On a Friday afternoon during Ramadan, the food-laden table in front of Harlem’s Timbuktu Islamic Center waits like the prelude to a party. The mosque, a center for Harlem’s Malian community, is full of the faithful at jumu’ah, the Friday afternoon communal prayer. Until the evening descends, and with it time for iftar (the fast-breaking meal), the vendors sitting with their lovingly made and packaged Malian snacks will continue to wait. Once the clock strikes a little after 8 p.m., however, the crowds are sure to come.
Food isn’t the only thing sold in front of the mosque. Two other tables offer keffiyeh, prayer beads, and books to the mosque community. Yet food is the main event. The same family of women who prepare it sit selling their creations in plastic packages of sweet and savory snacks. Packets of smoked and boiled peanuts, big enough to share, wait to be shelled and eaten. Small baggies house an array of dumplings made from millet and wheat flour, from sweet balls of fried dough to spicy-salty varieties packed with fish and chile.
A nearby cooler overflows with containers of thiakry, a pudding typically made of millet grains in a creamy, tangy condensed-milk-and-yogurt base. The light mixture has a slight, banana-like sweetness. Another stack of plastic tubs contain a gingery mix of millet couscous in syrupy, corn flour–thickened water. Bottles of bright red jus de bissap, hibiscus flower juice, offer a tangy, slightly minty flavor. Each sip starts sweet, before tapering into a tingle that will make your mouth pucker. “It’s sour,” warns a young woman vendor, easily switching between English, French, and Bambara, Mali’s most popular language.
As summer evening descends on the Harlem neighborhood, music throbs and laughter peals from a nearby park. Meanwhile, the street around the mosque starts to buzz with women coming for prayers. Buy a few dumplings, a bottle of sweet jus de bissap, and a container of thiakry to top it off, then head to the park for some snacking and sunshine—a beautiful end to a New York City afternoon.