Food is usually prepared in large pots on charcoal burners in an outdoor kitchen. This is because charcoal is more economical than a gas burner when cooking large quantities of food. Many Gambian families are extended or have many family members - hence the need to cook food in large quantities daily. There is often only one person preparing food for the day for the whole compound, which may be home to more than one extended family.
The staple food in The Gambia is rice. In addition, many types of spicy sauces have been developed as signature dishes of the Gambian cuisine, such as yassa, chu, supa kanja, pem bem, futi, domoda, etc.
Eating from a shared plate (metal bowl) reflects the way of life in The Gambia. A mat is laid out on the floor, and the bowl is placed in the centre. Family members will then sit around the meal to have their meal.
If the family is large, food is often divided into two bowls – one for men and the other for women and kids. Every member must eat respectfully with the right hand, which should be washed well. Each person should only eat from his/her side, not put food back on the plate or make a mess.
The head of the family, or an elder, will usually divide the meat or fish equally between the members present. The same goes for portions of vegetables, typically cooked and served on top of the dish in large pieces. It is customary to leave the last pieces to the children.
After lunch, the lady of the house will take the bowl to the kitchen, roll up the mat, and sweep the floor while everybody washes their hands.
When visiting local families, they may offer to share food with you. Even if you're not hungry, the polite thing to do is accept the food. If you are invited to join the meal, ensure you wash your hands and always eat with your right hand, as the left hand is considered impure in the Muslim religion. Alternatively, you could also request a spoon.
You might hear members say "Bismillah" before starting their meal, which expresses gratitude to the Creator for the food before them ( this is similar to saying Grace in the Catholic religion).
If the food is too spicy or you are not hungry, politely say, "Thank you, I am full" or "I am okay", and leave your spot to give more space to others still eating.
If you don't know how to eat with your hands, don't worry. The hosting family will be happy to teach you, and while you are trying to master this technique, it will surely bring some laughs around the table.
Do you want to experience the culture of sharing food? Spend a day with a Gambian family and feel the beauty of this tradition.