Pierre Thiam’s Teranga Creates a Path from Western Africa to Harlem
Pierre Thiam is sitting at a round table at a restaurant near Gramercy Park in Manhattan, his hands illuminated by sunlight pouring through the bay window behind him, offering warmth on a cold winter day. “When I go to Gullah Island, I’m in Senegal completely,” he says, his eyes bright. He recounts how the two locations, both dear to him, are linked in their food and culture. The Gullah cuisine of South Carolina's Lowcountry and Sea Islands, with its emphasis on rice and seafood and intrinsic, almost familial hospitality, made him feel like he had returned to his native Senegal hundreds of miles away.
“Food itself is the way people there express and share their love,” he says, of both places. Thiam sees a similar link here in New York City, where he currently lives. “Food is very much highlighted in our cultures, both African and African American, and as an African, I don’t see the difference.”
Born and raised in Dakar, Senegal, chef Pierre Thiam is the foremost West African chef in New York, if not the entire country. He has run two restaurants in New York City, Yolele and Le Grand Dakar (both of which are now closed) and published two cookbooks on West African food, and his TED talk on fonio, an ancient grain native to sub-Saharan Africa, has been viewed over one million times. This week, he’s opening his third restaurant, the fast-casual concept Teranga, which is located inside the Africa Center in Harlem and will serve the foods of West Africa. (The name broadly means "hospitality" in Wolof.)
“Teranga is a top value in Senegal. It’s very key,” Thiam says. The atmosphere, service, and design of Teranga centers around what “a Senegal experience would be for someone that arrived” there, but the menu doesn’t belong to one country; instead it combines influences from Mali, Nigeria, Côte D’Ivoire, Senegal, and other African countries.
His refusal to define the food as belonging to one country is intentional. “I love history and I love food, so that’s the story I want to tell,” he says. Thiam sees the cuisines of the western coast of Africa as deeply connected because of natural resources and tribal groups whose influence on the area's food and culture pre-date any creation of borders, which were drawn by non-Africans. “Those borders aren’t real; they were placed upon us,” Thiam says. He doesn’t see dishes or ingredients as belonging to one country or another—it’s all part of a shared history of the continent.
Teranga’s jollof, for example, is made with fonio cooked in a spiced tomato broth instead of rice. Jollof is one of the most beloved dishes of western Africa, so prized that there are entire cooking competitions dedicated to declaring once and for all which country makes it the best.
Traditionalists may be upset at Thiam’s take with fonio, but that’s what he wants. “It’s meant to just make fun of this whole fight and present it differently,” he says.
Thiam’s personal journey as a chef, learning about West Africa and how the food has spread to other parts of the world, is also present on the menu. “My food has been evolving in ways that my experiences have been evolving,” he says. The experience of opening Nok by Alara, a restaurant in Lagos, Nigeria, led him to see the similarities and differences between the countries that are so close on the western part of the African continent.
“In my travels to Côte D’Ivoire, I realize I always keep learning; it’s a constant learning process,” he says. He has brought these lessons to the menu at Teranga and combines them with some of the most iconic African dishes. Plantain and red palm fufu are made with organic red palm oil, and mafe, a sweet and salty peanut sauce, is inspired by his travels in Mali and Senegal. Thiam also sources Liberian "ruby" red rice for the menu from farmers in Liberia.
Teranga is also a lab and storefront where Thiam can test recipes and sell traditional African products that are part of Yolele Foods, his retail company that currently sells fonio at Whole Foods across the New York region. There are plans to sell chips made from fonio as well dawadawa, fermented locust bean, in powdered form. “It has been around for hundreds of years and brings so much flavor when you’re cooking with it,” he says. “You use the powder deliberately in your sauce making or you can simply use the powder as a condiment with cayenne pepper and salt.”
Yolele, the term, loosely translates to “let the good times roll,” and it's the guiding principle of Teranga.
“Yolele is a word from the Fulani, a nomadic group traveling from west to east Africa, back and forth and that’s the largest nomadic group in the world,” Thiam says. These dishes and ingredients are edible history lessons for diners that Thiam find still don’t know much about the breadth of Africa. “I want diners to be really pleased with the food, but I also want them to learn more about Africa and see a different Africa than the way it’s been portrayed in the media.”
Offering a menu of African dishes in addition to selling African products is a way of creating a line of connection between western Africa and the United States, he says.
“That’s the continuing story of flavors going around the world, and I want that to be part of the story that I’m writing,” Thiam says. He wants to show his appreciation for the food and culture of West Africa and the region’s influence on African-American culture, which he sees as a constant between his native Senegal and his home here in the United States. “We kept this food, and this food played an important role in our survival, like music and the culture, but food itself is key,” he says. “It played a role not just physical, but spiritual.”
That’s what he hopes diners walk away with from Teranga: the story of bringing this food to new borders and seeing the similarities that exist between the two.
“It’s becoming a global world now, and we should allow food to play its role which is to unite and not separate,” he says. “I’m bringing those West African flavors to Harlem. That’s the continuing story.”
Teranga, The Africa Center. 1280 Fifth Ave, New York, NY.