By Sophie Gitonga I Resident Foodie
I’m in Uganda for the umpteenth time this year. A cousin is getting married and I’m here to celebrate with her. In truth, I’m also here on an eating excursion. Ugandan weddings, like many of their celebrations are over-the-top affairs, especially when compared to Kenyan events. Every available cent is found and spent because a good time MUST be had.
Another cousin is supposed to pick me up but he’s not at the stage when I get there. I call him and he tells me that he’s caught up in traffic. “Go into a restaurant nearby,” he says, “I’ll be there shortly.” He says it in that classic Ugandan-ism, adding an “i” at the end of some of his words.
“You get whatever you want-i I’m coming-i” he says to me. I find a place and plop my bags on the floor with a thud. There’s a football game blaring on the screens so the wait staff are glued to it and don’t immediately notice me. When I do get one’s attention, he comes over with the menu, moving rather languidly. Everything on the menu is available, he tells me. (It’s 10am mind you.) I have a hankering for chicken and food. Food here is synonymous with matoke (pounded or whole bananas) and a side of soup. You can order anything with a side of food. My meal comes piping hot and my waiter resumes his TV watching. The matoke is creamy and not as pithy as the variety we get back home, the perfect comfort food. You can also get a drink at this hour of the day, and I do. Besides, I er…need one. I go for the local gin, Waragi, and the waiter brings me the ka-quarter. It feels mischievous to be having a brew so early in the day but the other patrons are unperturbed. I ask for my usual condiments, ice and sliced lemons. The waiter does the funniest thing – he brings me a whole lemon and a knife so I can “help-i myself-i”. Ha! I love this place. When my cousin arrives, he asks for the bill and the waiter says “that’s twenty thouthand.” That’s another ism in these parts, thouthand. I sometimes catch my own mother saying it and it always elicits a smile out of me. My cousin drops me off at his place so I can freshen up and get over the jet lag from my ‘Overseas’ travel.
Later that evening we head out to Wandegeya to celebrate the bride’s last hurrah before she heads off to wedded bliss. My uncle owns a drinking den here, it’s called Casablanca. It’s open 365 days a year, rain or shine. People come here for the Supersport, the betting, for the food and drink. Tonight there’s an Arsenal vs Someone Else match so the place is brimming and bets have been placed. We come here for the roasted pork. Ugandans’ affinity for roast pork is similar to Kenyans’ love affair with mbuzi choma, they eat it hand over fist. Someone goes off to place the order and we start our own debate about how well Arsenal is doing this season and the tragedy that is Chelsea. The sizzling pork is ushered in; we are already eating it with our eyes. The waiter is pulling off the meat from the skewers – he has to bring the skewers so that we can confirm the number ordered. He places the meat on a bed of kachumbari, cassava and avocado. Hands washed and sleeves rolled up, we dig in. If the second coming was to happen right now I’d have to say, “Sorry Jesus, I’m kinda in the middle of something, can you come back in 30 minutes?” In Uganda, I’ve never met a bite of pork I didn’t like. The soft meat is seasoned only with salt and smoke from the smouldering coals. The cubed cassava is boiled and sometimes roasted as well so you feel guiltless about eating it. There’s not much talking happening while we eat – you don’t want to waste your time with words when you could be filling your mouth with fast diminishing pork. I wash my meal down with a perfectly chilled Club beer. Jesus, I’m ready for you now. We drink and dance the rest of the night away.
It’s wedding day and the bride and her bevy of beauties have been up since 4am getting pretty. I roll out of bed at full daylight, needing an aspirin to loosen the fog that’s swirling in my head. Breakfast is ready but I seem to be the only one interested in it. My grandmother ambles in as I’m eating and as soon as we are done hugging she goes on to chastise me as she always does – affectionately. She wants to know why I’m not yet pregnant, why I still can’t speak fluent Luganda and why I didn’t bring the husband on this trip. On the first two charges I assure her that I’m working on it, on the third I tell her that the husband had another wedding to attend to in Nairobi and that he would be joining us the following day. We jointly feel sorry for all the mukimo and brown rice he will have to endure at that wedding. So she invites us to her home in Masaka for lunch where she’ll prepare a special meal just for us.
The wedding reception meets all my culinary expectations and then some. Every living thing has been cooked, beans, vegetables, meats, starches, sauces…they have it all. Oh and no chapatis here, it’s important to stick to what you know and Ugandans don’t know how to do chapatis. And then there’s booze and drink to sate every thirst of the 600 plus guests. A Ugandan wedding without alcohol is simply a meeting for smartly dressed people. This is doable in Uganda because food and drink is cheap here. The local beers, Nile, Bell, and Club, cost the equivalent of Kshs 105/- even when you are purchasing them from a decent joint. You couldn’t dream of doing that in Kenya, you’d have to contend with the useless jean-clad chaps who would show up at your wedding sans gift just for the pints.
The next day, husband dutifully arrives as promised and I call up grandma to let her know that she can start firing up her jikos because we are coming for lunch. The 130km drive to Masaka from Kampala is pleasant since the road is tarmacked. We stop by the road to buy some tilapia, fresh catch of the day. My aunt bargains mercilessly and pays the equivalent of Kshs 1600/- for 4 large fish. We also buy some gonja (roasted plantain) from the food vendors. They are also selling chicken on a stick, roasted meat, and pan-fried locusts. Let me tell you something about eating those locusts, the idea and experience of eating them are polar opposites. They taste so much better than what you would imagine or than how they look. Little crunchy bitings, they pull out the jumping legs so they don’t get caught in your teeth. Sheer amusement for your mouth.
I’ve put in a special request for what I’d like to eat in Masaka: Oluwombo. This is a dish steamed in banana leaf. It’s often reserved for special occasions like holidays, and guests such as a visiting groom or a royal, so I’m very honoured to have my grandmother do this for me. You can do this with most foods, from pumpkins to whole chickens. The special skill lies in making the banana leaf packet so that everything, including the liquid, stays in. The banana plant has got to be the most revered crop in Uganda. Every part of it is used for something. The banana leaf used to make the packet is softened over coals to make it pliable. Everything that is to go into to the meal is added at the assembly stage. That includes all seasoning, tomatoes and onions. The package is then neatly tied up with a banana stalk. And now for the theory of cooking oluwombo: you make a bed of banana peelings in the sufuria you are going to use, to it you add water. Then you place your banana leaf assembly in the sufuria, cover and place the sufuria on the jiko and go about your business. It’s slow cooking so while that happens, my grandmother plies us with pineapple and tonto, a local liquor brewed from bananas. It varies in strength and colour depending on how long you’ve been brewing it. She also brings out the family album, showing us pictures of her 50th wedding anniversary celebration, an event I regrettably missed, and pictures of my mother and her siblings when they were little and never smiled for the camera. Their faces always seemed to say, “I’m not in the mood.”
The lunch is served and my grandmother retreats to eat with her friends while we commandeer her dining table. The display is gorgeous, the banana leaf packets presented like gifts. A whole kienyeji chicken with tomatoes and onions, steamed in its own juices, smoked fish cooked in groundnut sauce (the fresh tilapia that we brought in earlier), matoke, pumpkin, cassava also cooked oluwombo style and a whole helping of groundnut sauce. According to tradition, the groom is required to eat the entire whole chicken by himself so he gets to serve first. My favourite has always been the smoked fish in groundnut sauce, so I start there and round it off with the chicken that is wickedly soft. I give the obligatory moan with each bite – this food deserves every moan it gets. We eat slowly and deliberately, adding some of this and trying some of that. The food in itself isn’t unique, what’s rare and special is the moment. Of being my grandmother’s guest, of dining with my family, of having the husband see where I have come from…that I’ll carry in my heart long after the food has left my body. At some point we put our fingers down and surrender, and gently unfurl ourselves onto the mats that have been laid out on the grass. The tonto and lunch are now dancing a slow waltz in our bellies, lulling us into the most peaceful sleep.
We take a picture with Granny before we leave and this time she smiles. We promise a return visit, hopefully with a baby in tow and she says she has just the herb to speed things up in that department. What a sly woman this one is…