A pot of Soupa in the making
Nineteen years ago, I wrote an article for The Point newspaper calling for the adoption of Soupa as the National Dish of The Gambia. I wrote the article tongue-in-cheek article in part to amuse people, but also to awaken them to the hidden potential we have in Soupa.
As turns out, food is still serious business, with Senegal and Haiti succeeding in getting UNESCO to accord their national dishes Thiéboudiène (spelt Chebu-jen in English) and Joumou soup, “protected cultural heritage” status. This listing is a huge deal for Senegal which can be expected to increase its share of the global food or culinary tourism industry, worth an estimated in $1.2 billion in 2019 and expected to reach $1.8 billion in 2027.
I thought I should share the article again, so I have updated and added Web links. Additional texts I have provided for better flow of the extract are in square brackets, and ellipses (…) are in places I have edited out text from the original.
Let’s face it, there are a lot of fronts on which Senegal wins us hands down. Take the legacy of slavery. While one would have thought that the Roots phenomenon will propel us to the top of the cultural tourism league, this has not been the case. Indeed, the ever-rising stream of African-Americans making their pilgrimage to Africa now runs much more strongly toward Gorée Island [Senegal], than Jufureh [The Gambia].
And when it comes to food, the Senegalese have without doubt expropriated what we call “Benachin”, and they “Chep”, as theirs. Not only have they succeeded in making Chep their national dish, they managed to make it an internationally popular one at that. Like all good products, Chep comes in various flavors, and as well all know, it is the Chebu-jen (Chep with fish) that Senegalese have made famous all the world over.
The successful marketing of Chep as a Senegalese national dish is deserving of the highest of accolades. This is all the more so given that the success has been helped in no small way by vibrant immigrant Senegalese communities the world over, from New York City to Paris. When you throw into this mix a dash of “Teranga” (Senegalese hospitality), and a pinch of the effect of the recent appearance by their national football team, Les Lions in the last World Cup [of 2002] tournament, you get a powerful recipe for why Chep is winning hearts and minds all over the world.
The Senegalese have done such a good job of the very important business of marketing themselves, their food, their music, their culture, in short, everything theirs, that it’s not surprising that during last Sunday’s Global Party to celebrate 70 years of BBC’s international broadcasting, it was Dakar, not Johannesburg, Lagos, or Banjul, that was the only venue in Africa to host a concert. This, even though Senegal is French-speaking, has an adult literacy rate of only 36.4%, and an even smaller proportion of them speak English. In contrast, Britain has traded with The Gambia, its former colony, since 1587.
I could go on and on about the various ways in which the Senegalese have excelled, but I won’t because I would probably discourage too many people. Besides, rather than despair, we should look at the fact that all is not lost. While Senegal has taken over the Chep brand, we Gambians know that we are far better cooks than they are, and further, we have a much wider variety of dishes than they have. So we have plenty of dishes to choose from, and market aggressively as our national dish.
And don’t think that I am advocating for a national dish just because I am another “me too” guy, and/or a glutton. No. In a world where even little children are brand-conscious, and with increasing globalization, it is important to strengthen our sense of national identity. One of the easiest ways of doing this is through food, because we all have to eat, and as often as three times a day, if possible. Food, then, can repeatedly and effectively drive a message home.
I don’t know about you, but I think we should choose Soupa as our national dish. Soupa is a great slimy candidate that’s got a lot of character, and taste. It is also emblematic of the tolerance that our National Anthem speaks of. All kinds of ingredients, from palm oil to fish, bitter tomatoes, pepper, meat, and many more characters can live happily together in Soupa, and to every consumers’ satisfaction,. It is thus no surprise that many people in The Gambia get together to have it as lunch on Saturdays.
And I suggest we go beyond just declaring Soupa a national dish. We can do better than Senegal, and rename Saturday “Soupaday”, giving a whole new twist to the sentence “Have a Super day!” Imagine that! We’d be the only country in the world with a Soupaday. And, you know, that would not be far-fetched because Ethiopia has 13 months in the year (hence their advertising slogan, “the land of 13 months of sunshine”). The moral of the story? If Ethiopia can do it, we, too, ought to be able to.
After deciding to replace Saturday with Soupaday, we can then develop other events and activities around Soupa. For example, we can have a national Soupaday Festival. During the festival (on a Soupaday of course), we will have Soupa cooking and eating contests, Soupa Poetry, Soupa Seminars, Soupa Music Concerts (with Soupa song contests in various languages), etc., etc. You get the idea.
But that’s not all. This, of course, is the Internet age so we can’t rest until we have a national Soupa Web site, complete with feedback forms, discussion boards, mailing lists, and Macromedia Flash animated images of various uses and misuses Soupa. To crown the whole thing, the site will have a newsletter to keep Soupa fans up-to-date on the latest news about Soupa around the world. And once the site is launched, there will be a special effort to submit the announcement to as many search engines as possible, from Alta Vista to Google. And we’ll keep an eye on the Web site traffic, for the day when it breaks all kinds of records.
And you think food festivals are trivial? They’re not, as evidenced by the fact that Britain has, since 1997, had a National Curry Day [and a National Curry Week] to celebrate curry, an Indian spice with significant following even here in The Gambia. Similarly, many other foods and dishes are celebrated at various times during the year, as shown in the mouth-watering … [World Food Days Calendar].
Having Soupa as a national dish can yield a lucrative industry. Just think of it: what if Soupa becomes so popular that demand for it warrants the invention of dried Soupa packs? Just as the Chinese noodles you buy in the supermarket come with dried flavouring, it might just be that one day you’ll be able to buy dried Soupa that only needs boiled water to come alive.
And if dried Soupa becomes a globally acquired taste, like noodles, it is not hard to see it surpass groundnuts as a foreign exchange earner for us. At that point, we will import palm oil from Malaysia, add value to it by turning it into Soupa, and export it to China. As it happens, such a feat has a precedent, given that in little over 20 years, Chinese Green tea has become a favourite for millions of people in our sub-region.
Just the thought of exporting dried Soupa to China, with over a billion people, makes my mouth, well, water. As crazy as the idea sounds, it just might be our ticket to becoming a middle-income nation. And you thought Soupa was just for us. Think again.
Katim S. Touray, Ph. D.
Soil scientist & international development consultant: firstname.lastname@example.org or https://www.linkedin.com/in/kstouray More articles: https://kstouray.medium.com