WINDING down the small paths of Dakar’s famous “Sandaga Market” you’d expect to see all the usual market fare and tourist attractions; beaded necklaces, wood-carved animals, dresses and boubous made from tie-dye material and local fabrics – and they are all there.
But tucked into the corners of this typical African market fare were some highly unusual items; fresh lettuce, spring onion, mint and coriander are sold along the pathways in baskets and you can also readily find fish sauce and packs of rice paper.
These are items you’d usually come across in a market in South-East Asia, but they’re clearly in high demand in the coastal Senegalese capital. You soon find out why when you open a menu. Except for the small shacks that specialise in local delicacies like “supukanj” (an okra infused tomato-based dried and fresh fish delight – not for those who don’t have an infinity for slimy, strong fish-tasting food) every menu will feature nems or rouleau de printemps.
A nem is a spring roll made with rice paper, stuffed with meat or seafood and vegetables before being deep-fried. Traditionally you pocket the nem in a lettuce envelope, along with spring onion, coriander and mint before dipping it in fish sauce. A rouleau de printemps is also a roll but a fresher version of the nem. A rice-paper roll usually made with shrimp and stuffed with fresh herbs, lettuce and rice vermicelli, dipped in fish sauce.
The first time I’d had these delicious rolls was in Paris, France, where the Vietnamese influence had permeated the China towns and these spring rolls became a local institution. I assumed that this must have been the reason for the nem’s migration to Dakar; that it came through French immigration over the past few years. I was wrong.
Dakar was the capital of all of French West Africa and the French influence continues to be apparent today. In the fresh baguettes you can pick up on every corner to the strong coffee culture driven by Nescafe. The French colonialists would use Senegalese Tirailleurs (soldiers recruited from Senegal and it’s environs) to fight in wars.
Senegalese soldiers and Vietnamese brides
Some were stationed in Vietnam in the early 20th century, marrying Vietnamese women and returning with them to Senegal. A trend which continued right into the conflict against the Vietminh, the Communist Vietnamese devoted to the liberation of their country from French colonial rule, in the Indochina War between 1946 and 1954.
During the war, there are reports of Vietnamese immigrants, with relations already in Senegal’s capital, coming to the city in large numbers. Unfortunately there are no accurate statistics of the number of Vietnamese in Senegal today, estimates in 2010 put the total number of European, Lebanese and Vietnamese nationals in Senegal’s urban areas at about 50,000, but the close ties and history are there.
A cooperation agreement between the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO), Senegal and Vietnam was signed in 1996 and was the first cooperation scheme to be launched under the FAO’s Special Programme for Food Security programme - which sought to direct FAO’s wide-ranging expertise towards food security. Vietnamese specialists were brought in, launching cost-effective rural projects that promoted village economies and, in just 18 months, were successful in integrating men into the rice-production cycle. The close official ties remain today, valued at $41.312 million, Vietnam is Senegal’s 19th largest export destination.
Linked by the stomach
But the unofficial ties, through food, are the most integrated. Spring rolls aside, being a country with a long coast line, Senegalese use a great deal of fish in their cooking and love a strong fish flavour.
Due to the Vietnamese influence certain groups have even adopted the use of fish sauce, as a substitute for traditional ingredients like gejj (dried fermented fish), even in the revered national dish thiéboudienne. The sauce is so popular that the country has even started producing its own.
The love between the nations has produced a bonus for all who visit. The exciting mix of Africa and Asia producing just another delicious hybrid of cuisine that combines the best of both worlds.