African cuisine, African restaurants in Paris, Antillean cuisine, Au Village, Baifall Dream Theranga Salon de Thé, Chez Aïda, French cuisine, French food, Kiratiana's Travel Guide to Black Paris: Get Lost and Get Found, Le Nioumré, Le Petrossian 144, Moussa l'Africain, Senegalese restaurants in Paris, Senegalese thieb, Thieb le Nouveau Paris-Dakar, Thieboudienne
Special guest writer Kiratiana Freelon author of “Kiratiana’s Travel Guide to Black Paris: Get Lost and Get Found.” Used by permission. Eunique Press (2010).
France is famed for some of the finest cuisine in the world, and enjoying a three-star meal with every luxurious trimming or even a fresh baguette with some unpronounceable cheese is sure to be a highlight of your visit. Gastronomy is the pinnacle of French culture — which is saying something in this land of monumental art and world-changing ideas — and is as much a marriage of ritual and history as of form and flavor.
Although you must sample the highlights of traditional French cuisine, visitors on a quest for black Paris will also be drawn into the city’s eclectic ethnic eateries, where Antillean cuisine and Senegalese theib offer colorful and creative respite from more typical Parisian meals.
Wining and Dining Like the Parisians Do
There are a few things that you just don’t do in America, but in France they seem Trés Chic.
• Seating yourself in a restaurant. Normally, if you have to seat yourself in the States, you’re about to drop US$15, tops. But in Paris, you’ll have to seat yourself even if you’re spending €50. Don’t just stand there, have a seat.
• Using your bare hands to tear a hunk off the communal piece of bread. For that matter, the French use their bare hands to pluck up a pastry, carry a baguette down the street, or even pick out your candy or bread at the store (as I have seen many times). Just think of it as being more natural …
• Sopping up your plate. The French have no qualms about using that last piece of baguette to sop up some bouillabaisse sauce. Every French person I’ve ever eaten with does it, so don’t be ashamed to do the same!
• Carrying a wine bottle and glass, around the city. There is absolutely nothing unusual about enjoying a glass of wine in front of the Sacré Coeur. That’s Paris. But, if you carry around a 16 oz. can of Guinness, then that’s just not right …
What to Expect When Dining Out
In France, a meal is so much more than a meal — it is an experience, leisurely and refined, whether an impromptu picnic at one of Paris’ pleasant parks or a multiple-course meal at one of the city’s three-star restaurants. Abandon your American fast-food expectations. You are expected to linger over your meal among friends and strangers, savoring every flavor and turn of conversation as though life as a precious gift to be appreciated, rather than a race to be won.
When to Eat
Breakfast can be taken at your corner café or boulangerie (bakery) any time, but lunch hours are fairly strict, from noon to 2:30 pm or so. Many restaurants close between 2:30 pm and 7:30 pm. Brasseries, on the other hand, serve food all day. Dinner is served late by American standards; if you want to be the only person in the restaurant, arrive before 8 pm. Otherwise, any time between 8:30 pm and 11:30 pm would be perfect.
Le Menu or à la Carte?
Most restaurants offer two choices: wide range of options served à la carte (usually the more expensive option), or le menu, which is not a list of dishes, but rather a well-priced special that usually includes the entrée (appetizer), plat (main course), dessert (dessert), and perhaps a drink. There may also be a fromage (cheese) course. Traditionally, French people eat a cheese platter between the plat and dessert, or in place of dessert. A good cheese platter will include a soft cheese, hard cheese and some chèvre (goat cheese).
Service and Tipping
The quality of service in Paris might not meet your American expectations unless you are eating in a three-star restaurant. French service is notoriously slow, and even slower in Antillean and African restaurants, where you should plan to linger at least 3 hours over your meal. Be ready to fight for the wait staff’s attention, as each typically serves 10 or more tables. The gratuity (15–20%) is almost always included in the meal price, and servers typically receive a salary. French people almost never tip, and you shouldn’t feel pressured to do so unless the service is amazing.
French servings are typically smaller than American portions. This does not mean you won’t feel satisfied, however. Most French people typically eat all three courses (entrée, plat and dessert) at dinnertime, and two at lunch. Each of these courses might be small, but after all three, as well as some bread and a glass of wine (or two), you will feel satisfied but not overly full.
In general, having an unrushed dinner in a decent restaurant will cost at least €25–40. Since restaurants generally do not turn tables, you can stay all night without anyone offering the bill — ask for it when you are ready. Quality tends to correlate strongly with price, but all the restaurants included in this guide offer good value for your euro. Budget travelers can eat well at bakeries, cafés, and grocery stores for just a few euro.
Thieboudienne: A Taste of Senegal in Paris
While most people cherish Paris for its crêpes, croque-monsieurs, and classic French cuisine, I come for the thieboudienne (cheb-oo-jen), a simple-looking yet complex Senegalese dish of parsley, seasoned fish, rice, tomatoes, and vegetables.
My first taste of grand thieb, in Senegal, erased all my misconceptions of African food: mushy vegetables that didn’t taste good. Subsequent travels across West Africa revealed that Senegalese cuisine, and thieb in particular, is at the apex of African gastronomy, just as French cuisine is considered Europe’s finest. In Paris, some 70% of all African restaurants specialize in Senegalese food.
According to oral tradition, thieb is the creation of Penda Mbaye, a woman from Saint Louis, Senegal. A cook at the colonial governor’s residence during the 19th century, she first created the dish of fish and vegetables using barley. During a barley shortage, however, she substituted rice, which at the time was still foreign a luxury good from Asia. Eventually, thieb became Senegal’s national dish.
In Senegal I observed a Senegalese woman spend 4 full hours preparing the dish. First, she stuffed a mixture of salt, pepper, onions, and parsley into a thiof — a tough fish that withstands a nice deep fry without falling apart. After retrieving the fried fish from the peanut oil, she dumped one can of tomato sauce and a liter of water into the oil. She then added a pungent dried fish, giving the thieb even more flavor, followed by a colorful assortment of squash, carrots, manioc, cauliflower, eggplant, sweet potatoes, onions, and one red scotch bonnet pepper. After simmering for 20 minutes, she removed the cooked vegetables from the sauce, and dumped in the twice-broken rice, which Senegalese prefer to long-grain rice.
She then dumped the rice in a big bowl and placed the vegetables on top. After several liberal squirts of fresh lime juice, the Senegalese woman, her 5 year-old son, and I dug into the thieb with our hands. Afterward, we drank some homemade bissap, a sweet drink made from hibiscus leaves.
There’s no need to try this recipe at home, not when you can leave it to Paris’ best African and Senegalese restaurants, usually for dinner. La Nioumré and Chez Aïda are the only places I would eat a thieb for lunch, as the dish is simply too complicated for most cooks to make correctly during the day.
Here are a few of my favorite restaurants, but adventurous eaters intent on discovering their own favorite restaurant should keep in mind that, as a rule of thumb, the closer to an African community or market, the better the thieb. Beware eateries offering both African and Antillean food — good restaurants do one or the other, and the best specialize in Senegalese cuisine. Servings are large, so there’s no need to order an entrée. And no matter where you end up enjoying your meal, always finish up with a glass of mint tea, the way Senegalese patrons do.
Best Birthday Party & Most Centrally Located
This restaurant has been serving thieb to Paris’ Senegalese elite for 20 years. Owner/waiter/barman Mamadou works the 90-seat restaurant with dexterity, while Senegalese and Ivorian music videos make for a festive if kitschy atmosphere.
Book this restaurant for your large parties and intellectual dinner discussions.
Most Bohemian Thieb
Every Friday, Baifall Dream creator/artist/clothing designer Mike Sylla invites the Parisian art community to his tea salon for a reasonably priced, family-style thieb.
Most Historical Thieb
48 rue Polonceau, 18th
Tel: 01 42 58 26 20
Métro: Château Rouge
Hours: Mon–Sat noon–midnight
Aïda, the original owner, has retired to Senegal, but her restaurant still churns out one of the best-value (many Senegalese simply say “best”) thiebs in Paris. Chez Aïda is the city’s oldest African restaurant, and was featured prominently in the 1985 black French comedy classic, Black Mic Mac. Don’t expect trendy tropical décor; this simple spot’s claims to fame are the food and its legacy.
Most Elegant Thieb
Moussa l’Africain raised the standards—and prices—of Paris’ African restaurant scene with its 2006 opening. The classy ethnic décor, uniformed waiters, two-room seating (250 seats), and live music on weekends make this one high-class package. Cameroonian executive chef Alexandre Bella Ola also authored the award-winning African cookbook, Cuisines actuelle de l’Afrique Noire, which includes the recipe for his classic thieb.
Best Pre-Party Thieb
86 ave Parmentier, 11th
Tel: 08 26 10 11 25
Hours: Mon–Sun 8 pm–midnight
With its inexpensive thieb, enthusiastic following (including the brother of Chez Aïda’s manager) and outstanding location, Au Village serves as the perfect jumping-off point for a night out in Paris. Reservations are not accepted, but on a nice night you can enjoy your thieb outdoors and then dance the night away in an Oberkampf club around the corner.
7 rue des Poissonniers, 18th
Tel: 01 42 51 24 94
Métro: Château Rouge/Barbes-Rouchechouart
Hours: Tues–Sun noon–11 pm
The line at Le Nioumré on a Saturday afternoon is out the door, but the food is well worth the wait. Only 30 people fit into two tiny rooms. Try to get the window seat on the right side, a window into life in Château Rouge. During my 3-hour lunch, I saw a wedding party, two Islamic prayer sessions at the mosque across the street, and countless families just enjoying the day.
The African Queen of Parisian Cuisine
There are more than 2,000 French restaurants in Paris. Of the 400 that the Michelin Guide found worth of a listing, only 77 received one of their coveted stars. And of those starred restaurants, only one has a black, female head chef: Le Petrossian 144.
Located right off the Les Invalides in the très chic 7th arrondissement, Le Petrossian 144 is best known for the fine Beluga caviar and smoked salmon it has sold since 1920. Owner Alex Petrossian entered the world of fine dining in 1999, opening a French contemporary restaurant upstairs. Le 144, as it is commonly known, quickly became popular for its seafood entrées and creative desserts.
When the head chef position opened in 2005, Alex wanted someone who could maintain the high standards of the restaurant, but bring a new energy and creativity to its menu. He found that person right in the restaurant’s kitchen: Rougui Dia, a French woman of Senegalese descent who was already second chef.
“From the beginning we asked Rougui to think about taking this position,” Alex explained. “We knew it would be a challenge because she is a woman and she’s in a world of men.”
Dia also reached the top as an outsider, with no familial ties to the good-ole-boys network of high-end dining and cooking. When asked how she, a 33-year-old woman, rose to such a prestigious position so quickly, she responded simply, “I didn’t have any fear to work.”
Dia completed her first cooking internship at the age of 15. By the age of 21, she was working at Chez Jean in the 9th arrondissement. She quickly rose through the glittering echelons of Parisian cuisine, eventually landing the prestigious job at Le Petrossian 144, where she worked for 5 years before being offered the head chef position.
Despite her hefty title, Rougui Dia doesn’t have a pretentious air. She’s humble, unwilling to boast about herself. Her youthful face shows no wear from the hectic pace of running a restaurant. The baggy white chef outfit hides her slim figure, a gift from her Senegalese Peul genes.
Over the course of a year, Dia worked with the Petrossian staff and owners to create the dishes for her new menu. Rather than forcing her to suppress her ethnic background, the Petrossian management encouraged her to embrace it along with other cultures. She serves a “yagouline lamb,” cooked for 7 hours with plantains; monkfish flavored with mahaleb, a Middle Eastern spice; and for dessert, a mango tart. Her most popular dish is Iranian shrimp steamed with citronella.
For aspiring chefs, she offers the following advice: “One must never give up. Surround yourself with the best people who will support you teach you and give you a ray of light.”
Will Rougui open her own restaurant in the future? Not soon, since she feels she still has much to learn. But as the French say, “Il faut jeter à l’eau (We’ll see).”
Kiratiana Freelon is a Harvard Graduate who has traveled to more than 25 countries and appeared on the Travel Channel as an expert on Paris. The Chicago native’s passion for travel, sport and culture led her to work on Chicago’s bid for the 2016 Olympic and Paralympic Games. She is now launching a series of “Black” destination travel guides and hopes to inspire people to “lose” themselves in travel.
Purchase: Kiratiana’s Travel Guide to BLACK PARIS: Get Lost and Get Found
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