 from Amazon
This gluten-free ancient grain deserves a place in your pantry.
And yet, it had largely disappeared from the modern Senegalese diet.
Chef Thiam co-founded Yolélé Foods to bring fonio to the attention of a global market, and in so doing, to give back to his native country. Cultivating fonio is good for the environment (since it needs very little water, it can help combat desertification), and good for farmers in Africa, who often struggle with poverty. Chef Thiam’s TED talk about fonio is fascinating, and you can also read more about his mission on the Yolélé Foods site.
Yassa Grain Bowl Recipe
The dish itself is inspired by the food from south Senegal, where Chef Thiam’s family originated, and includes several components: yassa (lots of onions cooked slowly with lime juice, bay leaf, garlic, and Scotch bonnet, plus grilled chicken, or sometimes grilled fish); a black-eyed pea salad with fresh vegetables and a spicy garlic and ginger dressing; and sweet fried plantains.
In Chef Thiam’s culture, there is also a deeply held belief that strangers, foreigners, and guests (whether you’re expecting them or not) bring blessings; you receive the blessings by sharing the best you have with those guests—so file this one away for when the time comes to have company again. Meanwhile, cook it for yourself as often as you like.
- 6 chicken thighs (skinless, boneless)
- 2 tablespoons fresh thyme, finely chopped
- 4 scallions, finely chopped
- 1 cup lime juice (6 to 7 limes)
- 1⁄4 tablespoon white vinegar
- 1 tablespoon sea salt
- 1 tablespoon freshly cracked black pepper
- 2 cups peanut or vegetable oil
- 1 pound yellow onions, cut in thick strips
- 1 whole Scotch bonnet pepper
- 1 bay leaf
- 1 tablespoon salt
- 1 1⁄2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper
- In a large bowl, combine the chicken pieces, thyme, scallions, about 1/4 cup of the lime juice, vinegar, sea salt, 1 tablespoon pepper, and 1 tablespoon of the oil. Mix well so the chicken is thoroughly coated. Cover and marinate in the fridge for at least 2 hours or overnight.
- Heat a grill until hot. Remove the chicken from the marinade; discard remaining marinade. Grill the chicken until it’s almost cooked through, 6 to 7 minutes on each side. (It will finish cooking in the onion sauce, imparting to the sauce its lovely grill flavors.) Transfer the chicken to a platter, cover loosely with aluminum foil, and set aside.
- Meanwhile, in a large pot, heat the remaining 3 tablespoons oil over medium-high heat. When the oil is hot, add the onions and cook for 1 to 2 minutes without stirring. Stir once with a wooden spoon, then allow the onions to begin caramelizing. Only stir from time to time to avoid scorching, but make sure to allow the onions to get some color, 10 to 12 minutes.
- Stir in the Scotch bonnet and bay leaf. Continue cooking and stirring for about 5 minutes, until the pepper is slightly fragrant and the onions have a uniform light brown color; add 1 to 2 tablespoons water only as needed to avoid scorching.
- Add the remaining lime juice to taste. Season with the additional salt and pepper. Add the grilled chicken, any juices that have accumulated in the platter, and the 1 cup water. Stir well. Simmer until chicken is completely cooked through, 10 to 15 minutes.
- Remove bay leaves and the Scotch bonnet (or leave the pepper in for the brave).
Black-Eyed Pea Salad
- 1 cup chopped parsley
- 5 cups cooked black-eyed peas (roughly 3 cups dried peas makes 5 cups cooked; you can use canned if you're in a hurry)
- 1 red bell pepper, stemmed, seeded, and finely chopped
- 1 cup cherry or grape tomatoes, chopped
- 1/2 cup sliced red onion
- 1 medium cucumber, seeded and finely chopped
- 2 serrano peppers or 1 habanero or Scotch bonnet chile, stemmed, seeded, and minced
- sea salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
- minced, pureed, or grated ginger
- minced, pureed, or grated garlic
- lime juice
- olive oil
- salt and pepper
- Make dressing: Mix the ginger, garlic, lime juice, and olive oil; mix vigorously to emulsify. Add salt and pepper to taste and strain if you like. Set aside.
- Combine all of the salad ingredients when ready to serve and mix with dressing (you can also build the whole salad except for the parsley ahead of time and add parsley when ready to serve).
- 4 large, very ripe plantains
- 1 1/2 cups vegetable oil
- kosher salt or sugar (optional)
- Trim ends of plantains, peel, and cut diagonally into 1-inch pieces.
- Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium-high. Carefully place 1 plantain piece in oil. If it bubbles vigorously, the oil is ready. If it doesn’t, wait another minute, and try again. Working in batches, cook plantains, turning once, until beginning to brown, 1–2 minutes per side.
- Reduce heat to low and continue to cook, turning occasionally, until soft and deep golden brown, 6–8 minutes.
- Transfer to a paper towel-lined sheet tray. Season with salt and/or sugar, if desired. Serve hot.
- 2 cups rice
- 1 cup water
- pinch of salt
- butter (optional)
- Rinse the rice. Ugh, I know, rinsing is annoying, but it takes 20 seconds and gets rid of dusty starches.
- Always remember 1:2. For most types of rice, you'll always use a ratio of 1 cup rice to 2 cups water, which you can scale up or down. (Double-check your rice packaging to be sure.) Feel free to swap in chicken or vegetable broth for more flavor.
- Bring water to a boil. Then stir in rice and salt. And if you want to add a tab of butter, too, go for it—your rice will taste 10x better.
- Lower heat to a steady simmer. After adding the rice, the temperature of your water will drop significantly, and it'll stop boiling. Let it come back to a gentle simmer (otherwise you run the risk of your water cooking off faster than your rice gets tender).
- Cover the saucepan and reduce the heat to low. Though it will be tempting, keep the lid on! You don't want to mess with the steam. This is very important.
- Check after 18 minutes for white rice. I always set a timer for 18, knowing that it probably will be perfect, but could need another minute or two. Let the rice be your indicator, not the water. If there's a little water leftover, it's totally fine! Just tilt the saucepan slightly to drain it out. (Cooking brown rice or red rice? Check at 30 minutes. It could take up to 45 minutes total for these firmer types of rice.)
- Turn off the heat, replace the lid, and let it rest for a few minutes in the steamy saucepan. Patience is a virtue, my friend.
- Fluff it up with a fork. Easy peasy.
Put all these components together into one satisfying and nutritious bowl:
Or mix and match for other meals!
More Recipes from Chef Thiam
Senegal: Modern Senegalese Recipes from the Source to the Bowl by Pierre Thiam, $35 from Amazon
Get more of the chef's recipes in this vibrant Senegalese cookbook.
The Fonio Cookbook: An Ancient Grain Rediscovered by Pierre Thiam, $17.99 from Amazon
Discover just how versatile and delicious fonio is in this book.
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