Savoring Senegal's rich culinary history with cook (don't call him chef) IbaThiam at al fresco Cazamance Cafe
When I meet Iba Thiam at Cazamance Cafe, the al fresco eatery he runs on Cesar Chavez, he’s sporting dreadlocks, nerd glasses, a lime-colored Polo shirt, jeans and red converse sneakers. A chunk of turquoise sits at his throat, a blue beaded cuff graces his right wrist, the bracelets on his left wrist keep making music, and a hand-hewn knife and leather pouch rest beside his pocket.
He doesn’t dress like your typical chef, and please don’t call him one. “I don’t like that word," he says. "I’m a cook. I belong in the kitchen. All day I play. It’s heaven.”
Iba, who hails from Dakar, Senegal, splits his time between the two food joints he co-owns here in Austin: Cazamance Cafe — our meeting place — and Cazamance, which is right behind Rainey Street’s Bar 96. Both are trailer-based, opened within the last two years, and serve food with an African influence.
I ask Iba about his favorite dish at Cazamance Cafe, which offers lunch on weekdays. He educates me about Peanut Butter Stew (~$8). “Peanut butter stew is to West Africa what mashed potatoes are to the United States,” he says. Sweet potato, carrot, cabbage and peanut butter make up the stew’s base.
“But I have to remember where I am,” Iba adds, “because there’s so much Mexican cooking in Austin and smoky flavor, what I’ll do is put jalapeno in it, or fresh cilantro, which nobody does in Senegal. Same thing with adding zucchini and squash. It takes the recipe outside the box.”
Iba aims for dishes that pack a nutritional punch. He says it was only after leaving Senegal that he realized how much cooking and eating healthily meant to him. (He left Senegal to attend school in France as a teen, moved to New York for a few years, where he met his wife, and finally landed here in Austin.)
“I’m from a country where the colonizers changed the way we eat, because they wanted to make us dependent. For example, in Africa, we don’t use the word 'milk,' we say the brand name of a milk. A lot of African food is processed food. Or it’s overcooked. People cook over charcoal because they [don’t have gas] stoves. So vegetables get cooked for too long.”
Even so, Senegal has a rich culinary history. Iba explains to me that French, Moroccan, Portuguese and even Lebanese flavors can be found in West Africa’s food. Offering an example, Iba talks about the burgers he serves at the Cazamance behind Rainey Street’s Bar 96. (That location, open at night, has an emphasis on bar food.)
Iba makes his burgers from scratch, and he uses local meat, a fact he’s extremely proud of. Iba seasons his Lamb Burgers (~$8) with garlic, paprika, cumin, cayenne, dried onions and thyme. “The scent coming out when we cook these is another story! In Senegal, we don’t just combine flavors, we enhance them.”
Not missing a beat, he starts describing his tomato relish. To you, relish may seem like a simple condiment. To him, it electrifies a piece of meat, and has a storied past.
Iba explains that, in Senegal, the cousin of relish – ketchup – is very expensive, because it’s imported from France. So people make their own. “But the way we live in Senegal, it’s like putting on a show. So, if I make the tomato relish one way, my neighbor will tweak it, to try to show me up. It’s a little like…everybody’s trying to get in the circle to show off their dance moves, you know? But with food!”
Iba’s been making tomato relish for years, but he had to change the recipe here in Austin because everybody eats spicy stuff. “Even the kids,” he observes. “So I put in diced tomato, cumin, paprika – no vinegar, though. People tell me I need to bottle it.”
He probably should. This man works a palate like a champion. But you don’t have to take my word for it! Run over to Whole Foods right now, and head to their gelato bar. Get the Pineapple Basil Gelato, or the Chocolate Chipotle Gelato (~$3.50). Iba helped create those flavors; he worked at Whole Foods for a few years before opening Cazamance — the original trailer, on Rainey Street - in 2010.
I ask Iba what the future holds, expecting that he might want to open another business here in Austin. Instead, he tells me, “I know I have to go back to Senegal, sometime. My [late] mom, she was an activist. She turned our garage into a school. And I need to re-open that school. Except for me, it’s going to be teaching kids how to farm, grow their own fresh food.”
The point underscores what Iba says he likes best about Austin, “Local, everything local. This place was built by hippies and students. It’s around community.”
Cazamance at 96 Rainey Street is open weekdays from 6 p.m. - 1:30 a.m. and weekends from 12 p.m. - 1:30 a.m.; Cazamance Cafe at 1102 E Cesar Chavez is open M-F from 11 a.m. - 3 p.m.