Senegalese Nem - Gastro Obscura

Prepared Foods

Senegalese Nem

Senegal's popular spring rolls tell a story of war, love, and colonialism.

During the French-Indochina war, France sent more than 50,000 West African soldiers—recruited from various colonies—to what is now Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. So many of these soldiers were Senegalese that the corps became known as tirailleurs sénégalais (“Senegalese riflemen”).

Vietnamese liberation forces (then known as Viet Minh) defeated France in 1954. But before the war’s end, some Senegalese soldiers had met their wives in Vietnam. Some of these women accompanied their husbands to Senegal, where they earned money via stands in Dakar’s downtown food market. Among other dishes, they fried nem, small Vietnamese spring rolls.

The crisp snacks, filled with glass noodles and ground meat or shrimp, appear street-side, on most restaurant menus, and at events. But nem’s ubiquity doesn’t mean vendors have all mastered their craft. Proper rolls require a practiced hand, and most of the people in Dakar with a direct connection to Vietnam have since passed away, taking their secret recipes and techniques with them. The nem of yesteryear have been replaced largely with lesser iterations. But those who remember the original rolls say that Saveurs d’Asie, a local chain owned by the son of a Vietnamese immigrant, is one of the few remaining outposts still frying up the real deal.

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