I recently took my very American cousin to the markets in Senegal, thinking it would be a good way to introduce her to the culture during the first few days of her visit. I could tell she was a bit taken aback by the slabs of bleeding meats on cement partitions, fresh fish scales flying around, and the mounds of multicolored root vegetables on parchment paper. But it wasn’t until she grabbed my arm that I understood just how strange the experience was for her, and how hilarious it had become for me.

“Oh my god Meliss, what is that? No, seriously something smells rotten. What is that?” With a smile I told here, “it’s dried fish.”

David Sangaré shows off his favorite dried fish, Yaboye

David Sangaré shows off his favorite dried fish, Yaboye.

“No, Kéthiakh! EEE, smells good, it tastes good,” said Ousmane Faye, connoisseur of all dishes Senegalese. Kéthiakh is Wolof for dried fish, and in Kafountine, local fishermen and fish makers produce enough to feed Burkina Faso, Mali, Guinea, and many parts of Senegal. But for some, the smell can be slightly unpleasant.

Imagine taking a fish directly from the sea, descaling it, putting it in a box, taking it out of that box and putting it in a wood chip oven for a few minutes. Then, leave it out in the sun for 5 days to dry before eating it.

That’s the practice followed by many West Africans who produce this staple found in hundreds of regional dishes. For Senegalese, that means Thiebou Kéthiakh (rice and dried fish), Soupa Kangja, and Soulouhou Mbalax, which all feature dried fish as the main ingredient.

The local ecosystem that has developed around the dried fish market is also fascinating. Those who sell the cartons of dried fish in the marketplace depend on those driving trucks full of dried fish for their deliveries, who rely on the packagers who receive the fish from those who dry it. These fish driers are connected to the women who scale the fish after the fishermen return each day with their catches.

Young girl descales fish for dried fish preparation.

A young girl descales fish before preparing it to be dried.

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“Me and my brother eat the fish skins.” young boy, Kafountine, Senegal

“Our business helps the country’s economy because everyone that you see has a family, a wife and kids that we are able to feed because of this business, so that’s one way. You see all these trucks, everything that we’re selling? If you go to the market, you’ll see that it’s a product that sells well. Each day more than 40 tons of dried fish leaves Kafountine,” – Alioune Tine, a local man who loads the trucks used to transport dried fish.

Dioguou Sow is a local fisherman. He said the ocean off the coast of Kafountine is so giving, fishermen often sell fresh fish to the dried fish makers for as little as $1 a carton.

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Mounds of dried fish on the shores of Kafountine

“We sell the fish by a carton for 500CFA, sometimes when the season is good and there are a lot of fish we can decrease the carton price just to 200CFA. But, compared to those that transform fresh fish into dried fish, the fishermen don’t make any money at all. They buy cartons from us for next to nothing, then transform the fish and sell it for a lot” – Dioguou So

Dried fish handler, David Sanagre said once the fish is transformed, the going price for a carton is roughly $120. “Normally it has to dry for at least 5 days like this, so it dries out completely. After it dries we put it in a carton, and we make sure it’s nice and tight. One carton contains 100 kilos, and each kilo costs 750CFA. If there is a lack of fish it costs around 600CFA.”

Once the fish arrives at the market place, one piece is sold for about $0.50. But I was still curious about what makes a dried fish good. Senegalese restaurant owner Seidou Faye said it’s all in the smell. “The stronger it smells the better it tastes. You want flavor. We use it for sauces and to go with rice, the more flavor it has, the better.”