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In Dense Stews From Senegal, Intriguing Secrets

WITH its spotless new white-tile floors and gleaming stainless-steel ovens, the basement kitchen of Patisserie des Ambassades, a French cafe in Harlem on Frederick Douglass Boulevard, has the fit and finish of a laboratory. On a recent weekday morning, its two resident scientists — bakers in starched white coats — glazed mixed-berry tartlets and spread crème Chantilly over thin sheets of millefeuille pastry on a long steel table.

But at the table’s opposite end was the kitchen’s resident artist, Ken Alice N’doye, preparing thiebu djen (cheb-oo JEN), Senegal’s national dish of rice cooked in a tomato-based fish stew. Although Ms. N’doye, 31, an owner of the cafe, also wore a crisp chef’s coat, her every move sprung from sensual, rather than technical, cues.

“In Senegal, we never measure,” Ms. N’doye said, as she reached deep into a large can of tomato paste and pulled from it a fistful of thick red purée, which she massaged into a small bowl of warm water. In a stew pot on her stovetop, chopped onions, red bell peppers and tomatoes sizzled toward their combustible limit in hot oil.

Our journey to this unusual pastry kitchen began a year before and a few blocks south at Africa Kine, a Senegalese restaurant on 116th Street. We loved the stews on the menu there — dense, richly flavored concoctions that seemed kin to the gumbos we grew up eating on the coast of South Carolina. And yet in these dishes (and in others we sampled at Le Baobab, another Senegalese restaurant in the neighborhood) we also discovered new flavors that were as thrilling as our first tastes of fish sauce or kaffir lime. We set out to forage for ingredients.

The blocks around 116th Street and Frederick Douglass Boulevard make up the most densely settled Senegalese quarter in the city. As in Senegal, which until 1960 was a colony of France, Islam is the predominant religion and French the default language, heard wafting out of hair salons and among groups of men in bright robes gathered outside the mosque on Frederick Douglass. Directly across 116th Street from Africa Kine, we shopped at Darou Salam Market and Nawel Keur Mame Asta Walo, neatly organized emporia where we bought a few Senegalese staples: bags of crumbly, broken rice, a tub of unsweetened peanut butter and a bottle of palm oil. But nothing we cooked over the weeks that followed had half the depth of flavor we’d encountered on 116th Street.

So we set out to talk our way into the kitchen of a Senegalese home cook who could show us some of the techniques and ingredients we’d been missing. Gorgui N’doye, an owner of Patisserie des Ambassades, said he knew just such a person: his wife.

The N’doyes opened their bakery with a loan from the Small Business Administration in 2002, and brought to Harlem’s Senegalese quarter a cafe like those of their native Dakar, Senegal’s capital, where excellent baguettes may be as common as they are on the streets of Paris.

While sweets are the bakery’s specialty, the menu trips the globe from croque-monsieur to insalata Caprese to dishes that reflect the migration of other French-colonial cultures to Dakar, like Lebanese shawarma and Vietnamese spring rolls.

Before opening the bakery, Ms. N’doye had earned a reputation as a caterer making classic Senegalese food for birthdays and weddings. She still does this, most recently for 350 guests at a show of fashion and hairstyles in midtown Manhattan.

Her first stint in a kitchen came at age 9, when her mother was in childbirth and she was called upon to put food on the table for her family of 15. By Ms. N’doye’s account, that first attempt was a disaster, but by the time she was 13, her cooking received the ultimate compliment from her father.

“In Senegal, the traditional way a family eats is on the floor, with everyone eating from the same large bowl,” she said. “Only my father would eat at the table. But when I cooked for my Dad, it was so good, he came to sit on the floor with us.”

In 1994, Ms. N’doye emigrated to New York from Dakar, at roughly the same time that a handful of Senegalese restaurants, including Africa Kine, and Joloff, on Fulton Street in Clinton Hill, opened their doors. But it was in the 1980s that the numbers of Senegalese in the United States first began to rise, in the wake of a period of severe drought and economic austerity in the country, according to Linda Beck, a political science professor at the University of Maine and former director for the Institute of African Studies at Columbia.

The census bureau counted 584 people of Senegalese ancestry living in the five boroughs in 1990, and 2,135 in 2000. Dr. Beck attributes the growth in part to “the snowball effect from the 1980s, as more immigrants to America sent home significant remittances and stories of opportunity.”

According to data from Social Explorer, a demographic research group at Queens College, there are Senegalese communities in every borough, including one that ranges across Bedford-Stuyvesant, Clinton Hill and Fort Greene. Each is small enough to function like a village.

“Everybody knows everybody,” said Amadou Ly, who grew up in Dakar and is the executive pastry chef at the Italian restaurant Insieme. When he walked into Patisserie des Ambassades for a coffee, he was shocked to find Mr. N’doye, whom he hadn’t seen for 15 years. And in fact Mr. and Ms. N’doye were introduced by the sister of Kine Mar, the chef at Africa Kine.

“Senegal is a close society, where people know who they’re related to — second, third cousins, and beyond. And in many cases they’ve relied upon them to get here,” said Jessica B. Harris, a culinary historian and the author of “The Africa Cookbook.”

“There’s a degree of traditional Senegal that’s still maintained and that shows up in kinships and relationships among people.”

In Senegal, restaurants exist only in cities such as Dakar, where food from Vietnam, Lebanon and Morocco is available. In the rural areas, families eat almost exclusively in their own homes except on special occasions such as a rice harvest festival, when they might go from house to house, sampling different cooks’ food.

Some Senegalese people note that the food in Senegalese restaurants in New York City doesn’t accurately reflect the ethnic diversity of the country’s cuisine.

“In New York, we have a tendency to eat Wolof food,” Mr. Ly said, referring to the largest ethnic group in Senegal, “and they eat a lot of rice and fish. But when you travel inland, among the Fulani, the food is totally different. There’s a lot of dairy involved, and millet.”

But if Ms. N’doye’s kitchen is any indication, Wolof cuisine can be scintillating for Western palates. She introduced us immediately to two key seasonings in the African pantry that unlocked the depth of flavor we’d been missing in our own Senegalese cooking: guedge (pronounced gedge) — a dried fish, whose musty, deeply funky fermented-fish odor might initially be off-putting; and yete (pronounced yet) — dried giant snail, which has a leathery texture, a slightly smoky smell, and is only a shade less intense than guedge.

Both ingredients are used sparingly but add essential background flavor. (Darou Salam Market and Nawel Keur Mame Asta Walo keep both items in the back, so it’s necessary to ask for them by name.)

Ms. N’doye added a small amount of guedge and yete to her Thiebu Djen, and started preparing mafe, a lamb and peanut stew. She pulled out a familiar ingredient, a large jar of Skippy creamy peanut butter.

“My friends in Senegal say it’s too sweet, but I love the blue-top Skippy,” she said, and laughed. “Every time I go back to Senegal, I bring a jar with me.”

She dug out a fistful and added it to the gurgling pot.

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