Outside this place, fall is hanging on by its fingertips. Piles of dead leaves lie in the gutters, choked with cold rainwater. Outside this place, the sky is ashy and the mercury is falling. But I am inside this place. I am hunched over bowls of lamb mafe and fish yassa, and a smile is painted on my big dumb face. Nothing separates me from Seattle, sliding hopelessly into winter, except a half-inch of glass and some carefully decorated walls, but I might as well be on the other side of the world, sipping this peanuty stew off this fall-apart lamb and tearing juicy fish meat from the bone. I might as well be in another country. On another continent. I might as well be in Senegal.
Senegal, a nub on the west coast of Africa, a colony of France until the 1960s, known to casual observers for its political upheavals and French influences. Known to anyone who’s ever wandered into a place like La Teranga in Columbia City for its absolutely, positively, eyes-rolled-back-in-the-sockets, foot-kicking-under-the-table food. Lamb and goat, yams and tilapia, smothered in crackly sauces, dumped over rice and couscous.
“I make traditional food,” Mamadou Diakhate tells me. He’s owned La Teranga for 10 years. “It’s just me back here,” he’s laughing. “So if you don’t like something, there’s no one else to blame but me.”
He leans against the wall of his restaurant, answering my silly questions. I am in this place far away and just down the street, eating the food he prepared in his little kitchen with his careful hands. I shovel a forkful of fish yassa into my face, feel the crunch of the tilapia, the zing and sparkle of the onion, the tangy pull of mustard.
“I can eat that every day,” he says, laughing that easy laugh of his. He tells me that some of his dishes have so much going on in them that he can eat them only once or twice a week, but the fish yassa? “Every day,” he says again.
And I can see what he means. Even in all its foreignness (the bits of olive and crumpled onions slathered over a wedge of carefully crisped fish, all piled atop a bed of rice), there is something essential about it. Something hearty and right.
I ask him about the rest of the menu and he points to the stews, then tells me about the importance of peanuts in Senegalese cooking. “They’re our main export,” he says. Then he checks himself: “Well, they were before all of the oil and minerals.”
I take another spoonful of the lamb mafe, infused with Senegal’s chief export, folded into a rich and complex broth. Liquid sterno. Heat you can eat. A hug for your belly.
“I wanted to show people Senegalese food,” he says. “This dish.” He points at the first item on the menu, the Thiebou Djeun: fish cooked in tomato stew and served alongside carrots, eggplant, and cabbage atop rice. “This was first made by Penda Mbaye.” He says the name with reverence, like a Stones fan might say “Jagger.” Which is actually a very fitting metaphor, because Penda Mbaye was a damn rockstar. She pioneered a dish so innovative and delicious that it earned her international recognition—and not from a Michelin-starred restaurant or a state-of-the-art test kitchen, but at her day job as an event cook in colonial Senegal in the 19th century.
“Penda made that,” he says, with that awe in his voice, and the correlation isn’t hard to draw: Penda Mbaye against the odds, showing people what she was made of; Diakhate all alone here in this little restaurant, turning out food like this.
The steam off the lamb mafe rubs at my chin and pulls me back down into it. The brightness of the carrots and the smooth draw of the peanuts. That tender meat, falling apart under my fork.
The leaves in the gutter and that wind like a blue light outside are no match for these walls, this food, that lone man in his little kitchen who just wants to take you somewhere. To show you something. Go with him, Seattle. Let him drag you from the chill. Let him show you Senegal.
Kellen Burden is a local novelist and lunch enthusiast. More of his work can be found at www.goatfederation.com.