The Songhay are a people of Mali and Niger in West Africa who make their living trading and fishing on the Niger River. About five years ago, I found myself waiting for a ferry with my companions on the banks of the Niger River across from Timbuktu in Mali. Nearby was a camel-skin tent filled with a group of Songhay men cooking fish soup in a deep metal pan over an open fire of hardwood charcoal.
My Bambara-speaking guide, Youssouf, who hailed from the south of Mali, was already inside the tent. He and the Songhay ate privately and with some chatter. Their supping appeared an African-only affair, so I hesitated before going into the tent so as not to interrupt their privacy. However, Youssouf, noticing my hesitancy, chuckled while beckoning us. Youssouf was quick to laugh about everything, which made him a great guide and a great friend.
I entered the dark tent, and the wafting aroma of the fish soup hit me. My hunger spiked immediately, but I made no indication that I would like some. Although Youssouf was as black as the Songhay, I couldn’t discern what distinguished these people from one another on the surface, outside of the fact that they spoke different languages. After a while, I did get better at distinguishing ethnic groups in Mali because I began discerning ethnic dress. When I asked Youssouf if he could tell what someone was by looking at facial features alone, he said, “Yeah, about 80 percent of the time.”
‘Inche’ for a tin bowl of soup
One Songhay man offered me a place next to him on the ground and ladled out soup for me into a small tin bowl. I thanked him in Bambara since I didn’t know any Songhay. “Inche,” I said. I had learned the usual useful phrases in about five of the 60 languages spoken in Mali. Later I learned “thank you” in Songhay is fofo. He smiled broadly. My buddies were a little intimidated by this proximity to African “reality” and suspect food, so they chose to stay outside. Youssouf, who speaks Bambara, French and English, spoke to the Songhay in Bambara, one of the two lingua franca of Mali (the other is French). He must have told the men that I was very interested in their food because suddenly I started getting a lot more information. All of these men wore the tattered dirty clothing typical of poor Africa, yet through their near-feral look they exuded a masculine dignity that was kind and content. Of course, this kind of pop anthropology can be misleading; for all I know the guy was pissed off at his wife and just wanted to hang out with the guys. One must be careful of thinking “noble savage.”
I had no utensil to eat with and neither did they. I picked the flesh off the whole little fish in our soup with my fingers and sipped from the bowl. The fish was a kind of little river carp about the size of a red mullet. It was boiled in water until nearly falling off the bone in a broth emulsified by boiling with peanut oil and chopped potato and chile leaves and something that made it taste earthy — a kind of spice like coriander seed maybe, although ground baobab is a possibility in these parts.
The Songhay flavor their dishes with baobab, chile, peanuts, dried okra and a mixture called gebu which is a seasoning of onion flour and ground sesame seeds. We dipped Touareg bread into it, a bread that is like a 2-inch-thick Arabic flatbread. It was very delicious.
For a moment I thought how this experience was the opposite of molecular gastronomy. This was constructive cuisine, not deconstructive. Both the experience and the taste had a resonance that went to the soul to a place where a spoon with foam couldn’t possibly reach. And it was cheap: free, but the experience was richer than the finest three-star supper.
Zester Daily contributor Clifford A. Wright won the James Beard / KitchenAid Cookbook of the Year Award and the James Beard Award for the Best Writing on Food in 2000 for “A Mediterranean Feast.” His latest book is “Hot & Cheesy” (Wiley) about cooking with cheese.
Photo at top: Songhay waiting for ferry across Niger River at Timbuktu in Mali.
Bottom photo: Songhay fish soup. Credits: Clifford A. Wright.