With a flash of blade, Ndeye scrapes the scales from a silver-blue tilapia. She slits open the jaw and removes the guts. After a good rinse and a douse of salt, she eases the fish into a pool of hot oil, just as she learned from her mother as a girl growing up in Senegal, the western-most country in Africa.
In the kitchen of a small apartment in north Durham, Ndeye is re-creating a bit of home in the form of ceebu jën (cheh-boo jen). Like jambalaya or paella, the medley of rice, fish and vegetables is a favored dish in Senegalese cuisine.
Soon after midday, cooking aromas begin to mix with the vapors of Ndeye’s customized incense, wafting into the main room where her husband, Adama, sprawls on the couch. With a white afghan pulled up to his chest and a frayed toothpick between his teeth, he clicks through a series of imported television channelssoccer, news and music videos presented in Wolof, the ethnic language of Senegal.
Adama studied philosophy at the university in Dakar and came to Durham in the early 2000s. Ndeye followed a few years later. Now he drives a cab while she earns a small livelihood braiding hair. Their middle son, Abdou, is a first grader at a local school. Sunday is a rare time when everyone is home, so Ndeye often uses the day to cook something special.
In the room where Adama lounges, framed photographs provide the only decoration: a turbaned sheik, a glittering Mecca. Ndeye has never been to Mecca, but she plans to make her pilgrimage someday. Another picture shows her in classic Senegalese splendor: heavy makeup, brocade blouse and headscarf fixed into a queenly plume. This afternoon she’s dressed casually, with her hair uncovered and divided into six short braids.
There’s majesty in her movementssplashing water from a cupped brown palm; peeling the papery skin of an onion. As she cooks, her mind seems far away in a warmer land; perhaps she’s missing her friends and family back home, especially two of her children who are still in Senegal. When she does speak, it’s a patois of French and Wolof laced with a few English words.
Ndeye removes the browned fish from the pot. She uses the tilapia-infused oil as a base for a stew, adding a rainbow of tomato paste, carrots, cabbage, chili peppers, white yucca roots and a clutch of purple dried sorrel blossoms. She covers the pot and sets the heat to simmer, then turns her attention to Abdou, who has just returned from Quranic school.
Seven years old and energetic, Abdou is small and bony, with two prominent front teeth. He doesn’t want ceebu jën, he declares in a lispy Wolof. Ndeye sets a pot of water to boil for spaghetti, shrugging off his pickiness. “Kids are like that,” she says in French.
When the vegetables and fish have marinated, Ndeye removes them from the pot and repurposes the tomato-dyed liquid to cook several cups of rice. She soaps a stack of dishes by hand, ignoring the dishwasher to the left of the sink. “I’ve lived here for seven years and I’ve never used it,” she notes. “I don’t know why. One day I will try.”
Fifteen minutes before 3 o’clock, she goes to the living room and unrolls a prayer rug for asr, the third prayer of the day. Prizefighters scrabble on television while Abdou clashes warring action figures, but Ndeye is a totem of peace. With a white scarf over her head, her eyelids flutter closed and she sinks to the floor in a whisper of fabric and Arabic prayer.
“I miss Senegal,” Adama sighs, pulling the afghan over his head, briefly a ghost.
At last, nearly five hours after she began cooking, Ndeye pats the steamy rice flat across the bottom of a large serving dish. She positions the fried fish and cooked vegetables over the rice, like a fortuneteller arranging her cards.
We all squeeze around the small coffee table in the living room. Abdou has had a change of heart, lured by the sight and scent of familiar fare. For the first time all afternoon, he is quiet.
Ndeye begins passing food to each person: fish, vegetable and a bit of crispy khogne, or “bottom-of-the-pot rice,” a treasure at the Senegalese table. The communal platter is the woman’s province. She allocates goods to each eater, assuring a fair amount of variety and nutrition.
“How you eat, it means a lot,” says Adama. “It’s a teaching moment. It teaches you how to share. Even if you don’t have a lot, you have to share.” When Abdou reaches beyond his territory, Ndeye scalds him in a flash of Wolof.
“Lekkal!” she implores in Wolof. “Eat!” We’ve known each other only a few weeks, but she feeds me as if I were her own daughter and calls me her sister. This informal but warm hospitality has a name in Senegal: teranga.
Using my right hand as a spoon, I gather a bit of hot rice and form a little ball, mimicking Ndeye. On the way to my mouth, I drop some rice, but she doesn’t seem offended. Between flavorful bites, I repeat the Wolof phrase to compliment delicious cooking: “Neex na!” Ndeye smiles, seemingly pleased.
When the plate is nearly empty, Adama goes to fix the after-meal ritual of ataya, a dark brew of green tea, sugar and mint. He decants the tea between two tiny cups, his practiced wrist never spilling a drop. At last, he hands me one of the cups and we sip in silence, lulled by the final dose of a hearty home-cooked meal.
This article appeared in print with the headline “Four thousand miles from home.”