Teranga Takes a Fast-Casual Approach to Pan-African Cuisine

Teranga’s fonio. Photo: Dina Litovsky

Ever since the phrase “the Chipotle of” went from convenient prefix to industry category, the fast-casual model has been applied to cuisines from Lebanese to Vietnamese. But this irresistibly scalable model has only just begun to infiltrate New York’s African-food scene, where restaurants tend to cater to expat communities who need no introduction to indigenous ingredients and traditional recipes.

Teranga, which is slated to open on February 9 at the Africa Center in Harlem, aspires to appeal to a wider audience. In the same way that the center’s exhibits and events are intended to celebrate Africa’s widespread influence, so too is Teranga’s customizable Pan-African menu, which aims to teach culture through food. It’s the handiwork of Pierre Thiam, a Senegal native who fell into cooking after arriving in New York City three decades ago. After advancing through the kitchen ranks, he went on to run two Brooklyn restaurants in the aughts, and has since become better known as a cookbook author and ambassador for his home continent’s foodways. At Teranga, named for Senegal’s culture-defining expression of hospitality, the user-friendly vehicle of the quick-serve grain bowl will be deployed to deliver the diverse flavors of the African diaspora: instead of brown rice, Liberian “ruby” red rice; an alt-couscous called attiéké, made from fermented cassava; and in the vegetarian-default slot usually dominated by tofu, the Senegalese sweet-potato-and-black-eyed-pea stew called ndambe. Thiam compares Teranga to the neighborhood’s long-standing West African restaurants as “similar in terms of flavors, but more convenient and customizable, with a New York way of presenting.”

Within the familiar framework of composed “seasonal bowls” and build-your-own “market plates,” assembled with requisite components like free-range chicken and wild salmon, the chef and his partners squander no opportunity to promote Africa and its output: Lattes and juices are made with the leaves and fruit of moringa and baobab trees; the private-label coffee is grown in Rwanda and Ethiopia; the bar will be stocked with Kenyan beer and wine from Morocco and South Africa. The staff uniforms were sewn in Ghana from African organic cotton, and a retail “marketplace” will sell African housewares and provisions, including the sub-Saharan millet-type grain fonio (pictured above), which Thiam imports under his Yolélé Foods label and has championed onto the shelves of Whole Foods and the menus of restaurants like Dimes. High-protein and, like much of Teranga’s menu, gluten-free, it’s an ancient variety with a promising future for the economies of its countries of origin and the grain bowls of nascent proto-chains alike.

1280 Fifth Ave., at 110th St.; no phone

*A version of this article appears in the January 21, 2019, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!

Teranga Takes a Fast-Casual Approach to Pan-African Cuisine