The first thing you think of when it comes to food in West Africa is probably meat, and I definitely got a lot of questions about how I planned to survive as a vegan when I told people I’d be travelling around Gambia for two weeks. It was probably the biggest challenge vegan-wise so far out of all the countries I’ve been to, but I managed so I’m sure you can too.
The main thing I lived off for the two weeks (my absolute lifesaver) was nyebbeh. This is basically beans and sauce, sold on the street in the morning (around 7am-10am) and evening (around 7/8pm – 11pm). Obviously these times vary by location and they basically just stop selling it once it runs out, but the main point is that it’s eaten for breakfast and dinner but not lunch.
Most commonly, it comes in tapalapa (freshly/locally made baguette), but it can also come with cassava or spaghetti (all pictured below). As you can see, it comes served in newspaper if you get it in the bread.
If you want it inside tapalapa, you need to tell them if you want the whole bread or just half. To keep things simple (because of the language barrier), I normally just said “full nyebbeh” or “half nyebbeh”. Full costs 20 dalasi (approximately £0.30) and half costs 10 dalasi.
To find nyebbeh, just go onto the street at the times listed above and look for a table with various bowls on it with a woman serving food, and go over and greet them and just ask “nyebbeh?” to find out if that’s what they’re selling.
You can also ask them for ketchup and/or pepper, or sometimes the bottles are there for you to do it yourself. If they ask you if you want “oil”, this is basically a sauce with palm oil and onions etc. It’s tasty but greasy so I just asked for a little each time.
If you’re one of those people who’s really scared of germs/bacteria, you might not want to buy this (or probably any street food in Gambia for that matter), because the vendors tend to take your money and then pick up the bread with the same hand, as well as resting the bread on the side of the table where previous customers have been leaning etc. Personally I ate nyebbeh twice a day while I was there and I only had a ‘bad stomach’ twice in two weeks, and I don’t know if it was from that or something else, so I think you should just hope for the best and remember that it’s probably strengthening your immune system!
Here is the mighty nyebbeh in its various forms:
So, you can eat nyebbeh for breakfast and dinner, which just leaves lunch as the issue. If you’re really desperate, you can just buy plain tapalapa from a corner shop for 7 dalasi. Other than that, you might get invited to a local person’s house for lunch. I decided to tell them I’m allergic to meat when this happened to me, and they gave me domoda (peanut stew/sauce, usually containing some type of meat or fish) but they took mine out before they added the meat. It was really nice actually:
Other than this, your best option is basically just to snack on fruit and peanuts from a market. Different fruits are available in different months, but when I was there (March/April), the most abundant fruits were oranges (25 dalasi for a bag/pile of about 5), bananas (25 dalasi for a small bunch) and imported apples (10 dalasi for a small one, 20 dalasi for a big one). Some markets also had watermelon. Plastic bags are banned in Gambia, so remember to bring bags with you to the market (or just walk around like a crazy fruit lady like me).
Peanuts are 5 dalasi (£0.07) for a portion-sized bag, and some vendors also have freshly made peanut butter:
Cashews are grown in a lot of places in Gambia, so these are also sold on the street in little bags, but they’re a lot more expensive than peanuts. If you’re as lucky as me, you might randomly meet a cashew farmer who decides to pick and roast some cashews for you:
Coconut meat is also a common snack in Gambia, as seen below at Serekunda Market. I paid 5 dalasi (£0.07) for two of the long slices:
This won’t fill you up, but you could also buy baobab from the market. Of course it’s insanely cheap compared to the prices at the health food shops in England. I paid 30 dalasi (£0.45) for an entire bag full, the size of a supermarket bag.
If you aren’t near a market but you’re near a beach, you could also get fruit from the fruit ladies who have wooden stands at the more popular beaches (shown below). They tend to have a slightly larger variety of fruit than most street vendors, but of course it’s a lot more expensive (100-200 dalasi aka £1.50 – £3.00) for a plate. They tend to be very good saleswomen, so I bought these a few times, and it’s important to remember that even if it sounds like a lot of dalasis, it isn’t much in Pounds, and it’s important to support local businessmen/women who are just trying to make money to help support their children etc.
Everything I wrote above (minus the fruit ladies) was about how I survived in the more remote areas, as I was travelling quite far away from the main tourist area. If you’re staying around Kombo (the main tourist area), it’s a completely different story, as there are all types of restaurants there, ranging from Indian to Italian and Jamaican.
I stayed around there for my last two days, and found some great vegan options that I would definitely recommend. The first one is Mosiah’s Jamaican Restaurant in Kotu (it appears on Google Maps so you can find it easily). They had an entire vegetarian section on the menu, most of which was vegan (menu and my meal, chickpea curry, shown below).
The restaurant also has reliable wifi, the staff are very friendly and the upper floor is a good people-watching spot. I also found the prices to be very fair.
The other restaurant I went to around Kombo was (ironically) called The Butcher’s Shop on Kairaba Avenue. It has a regular menu most days (including vegan options), but on Sundays it has a brunch buffet from midday until 3pm for 450 dalasi (£6.75) and a lunch buffet on Wednesdays for 350 dalasi.
I went to the brunch buffet and it was AMAZING (for omnivores and vegans). There was a huge variety of fancy salads, roasted vegetables, different pasta dishes, lentils, chips, potato croquettes, spring rolls and probably some things I’ve forgotten (I haven’t listed the non-vegan things obviously). This was one of my many plates of food there (half of the exciting things are hiding under the spaghetti).
If I could go back in time, I probably would have packed snacks such as cereal bars, as I was sometimes in places where I couldn’t find a market nearby so I couldn’t get fruit etc., and I ended up eating way too much tapalapa.
An important thing to remember is that your next accommodation might be more remote than you realise from its website or Facebook page (wherever you found it), so (I learnt towards the end of my trip) it’s best to bring some fruit from a market on your way, to last you for the next few days.
Anyway, if you’re travelling around Gambia as a vegan, I wish you the best of luck, and I hope you’re ready to eat more beans than ever before!
Instagram – @zoe_93