Chef Pierre Thiam Gives NYC a Taste of Senegalese Hospitality at Teranga

Pierre Thiam, originally from Senegal, is the chef-owner of Teranga, a new West African cafe in New York City.
By Nina Roberts

Upper East Siders and Harlemites are now breaking fufu together, dining at the newly opened Teranga cafe, located on Central Park’s northeast corner. Teranga opened last month and features West African cuisine, from kelewele (AKA spicy fried plantains) to occasional specials like the traditional Senegalese fish and rice dish, thieboudienne.

The brains behind the operation is chef-owner Pierre Thiam, an immigrant from Senegal who landed in the city nearly three decades ago and has remained on an unplanned extended stay ever since.

Inside Teranga—a contemporary space on the ground floor of the future Africa Center building, officially 1 Museum Mile—diners eat at sleek communal tables. The diverse crowd spans all ethnicities, ages and countries of origin, with a smattering of Afro-punk types, academics, artists and families with young toddlers.

Thiam chose a fast casual format for Teranga. Customers order food bowls at the counter from options like roasted salmon with spices, or a beet colored grain salad with carrots, or an okra stew, which are displayed in colorful enamel pots, pay and eat at one of the large tables. The space is bright, airy and lively with customers eating, talking or reading as music plays.

Over the three decades since Thiam’s accidental arrival in New York City, he’s been presenting New Yorkers with West African cuisine and culture through his restaurants, catering, cookbooks and importing the gluten-free grain fonio. Teranga is his latest endeavor.

On a recent afternoon, as a piano was tuned in preparation for that night’s jazz concert featuring South African artists Thandiswa Mazwai and Nduduzo Makhathini, Thiam spoke with Observer about launching Teranga and the unifying power of food.

First, what does “Teranga” mean?

In the Wolof language it means “hospitality.” Teranga is how you treat the person who comes into your home, even if that person is not expected. In Senegal, we eat around a bowl, so you can always make room for a new person. Teranga is valued at the highest level in Senegal, if you tell someone he doesn’t have teranga, it’s really hardcore!

And Teranga’s food?
It’s primarily West African, even though I take inspirations from other parts of the continent. It’s healthy food, vegan-friendly, gluten-free. It’s “make your own bowl,” which I think is a more approachable way to introduce African food to New Yorkers.

I make traditional dishes like ndambe, which is a black-eyed pea, sweet potato and okra stew, it’s comfort food, called peasant food in Senegal. I serve fonio in many ways, with beet and pickled carrot in a salad, and I make a jollof fonio, jollof is a dish you see in many parts of West Africa, but traditionally made with rice.

The jollof wars! Isn’t there a battle, who makes the best jollof?
There’s a serious battle! Nigerians want to make the best jollof, Ghana is saying the same thing. But it’s a good battle; it just shows the importance of food in culture. It’s refreshing, I mean, music albums came out of this jollof battle. Jollof did originate from Senegal.

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