Yassa, Indeed: Discovering a Classic Senegalese Dish

Or Caramelizing Onions 101

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By Dara O’Brien
Creative Director, Lake Isle Press

I write today of my quest to make perfectly caramelized onions. How can what appears to be so simple be so elusive?

It all started with my first attempt at making Pierre Thiam’s recipe for chicken yassa from “The Fonio Cookbook.” Yassa is a classic Senegalese sauce that is basically caramelized onions with lime and Dijon, and where has it been all of my life? Well, not all my life, because as a recovering finicky eater, I wouldn’t even try Dijon until well into my thirties.

I followed Pierre’s yassa sauce recipe, as well as his recipe for grilled chicken (marinated in lime and scallion), and served it with his spring vegetable fonio pilaf. Confession: The yassa recipe calls for olives. I left them out. Yup. Still won’t eat ‘em.

I’ve always shied away from using my broiler, but in this recipe you grill the chicken to start, so I tried it. Well, that wasn’t so hard. I also made the nokos pepper paste the recipe calls for and had plenty left over. I added it to some chili I made the next day, nice punch of flavor. However, if you wish, you could substitute a green pepper cut into matchsticks and diced hot pepper for the nokos in this recipe, as “The New York Times” did when they adapted it.

The chicken was flavorful and tender, the yassa really yummy, and the fonio pilaf delicately tasty. The elements blend beautifully together, but each could pair with other dishes as well.

But the color-that golden brown color of properly caramelized onions, the color that Pierre gets (see picture below) when he makes his yassa? Well, that didn’t happen. I made the chicken and the yassa again, same thing.

I asked Pierre’s advice, and he told me I had to hold off stirring the onions at the onset. I tried. No dice. Still tasty, but still pale. I think I was just too afraid I’d burn the pan and got impatient.

I began searching online to see if other home cooks have a similar problem with caramelizing onions. The answer was yes. And then I called my sister, Maureen, who is one of the best cooks I know, and asked her if she had ever made caramelized onions. She said yes. I asked if she got them to that rich brown color, and she said no. She then said the same thing everybody says on the online: recipes direct you to caramelize onions for 20 minutes, and nobody can seem to get them to brown in that short a time.

I made the recipe again and cooked the onions for an hour, and I added them to the pan gradually as a few sources advised, so they wouldn’t get too steamy. The result is in the picture at the top. I got a much browner color than I had gotten before, but still not like Pierre’s. I suspect it has to do with the heat of the pan, and trusting how long you can leave them undisturbed so they brown but don’t burn.

I’m not sure if the taste is really all that impacted by the color of the onions, but I am going to keep making this recipe and trying to get those onions right. Because chicken yassa is delicious. Even without the olives.

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Serves 6

Click here for printable recipe

6 bone-in, skinless whole chicken legs, cut apart into thighs and drumsticks
2 tablespoons fresh thyme, finely chopped
4 scallions, finely chopped
3⁄4 about) cup lime juice (6 to 7 limes)
1 tablespoon white vinegar
1/4 cup peanut or vegetable oil
2 pounds yellow onions, cut in thick strips
1 whole Scotch bonnet pepper
1 bay leaf
1 1⁄2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
1 tablespoon salt
1⁄2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons Nokos (recipe follows)
1 cup water
1⁄2 cup green olives, rinsed

Spring Vegetable Fonio Pilaf for serving ( recipe here)

1. In a large bowl, combine the chicken pieces, thyme, scallions, about 1/4 cup of the lime juice, the vinegar, and 1 tablespoon of the oil. Mix well so the chicken is thoroughly coated. Cover and marinate in the fridge for at least 2 hours or overnight.

2. Heat a grill until hot. Remove the chicken from the marinade; discard the remaining marinade. Grill the chicken until it’s almost cooked through, 6 to 7 minutes on each side. (It will finish cooking in the onion sauce, imparting to the sauce its lovely grill flavors.) Transfer the chicken to a platter, cover loosely with aluminum foil, and set aside.

3. Meanwhile, in a large pot, heat the remaining 3 tablespoons oil over medium-high heat. When the oil is hot, add the onions and cook for 1 to 2 minutes without stirring. Stir once with a wooden spoon, then allow the onions to begin caramelizing. Only stir from time to time to avoid scorching, but make sure to allow the onions to get some color, 10 to 12 minutes.

4. Stir in the Scotch bonnet, bay leaf, and mustard. Continue cooking and stirring for about 5 minutes, until the pepper is slightly fragrant and the onions have a uniform light brown color; add 1 to 2 tablespoons water only as needed to avoid scorching.

5. Add the remaining lime juice to taste. Season with the salt and pepper. Add the nokos, the grilled chicken, any juices that have accumulated in the platter, and the 1 cup water. Stir well. Simmer until chicken is completely cooked through, 10 to 15 minutes. Add the olives.

6. Remove the bay leaf and the Scotch bonnet (if you don’t want to serve it). Serve the chicken and sauce over the pilaf.


2 bay leaves
2 green jalapeño or other chiles, stemmed and chopped
1 small green bell pepper, stemmed, seeded and chopped
1⁄4 cup whole black peppercorns
1 head garlic, separated into cloves and peeled
1 tablespoon grated fresh ginger

Combine all the ingredients in a blender and process until it forms a thick, wet paste.

Reprinted From “The Fonio Cookbook,” by Pierre Thiam, Lake Isle Press, 2019

Note: Fonio is available at select grocers including Whole Foods nationwide. You can order Yolélé Fonio through Amazon.

Originally published at https://www.lakeislepress.com on July 21, 2020.

Written by

Dara O’Brien is the Creative Director of Lake Isle Press. When she isn’t cooking or writing about cookbooks, she writes plays and sometimes acts in them.

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