Words and Images by Pelin Keskin
When you get out of 135th Street, walk past a school and a police precinct and walk into Keur Sokhna, you’ll notice French coming out of the TV on the wall above. I greeted the girl at the cashier with “as-salamu alaykum”. She answered “wa-alaikum as salam” and asked me if I had been there before. The breakfast menu starts at 7am and ends at 11am, and the dinner menu becomes available at 4pm, so I was given a lunch menu and selected the classic ceebu jen (also known as thiéboudienne). The name of the dish is derived from Wolof words ceeb (meaning rice) and jen (meaning fish) - so this dish is pretty self explanatory but it does include vegetables that compliment the carb and protein duo.
A great thing about Keur Sokhna is that they make bissap and ginger drink in-house and bottle it up for you to take from the fridge. The ginger has a reputation for having a true ginger taste - strong and spicy - so it really depends on your palate. My undying love for sorrel and all things hibiscus, I opted for the bissap and weeped tears of joy due to my odd obsession with excellent beverages (more on that another time). A perfect balance between sweet and sour, the flavour of the hibiscus is so present in your mouth that I painfully regretted not buying an extra bottle to save for later (and heat up to try warm).
When my food came out, I would have been intimidated by the portion of rice if I hadn’t spent a childhood learning to dominate each grain at the family dinner table, so I wasn't. I looked at this portion of rice, it looked back at me and I don’t think I breathed for the following fifteen minutes. The rice was fragrant and paired well with the fish - cooked simply but deliciously with the vegetables. Now what does intimidate me is a person of colour warning another person of colour that a sauce is very spicy so I took a small taste anyway (I mean!) and my tongue may or may not have numbed over. I cannot confirm. The great thing about this dish is that it really is so simple in its cooking process but the simplicity of it doesn’t negate from its taste, nor take away from the message it’s trying to convey; this is hearty. You leave with a belly full of rice and fish, comforted and warm inside.
Keur Sokhna provides authentic West African food in Harlem so I will be back here to try more from the dinner specials and haul bottles of bissap so get here before I do because that fridge might be empty.