Being a Family Means Sharing Acquired Tastes
Chereh in Doudam
“I’d really like to try a traditional Serer breakfast,” I say one day, nostalgically remembering the strange and exciting taste of chereh from my childhood.
My family look at me, clearly amused: most people now just have bread and coffee for breakfast, but my aunt is honoring me by agreeing to prepare the traditional breakfast. “Ah, so you are a true Serer if you like Serer couscous,” they tease me. Chereh, a thick, grainy millet porridge, familiarly known as “Serer couscous,” is usually served with fermented milk or cream and sugar as a breakfast cereal, but today I am getting a special treat and getting mine with fish, potato, and a spicy fish broth to accompany it.
I’m in my ancestral village of Doudam, where my family has lived for the past 800 years. It’s about 60 miles inland from Dakar. The Serer represent the third-largest ethnic group in Senegal, and my family’s history can be traced back to the Faye kingdom of Sine-Saloum in the 14th century.
My aunts and cousins are sitting in a circle, gutting and cleaning the fish one of my uncles has just caught from the nearby lake using his own traps. The traps, hand-woven from dried palm-tree leaves, seem to have been very successful overnight. “The fish might be small, but they’re very tasty,” he grins. My family are almost completely self-sufficient: their main income comes from growing and selling peanuts, tomatoes, and millet.
Making breakfast, like all meals, is a family affair that requires everyone’s involvement. Children are running around, coaxed every now and again to help carry something or bring something from the back room. The kitchen is small and crammed, so most things happen outside the kitchen, in the courtyard.
My aunt sets a large bowl of chereh in front of me. As I take my first bite of the dish, the memory of the taste hits me like a ton of bricks: the chereh bears a semblance to smooth sand in my mouth and it has a nutty, almost bitter taste to it. Each diner creates their own little hole in the bowl, where a generous portion of the fish sauce is poured. “Definitely an acquired taste,” I think to myself as I keep scooping more food into my mouth. My family laugh at me.
The rhythmic noise of women pounding millet with a heavy, wooden pestle to remove the hull of the grain starts again outside. Every now and again, they hoist the heavy wooden stick high up in the air and see how many claps they can do, before the pestle falls back into their firm grip. Wanting to prove my Serer-ness some more, I go over to help, but the only thing I seem able to do is provide entertainment for the children who are watching me attempting to lift the pestle. I barely manage to lift it a few inches from the giant mortar. I admit my defeat and happily watch my family chattering and fussing around the yard, preparing the next meal of the day.