In Sine Saloum, Senegal, tracking down the highly regional millet couscous dish thiéré mboum may require leaving the resort.
Every friend of ours who has been to Senegal recommended we go to a hotel and restaurant in the Sine Saloum region called Lodge des Collines de Niassam. Besides having beautiful eco-friendly bungalows built into baobab trees and overlooking a bird-filled lagoon, the property is notorious for having the best French-inspired fare in the country. It was a big splurge for us, especially after three weeks of pricier-than-anticipated travel around West Africa, but we decided to go nonetheless, calling it an early seven-year wedding anniversary celebration.
It was quite an adventure to get there: We opted for the low-budget local-transport approach, ultimately rolling our luggage 1.5 kilometers down a rocky dirt road after arguing with our sept-place driver, who refused to take us all the way to the hotel. I can’t imagine many other lodgers arriving in this fashion, but we tend to be unconventional—usually in the attempt to save a few dollars.
The lodge proved to be worth the hike, as even along our route we were welcomed by gorgeous scenery and some of the most exquisite birds imaginable. We dusted ourselves off in our stunning lodge, which offered 180-degree views of gently lapping lagoon and a horizon lined with baobabs, and headed out to our much-anticipated
Lunch was everything we could ask for: perfectly chewy bread, freshly made cheese from the lodge’s own cattle, local grilled fish, blini, basil mousse. It was our first non-African meal in three weeks and felt incredibly indulgent. As did the strong $4 house rums, each infused with a different local fruit.
Afterward we hung out with the lodge’s bar man, Gorgui (whom we dubbed “Georgie”), learning about the activities on offer at Niassam. Realizing the costs exceeded our budget—i.e., it was something like US$40 a person to visit a local market—we decided we were content to take advantage of the pool and our lovely room to just read, play Yahtzee, and relax, with not even wifi to distract us.
Then Laura remembered that in Dakar we’d met a man who told us about a traditional dish from the Sine Saloum region called thiere mboum (pronounced close to “cherry boom,” though we liked to emphasize the BOOM part). Despite being technically “off” from website work while at Niassam, we asked Georgie in our best bad French if he knew where we might find it. He said of course, and he could even arrange it for us. Skeptical, we asked if this was another $40-a-person local-food tour; Georgie laughed and said no: We could come to his house for dinner the following night and try the dish there. He called his wife to see if that was OK. To help pay for ingredients, she asked for the local equivalent of $5.25, which we happily handed over.
So there we were, having just had a delicious meal in what’s widely considered the best restaurant in Senegal, arranging to swap one of our two included dinners to try our luck at some local thiere mboum…and we couldn’t have been more psyched. The next day, Georgie excitedly arranged for us to meet his sister, another employee at the lodge, for a ride to Palamarin village up the road. Georgie’s brother Seku met us at Georgie’s house; we quickly learned he spoke Spanish. Finally we could communicate with our new friends! (French and Wolof were not getting us very far.) After a sunset walk along the village beach and a meet-and-greet with the entire extended family, it was time for dinner.
A rug was laid down in Georgie’s one-room concrete home, with just enough space between the bed and the dresser for eight of us to sit. Georgie’s elegantly dressed wife, Mymona, entered the dimly lit room—one small fluorescent light was borrowed for the occasion—carrying an enormous covered shallow bowl; she placed it inside our circle of touching knees. At last, the thiere mboum was unveiled.
Greenish-brown millet couscous (thiere) filled the large bowl, and Mymona, using a second smaller bowl, ladled out heaps of a peanutty leaf-studded sauce around the outer edge of it. Each person stuck to the section of bowl right in front of them, using their right hands to scoop the food up and into their mouths. I opted for the spoon that was offered (as there wasn’t a napkin in sight) but managed to match the intensity of millet-to-mouth speed of my new Senegalese friends.
The flavors were clean and earthy, with a slight tang. It wasn’t a mind-blowing dish, but fresh and real, made as it probably has been for hundreds of years. After a few final ladles of sauce, all that remained was one small pile of millet couscous in the center of the large bowl.
As it’s known to do, thiere mboum’s filling nature put us all into a food coma. The two adorable small boys in the room, Georgie’s son and nephew, still had energy, clearly on a sugar high from the African cola passed around (we guessed that this special-occasion beverage was the real reason for our small financial contribution). But the adults were done: It was time to head home.
There was only one way to end this evening: on the back of a donkey. Georgie’s friend pulled up with his donkey rig, and Laura, Georgie, and I hopped onto the flat-board back. Under a beautiful moonlit sky, we crawled our way back to Niassam, the poor donkey slow and sluggish under our weight. It was almost as if he’d had his own thiere mboum before the journey.