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Uganda On a Plate


Uganda on a plate: yummy banana dishes, stews, pastes and juicy fruits and drinks!

Uganda's culture weaves a thread of variety not only through the manner of dress, language and other characteristics but also in its variety of dishes. Nearly every tribe or region has a delicacy or specialty and when you get to Uganda try out the local restaurants or the homes of residents who should be able to prepare or treat you to some of the relishes and foods made from the numerous vegetables, yams, potatoes, bananas and fruits. Many highly rated hotels and restaurants try out the traditional dishes in form of buffets but often come within a short distance of really preparing authentic traditional dishes, because cooking traditional food requires some tact, secrets and traditional processes which big hotels don't either have the time, patience or knack for.

One popular local dish is matooke (bananas of the plantain type) which are cooked boiled in a sauce of peanuts, fresh fish, meat or entrails. Matooke really goes with any relish, except that the best and most respectable way the Baganda cook it is to tie up the peeled fingers into a bundle of banana leaves which is then put in a cooking pan with just enough water to steam the leaves. When properly ready and tender, the bundle is removed and squeezed to get a smooth soft and golden yellow mash, served hot with all the banana leaves around to keep it hot. In Buganda, the food production process revolves around the banana tree. Tender banana tree shoots are removed from the plant and singed over fire to make a fine foil into which chunks of pork or beef are tied up and steamed on top of a bundle of bananas. This style of cooking preserves all the flavours and cooks up food like a pressure cooker, if not better. Dry banana leaves are used like bandages when bundles of matooke are being wrapped up for steaming. Strips and chunks cut from the banana tree stem can be used as a foundation at the bottom of the cooking pan so as to avoid the boiling water touching the bundle of the matooke being steamed.
Many tribes in Uganda eat their fish smoked or fresh, while others dry it after washing it in a salt solution and drying it in the sun for days. Sun-dried fish is a delicacy in the eastern region. There are varieties of small fry which are highly nutritious (nkejje and mukene) which are sun-dried and cooked in a sauce of peanut or pre-soaked and fried. Their high flavour and nutritional value is highly prized. Lake Victoria is home to the Nile Perch, which is now the favoured and easily available fish dish. Perch has cannibalised many other indigenous species in the lake and for many years there has been little else to eat. Some Ugandans shun, even ridicule it, but it is a big foreign exchange earner in Europe where fresh fish and organic food are popular. A number of indigenous fish types fortunately seem to be on the rebound in the lake to the happiness of many Ugandans thanks to the falling numbers of Perch brought on by its own prolific breeding and feeding habits which have seen its increase go down. Another common type of fish is tilapia which is often fried and served with chips in restaurants. Also, various types of vegetables, salty and bitter, are better tied up in a separate bundle of banana leaves and steamed together with the matooke. There are varieties of mushrooms which are eaten fresh or sun-dried. One type called Kabaala, is pricey even in markets and is also used for various rituals. Among the Bagishu of eastern Uganda tender bamboo shoots (amaleewa) are a delicacy. After harvest, they are parboiled and sun-dried before cooking.

In western Uganda and most of the north and east, millet bread is the favoured dish. The milled flour is mixed among various tribes in different proportions with cassava to be cooked in a heavy paste which is served hot. Up north, little or no cassava at all is added while in the western region a proportion of fifty-fifty, or eighty-twenty (more cassava to the millet flour) is the ratio of mixture. The best relish to go with it would be smoked meat. In the north, the smoked meat would be prized booty from hunting trips which men bring home. After lighting fires in the bushes during the dry season, the men chase edible rats which scuttle off into the safety of anthills. The anthill holes are plugged except one.

There the hunters wait patiently after smoking out the unlucky rats, some the size of small rabbits, which are clubbed on the head and collected in their dozens. In the north, smoked beef is skillfully seasoned with a rich sauce of milled sim sim (sesame) paste and dark green bitter vegetables. In the eastern region, the people of Teso would add a light sauce of tamarind fruit which is plenty in those dry areas. A variety of edible sorghum is often used by some tribes in the east and northeast where the climate makes it impossible to afford the luxury of growing millet. In western Uganda, equally tasty sauces are scraped out of cow butter and unclarified salt for a slurp millet meal. One tribe called the Nubians is great cooks. Thick sauces made from slippery okra and other green vegetables are always fried in a lot of oil and added to meat. Chili sauce is often made from green mangoes and red hot pepper. Meat is stewed in thick sauces and served with thin fermented flat rolls of bread made from cassava and burnt over a light fire. This chapatti-like bread has a tangy taste like the njera of Ethiopia goes well with thick highly seasoned sauces cooked with a high bite of pepper. Surprisingly the Bahima of western Uganda are not a particularly meat-eating tribe like the Karamojong of the northeast - who enjoy it by the chunk - although they keep cows in their thousands. Instead, they prefer a diet of milk, beans, matooke and some millet bread. Meanwhile the Batooro of western Uganda peel the skins off beans and mash them into a thick paste (firinda) to which they add cow butter and unclarified salt to make a really tasty relish that goes well with millet.

In Uganda there are lots of tropical fruits to eat which include mangoes, paw paws, oranges, tangerines, avocados, jack fruits, lemons, sweet banana (some types of which are used to brew banana wine laced with sorghum for yeast), sugar cane, varies types of berries both localised and wild, guava, pineapples. If you are in the city, try Nakasero for most of Uganda's fruits which are also exported overseas. Uganda's fruit industry has not been well developed like that of Kenya so there is not a heavy production of hybridised fruits although some apples are now being grown on a small scale in Kabale in western Uganda. Some temperate fruits from South Africa and Kenya find their way into Uganda. Instead you will pleasantly be surprised to eat some wild mangoes and other fruits which although not having striking eye appeal have the juiciest taste you will ever dream of in the world. There are varieties of fruits always in season and being sold on stalls all over the country especially on the roadside. Please remember to wash your fruit before eating it.

Light and heavy lager beers are on sale in many joints. Bell Beer which has been brewed at Luzira for over 50 years is the more popular light beer. Heavy lagers such as Nile Special and Club are brewed at the source of the Nile. In fact one brewer has now started making industrial beer using locally grown sorghum instead of the imported hops and malt. Whatever your brand and taste, you will enjoy your beer in Uganda. Many visitors comment on its pleasant aftertaste.

Uganda gained an international reputation in the 1960s for distilling a national gin called Uganda Waragi. The drink became so popular that stocks run out at various international trade exhibitions to the embarrassment of organisers. For a while the distillery went through a rough patch when quality suffered and sales went down as the economy tottered on the brink of collapse. The gin has made a good comeback following the purchase of the distillery by a beer consortium.

The name waragi was coined by Sudanese soldiers from the Turkish word arrak'h.. Towards the end of the 20th century, when British explorers were beginning to make inroads into East Africa, they used brigades Nubian soldiers in their entourage, a hardy type who concocted the drink from grains to keep up their spirits. Waragi eventually became a well known distilled drink in Uganda but the colonial authorities banned it through laws which still exist in the books. Africans would not drink it openly then since even the more harmless drinks were off limits for them. People now drink the crude thing, and the authorities are ignoring the law and not enforcing it. The distilled Uganda Waragi now being sold in shops, bars and overseas is safe enough because it is double and triple distilled from the crude alcohol which village distillers sell to the factory, where flavours are added and the harmful parts of alcohol and impurities are filtered out. Many people take it neat. Others with a tonic or fruit cocktail. Uganda Waragi a smooth gin worth the name. Back


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