A Memorable Senegalese Chicken Dish from Yassa African Restaurant

Daniel Hautzinger
Yassa chicken. Photo: iStock
"People who go to Senegal say it's what they remember the most, because it's easy to remember: yassa!"Photo: iStock

“If you go to Senegal, yassa is very, very popular,” says Madieye Gueye. “People who go to Senegal say it’s what they remember the most, because it’s easy to remember: yassa!”

It’s not surprising then, that when Gueye opened a Senegalese restaurant in Chicago in 2004, he called it Yassa African Restaurant, after that memorable dish. Located in Bronzeville at 35th Street and King Drive since 2015, the Gueyes first opened Yassa on 79th Street in Chatham. They moved the restaurant after a fire damaged their original location, but Gueye is sanguine about the tragedy.

“Everything happens for a reason,” he says. “If it weren’t for that fire, maybe we wouldn’t be here—but we are very pleased, because Bronzeville is growing, and there is nothing that can stop it. It’s in the middle of everything. We are in a community where we feel a part of it.

“Chicago itself is a wonderful city with a melting pot, where people value effort. People come here and give us thumbs up, because every single day we wake up trying to make people happy. Our only goal is to satisfy and make sure you have a wonderful experience, and bring Africa right here to Bronzeville. Yassa is a door to Africa.”

The Gueyes came to Chicago in 2000 from North Carolina, where Awa was often complimented on her home cooking by friends who came to visit. “She’s been cooking since she was 13 years old,” Gueye says. “Our friends would say, ‘This food is amazing, why don’t you have a restaurant?’ My wife took that seriously; I didn’t, because it’s a hard job. But when we moved to Chicago, she said, ‘I want to have a restaurant.’ And so we did.”

They are from Senegal originally: Madieye was born in Louga and came to the United States in 1987, first arriving in New York City before moving on to North Carolina.

He and Awa decided to fill their menu in Chicago with Senegalese classics. Mafe or maffe, which is lamb served in a peanut-based stew, is “the best use of peanut butter since PB&J,” Gueye says with a laugh. It’s typically served with fufu, a fluffy pounded yam used as a vessel for the sauce, cubes of meat, and vegetables. Thieboudienne or tiebu djeun is the “national dish of Senegal,” fish with jollof or djolof rice—jollof is rice tinged with tomatoes, spices, and vegetables, and is Gueye’s “best-seller.” Various house-made juices, from hibiscus, ginger, baobab pods, and honeydew and pineapple are refreshing accompaniments.

And finally there is yassa, a simple marinade of spices, lemon, and mustard that can dress virtually any protein. Try a general recipe for yassa chicken from Yassa, with the caution from Madieye that Awa has a special touch: “If you and I go to the grocery and buy chicken, and you do your thing and she does her thing, the taste will be the difference, even though the chicken is the same!”

Yassa Chicken

Ingredients

Whole chicken, or chicken legs
1 hot chile pepper, quartered
1 garlic clove, chopped
5 tsp lemon juice
2 tbsp Dijon mustard
5 tbsp vegetable oil
1 lb onions, sliced
Salt
Pepper
2 tbsp fresh thyme
3 bay leaves

Directions

1. Break chicken into parts, lay in a glass dish.

2. In a bowl, make the marinade with the chile pepper; garlic clove; lemon juice; salt and pepper to taste; thyme; and bay leaves.

3. Pour the marinade over the chicken. Refrigerate for one hour or overnight.

4. Remove the chicken from the glass dish. Reserve marinade. Grill the chicken on a charcoal fire or sear in a skillet until browned.

5. In a large pot, heat the oil. Cook the onions, stirring, until starting to take on color. 

6. Add in the marinade to the pot and cook, stirring, adding water if need be to prevent scorching. 

7. Add grilled chicken to the pot and top with water. Cover and simmer for about 30 minutes, until chicken is done.

8. Serve hot with white rice on the side. Add-ons may include a mix of green peas and sliced carrots.