What comes to mind when you think of going grocery shopping in the US? Probably a giant, impersonal store with rows upon rows of different foods, available all the time. If you want to make a Thai curry you need only head over to the “International” aisle. If you want a fresh salad you can select all the ingredients from the refrigerated produce section, no matter the season. And most everything you can buy is more than enough for a single meal and will last until you get around to making the second or third.
In the US we tend to buy the food we need for a whole week of meals at one time. We store it in our fridges, freezers, and kitchen cupboards. We buy these things knowing that they will be there, ready to eat, in one day or four, barring a blizzard-inducing power outage. That is not the same for many families in Senegal.
For one, electricity is very expensive so owning a fridge is not a common thing. Kitchens are often outside so leaving food on shelves is out of the question.
Therefore, grocery shopping, in my limited experience, is a daily or twice-daily occurrence. Vegetables, fish, and meat for lunch are bought at the local outdoor market. Eggs, spices, and oil are found in butiks on street corners.
Rather than buy a bag of 20 carrots and not think about carrots for two weeks, here my family will buy a couple every day, along with one or two of each other vegetable needed for the lunch rice bowl.
And at butiks are the plastic sachets that hold everything from peppercorns to frozen fruit juice. Walking into any corner store you can find strings of sachets full of dried chiles, milk powder, sugar and more. These little bags usually have just one meal or serving’s worth of their contents. You can also ask the owner and he will fill bigger bags with greater amounts of things like oil and flour.
So instead of having spice jars that last several months, whenever you decide to make cheb u jenn, you just buy that meal’s worth of peppercorns, chiles, garlic, and bouillon.
This does make for a lot of waste, however. Each little bag is torn open, its contents used up, and then it is discarded. Every day as my mom or aunt sweeps our compound a good portion of the trash pile is made up of plastic sachets.
But realistically, what would be a better option? Risk losing food bought in bulk to insects and mice? This system of plastic sachets is a convenient and useful way of packaging and selling food here in Senegal.
My (non-exhaustive) list of items that can be bought in sachets:
- Dried red chiles
- Milk powder
- Frozen juice
- Palm oil
- Tomato paste
- Peanut butter