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Teranga: West African Tradition Meets Fast-Casual Dining

Founded in 2019 by Pierre Thiam, New York City’s Teranga cafe is dedicated to sharing the culture of West African cuisine, creating a welcoming atmosphere, and enhancing New York’s cultural landscape through active engagement in events throughout the surrounding community.

The bustling crowds and cramped store fronts that are commonplace within New York’s eight boroughs offer pedestrians and foodies an opportunity to embrace cultural diversity unlike any other American city. Still, New Yorkers continue to learn more about new cuisines and restaurants opening up in their small neighborhoods everyday. In the borough of Queens alone, there over 6,000 restaurants represented by 120 nationalities.  

Harlem, a neighborhood of Manhattan that has long been a historic center for African American culture, is another dynamic food hub often overlooked by tourists and restaurant critics alike. One of Harlem’s staples is Soul Food–– fried chicken, mac n’ cheese, and shrimp and grits. But what many do not know about Harlem is that there is a cluster of blocks in the neighborhood that are filled with businesses run by West African immigrants, such as “Le Petit Senegal,” or Little Senegal. 

Though it is a 15 minute walk from Le Petit Senegal, Teranga is a cafe located right across from Central Park in the Africa Center, serving food that accentuates the traditional ingredients of West Africa.

Co-founder and executive chef Pierre Thiam started Teranga  in February 2019 and the philosophy that his team brings to their work is simple and holistic: serve food that is “rooted in traditional African home cooking” while welcoming customers with “good hospitality .” They serve coffee in addition to food and offer an open space to sit down and hang out. The furniture and interior decorations have colorful African-inspired patterns inviting the most unfamiliar of guests inside. Unfortunately however, the current COVID 19 set-up is only for take-out and  consists of a table near the front of the restaurant where customers pay and pick up their orders.

Photo courtesy of ny.eater.com

I had first learned about Teranga a few months back in an Eater New York article highlighting an evolving counter-service food scene in the city–– specifically one that serves Pan-African cuisine not found anywhere else around Manhattan. 

Teranga’s menu includes a choice of protein ––free ranged grilled chicken, roasted salmon with Morroccan spices, or sweet potato–– over any of their bases of jollof rice, fermented cassava couscous, or liberian red rice, and a choice of various salads, legumes, and roasted vegetables. 

On my first visit a few weeks ago, I sat on a bench in the park where I enjoyed the well-seasoned and succulent chicken breast with hearty red rice, a bright kale salad with locust beans, and mushy, sweet plantains. Then I added the mafe, a warm peanut sauce, as well as a hot sauce made of scotch bonnet peppers. The peanut sauce added nuttiness while the hot sauce gave the food an incredible burn with a hint of bitterness. 

A spontaneous snapshot of my Teranga Chicken Bowl

After eating the meal, I began to think that any combination of food available on the menu could offer textural and flavor varieties that topped most restaurants in resembling delicious home cooking. For $14, it may have been the most eccentric and comprehensive meal I had eaten in a while. 

Teranga also works to raise awareness of African culture within the eclectic New York community. It is an integral part of The Africa Center of New York, which hosts readings, music performances, talks, and film screenings by representatives from all over the continent. 

The team conveys that hospitality transcends food as they have hosted music and art events, sponsored a community run and protests for racial equality, and donated over 900 meals to healthcare workers just  in the past 6 months. All of its events and initiatives are posted through a sleek Instagram account that continues to grow in engagement.

Post from Teranga’s Instagram page @itsteranga_

Many restaurants strive to become ingrained in their local communities, but Teranga is one that practices what it preaches. It represents a model for more immigrant restaurateurs to use their platform to creatively share the nuances of their home country’s cuisines and expand the types of foods that Americans eat.  Ultimately, they can serve delicious and wholesome meals while helping to transform the neighboring community and beyond. 

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