Monday, 8 March 2010

and what "food" would you like with that?

travelling to a new, far away country is always an exciting culinary experience. before going to india i spent days fantasising about the authentic versions of rogan josh and chicken tikka masala i was going to taste every day, only to be slightly disappointed, but also pleasantly surprised by curry leaves and fish cooked in banana leaves. before coming to uganda, many people asked me “what’s the food like in uganda” and i had to admit that i had no clue. there are some senegalese and nigerian restaurants in europe, there are the famous ethiopian joints along caledonian road, and i’m pretty sure someone has come up with south african-themed bar where biltong is king. but none has ever heard of a ugandan restaurant (or a rwandese one for that matter)...and now i know why.

during my first few days in kampala i always ended up in suspicious-looking eateries serving a strange range of “international” foods, from cheese burgers to irish stews. i started becoming restless and suggesting we go to a real ugandan restaurant at every occasion. we finally ended up at the oak, a secluded place disguised in between big office buildings in the centre of town, but they only had “fast food” available and so i ordered liver and chips, which turned out to be lovely, succulent meat bites accompanied by the usual soggy chips that come with almost every plate here in kampala.

and then i tried the “proper” ugandan everyday food. first in the office’s canteen, which however has a terrible reputation, and then at st. anthony, a well-known, busy restaurant in the office/embassies district of nakasero. ugandans eat a lot of meat, including beef, pork, chicken and goat. they however seem to prefer the intestines of the animals to their more “classic” cuts. a walk through the city’s main market can be a pretty gruesome affair, as you can at one point find yourself surrounded by the smell and sight of (rotting) goat and cow’s tripes hanging from dirty hooks.

meat only seems to be cooked in two ways, either barbequed in a fairly simple but tasty nyama choma, or wrapped in banana leaves and steamed without any condiments. meat always comes with your choice of “food”. food equals staple, or starch, and can be any of the following things: cassava, millet flour bread, boiled pumpkin, sweet potatoes, irish potatoes, posho (corn meal) or, the favourite, matoke, aka flavourless mashed plantain. needless to say, none of the above is actually vaguely appealing or nutritious. considering the meat is always cooked in oxo-cube broth, the combined result usually ends up being pretty bland and, well, starchy. lake fish, especially tilapia, sometimes replaces the meat but it isn’t cooked in any more imaginative way and usually full of tiny little bones that can turn the meal in a boring and somewhat dangerous experience.

bean or pea stews, white rice and samosas can usually save the day and prevent you from going home starving and dreaming of flying giant lasagne, but all in all eating the ugandan way is a dim option. luckily, kampala has adapted to the incredibly large number of “mzungus” living in it and can now offer an impressive number of international restaurants, from chinese, to belgian, to ethiopian. some more upmarket places stick to the choice of meat or fish but have devised slightly more adventurous ways of preparing it, integrating italian and indian influences with sometimes pleasant results.

today i even heard rumours of a japanese and a thai restaurant...i’m hopeful, i will survive this year in kampala after all, but for once i will have to put away my passion for authentic local cuisine and give in to the expat way of life...going back to handi, the best indian in town tomorrow, yay!!!