The work of teaching the world about West African cuisine came about organically for chef Pierre Thiam, cookbook author and co-founder of New York City’s Teranga, a fast-casual West African restaurant. “Early in my career as a young cook in New York City, in the food capital of the world, it was exciting — but I was seeing that my food was missing: the food that I grew up eating from West Africa,” says the Senegal-raised Thiam.
Senegal’s thiebou guinaar served as the starting point for this one-pot chicken and rice recipe, excerpted from Thiam’s cookbook Senegal: Modern Senegalese Recipes from the Source to the Bowl, in which he sought to share Senegalese food as he knew it back home. Red palm oil, which is harvested from the pulp of the palm fruit, lends the dish a floral flavor and a bright red color (it’s rich in beta carotene, as well as in vitamins A and E). A foundational ingredient across West African cuisines, red palm oil is “difficult to even substitute,” Thiam says. “It’s the oil that’s traditionally been used in West Africa before all the others.”
As Yewande Komolafe has written in Heated, this vibrant red palm oil is not to be confused with the refined, bleached, and deodorized palm oil that appears in products from mayonnaise to makeup. Produced on a huge scale, the latter comes with a slew of concerns, including deforestation in Southeast Asia. By comparison, Thiam explains of red palm oil, “the way they do it traditionally [is] they go into the forest and cut the [fruit] from the palm tree and process it naturally to create the palm oil.” In the United States, Thiam recommends sourcing red palm oil from the brand Nutiva, which follows sustainability principles that include not harming animal habitats or contributing to deforestation.
Cooking more West African food in the United States allowed Thiam to start seeing the connections to Southern and Caribbean cuisines. As he did, he realized that he was also connecting with his past and his ancestry. “I’m becoming a custodian of the foods of my origin,” he says. Thiam extended that mission even further by founding Yolélé, a company with the goal of opening markets for sustainably grown food from small farmers in West Africa. Without access to growing consumer bases, these subsistence farmers live in poverty, and their crops are at risk of disappearing, Thiam explains. “This is really the reason why I got so inspired by this role of ambassador,” he says. “I was opening markets, I was telling the story in a way that wasn’t being told — our own story.”
This fall, Thiam will release his latest book, Simply West African, in which his goal is to show the West African techniques and dishes are flexible and adaptable for any kitchen. Until then, his chicken thighs with red palm–coconut rice are ready to be a weeknight dinner staple.
Chicken Thighs with Red Palm–Coconut Rice
8 skin-on, bone-in chicken thighs (about 2 pounds total)
Fine sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 large yellow onion, thinly sliced
2 garlic cloves, coarsely chopped
2 cups jasmine rice
1½ cups full-fat coconut milk
1½ cups chicken stock
2 tablespoons red palm oil or vegetable oil
Juice of 1 lime
2 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro, or more to taste
Sautéed greens, for serving
Step 1: Season the chicken thighs with salt and pepper. In a large cast-iron pot or Dutch oven with a heavy lid, heat the vegetable oil over medium-high heat. When hot, working in batches if necessary, sear the chicken thighs very well, skin side first, letting the skin get a nice golden color (about 5 minutes) before turning once and browning the other side. Remove from the pot and set aside on a platter.
Step 2: Discard all but 1 tablespoon of rendered chicken fat. Add the onions and cook, stirring frequently with a wooden spoon, until soft and slightly golden, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and the rice and stir to coat the rice well. Add the coconut milk and chicken stock and stir to combine. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat to a simmer, and stir in the red palm oil. Season with 1 teaspoon salt and 1 teaspoon pepper.
Step 3: Return the chicken thighs and any juices to the pot, setting them on top of the rice, and cover. Simmer for 25 to 30 minutes, until all the liquid is absorbed, the rice is tender, and the chicken is cooked through.
Step 4: When you’re ready to serve, squeeze the lime juice all over the chicken and rice and generously top with cilantro. Serve with a side of greens.
Reprinted with permission from Senegal: Modern Senegalese Recipes from the Source to the Bowl by Pierre Thiam with Jennifer Sit, copyright © Lake Isle Press 2015. Photographs by Evan Sung, copyright © 2015.