Uganda Food: A Brief Introduction
A TASTE OF UGANDAN FOOD
If there is one thing for which this beautiful country Uganda stands distinct is its food. Ugandan food tastes different. The same food maybe found elsewhere but it will always taste not as sumptuous as it does in Uganda. Thanks to the great weather and the fertile soils that makes the country tick.
Different parts of the country grow different types of food ranging from cereals, grains, tubers and fruits that grow in abundance and throughout the year. Some of the most popular crops grown were introduced by outsiders mainly the Asians/ Indians and the British so traditional Ugandan food is the result not only of its influence from the Ugandans, but mainly also outsiders from India, England, Ireland, and Portugal. Indians made their initial entry into Uganda as merchants from the coastal areas of the Indian Ocean in the 1800’s. On their trade trips into the interior, they carried their own food mainly wheat flour and rice. They introduced these foods to the people they got to interact with. With time, there was demand for rice just as was with flour and the trade began.
Later when the British came, first as explorers and later as missionaries and administrators, they too introduced their food and style of cooking in Uganda. To date, this influence is all around. It has become a way of life.
A morning cup of well blended tea or hot porridge is something of a ritual in every corner of the country. The tea is served steaming hot in a cup or a flask blended with freshly pounded ginger or crushed dry cinnamon.
At time it is prepared with fresh milk boiled together hitting you with an inviting aroma that awakens all the sleeping enzymes. This is what is called African Tea. It is a hot cup of tea heavily spiced with milk. If the tea comes without any milk added to it, it is the legendary cup of Black Tea. Everywhere you go in Uganda, you will find this cup of tea.
In places where coffee is grown, it is dried, roasted, and then pounded into a refined powder which is prepared along with milk or served plain in a cup of hot water. It is what is known as African coffee or Black coffee respectively. On menus in cafes, it is what they call house coffee.
THE MAIN FOOD OF UGANDA
The usual custom is to cook the basic foods like bananas, millet, cassava, potatoes, pumpkins, yams, posho, rice etc. by themselves and also prepare a separate sauce into which the cooked basic food portions are dipped before eating.
Matooke (plantain) and Millet are the two main representative crops grown for food in Uganda.
Foods like sweet potatoes and other kinds like beans are ubiquitous but plantain and millet have regional distribution.
Cereals don’t do very well in most parts of the country due to the warm and damp tropical atmosphere in Uganda.
Matooke or green plantain
This is the most popular type of food eaten here especially in the regions where bananas are plentiful. It is estimated that there are more than thirty varieties of bananas in Uganda. Historically, bananas are the main food of the Baganda, Batooro, and the Bagishu of Mbale areas near Mount Elgon. They have now become the favoured food of most tribes in central Eastern and Western Uganda because these areas also have the climate most suitable for their growth.
Banana plantations are as typical in Uganda as potatoes are in Ireland. Each person in Uganda especially in the central and south western region consumes an average of 243 kg of matooke annually. That’s about 0.6kg per day! For such folk, hardly a day goes by without eating matooke. It is not a rare feat for one to use the word food to mean matooke in central and south western Uganda. In the rural areas, one plants a few banana plants about his compound and he is able to have by him all he needs for food. One great drawback of the matooke is that it doesn’t keep for long as it soon ripens and these are no good for cooking. It is also bulky and troublesome to transport.
Not all matooke is prepared as cooked food, some varieties are eaten raw upon ripening while others are used for making juice and others for alcohol. Bogoya is the commonest of those eaten raw but ripe. When you are on your safari, always make sure you eat bogoya wherever you go. It is one fruit whose hygiene you can always be sure of. You only have to peel it yourself and enjoy the sweet yellow banana.
The matooke for cooking is the green skinned kind you find on the roadside or in the market. It appears in bunches and clusters of long green fingers. For food, it is peeled and wrapped in banana leaves before steaming it. Upon steaming, it turns yellow and it is then mashed and served hot. More often than not, matooke is the main food along with other small servings of potatoes, pumpkin, beans, peanut stock, fish or beef stew and a bit of greens
Millet is a traditional staple food grown in most short grass areas of Uganda like Northern Uganda, and western Uganda. Millet and sorghum are some of the few major foods that are indigenous to the region. Most of the other items of diet were introduced from other parts of the world. Millet is the primary food of the population in northern Uganda though it is supplemented with other crops. A mixture of millet and cassava flour is cooked into millet bread then served with simsim paste and peanut sauce.
Potatoes / Irish Potatoes
Being the most versatile and popular tuber on earth, the potato found a place of love on the Ugandan menu. Though originally from Peru, potatoes were introduced into the country by the British colonial government. Did you know that potatoes are the fourth most popular crop in the world after corn, wheat, and rice? Potatoes are the main staple food in the hills of Kigezi in western Uganda. They also make up as the second most consumed street food in Uganda after the famous rolex.
These grow luxuriantly across the country and tubers are a favorite food of many locals. The plant is propagated by vines. The tubers can be roasted, boiled or steamed and they grow luxuriantly in Uganda. Potatoes are a common delicacy in eastern Uganda and they are served as the main meal. To some, it is emboli, to others lumonde, and others ebitakuri. Sweet potatoes are the only crop grown throughout the country. At times the potatoes are sliced then laid out in the sun to dry. Sweet potatoes are usually eaten when the banana yields is low.
Posho / Ugali
Call it the white cake that is served hot! Posho is what in brief you can call, ‘corn meal’as it is made from corn flour. The word posho was derived from the word portion. A white caked bread served in portions. Though posho on its own isn’t that tasty, it does take on the nice flavors of the stews it is often served with. The meal is commonly served along with a stew of beans, beef, peanuts, chicken, mutton or goat. Posho is made by adding maize/corn flour to boiling water then stirred until the mixture becomes one white cake. At times, maize flour is mixed with cold water then the mixture is added to boiling water to make white porridge for breakfast. This porridge is what Americans would call grits.
Cassava also better known by French speakers as manioc or yuca by Spanish speakers is a white root tuber often served in form of long steamed or deep fried fingers. It is one of the foods that grow well in all parts of the country. It was introduced by arab traders. As a plant, cassava grows into a short shrub of about 5 – 8 feet high. These knotty roots swell into large three feet long and 6 – 9 inches wide tubers as they develop. They have some white milky juice when still fresh. These must never be eaten when raw as they contain hydrocyanic which is destroyed by cooking. Apart from being eaten as main food, cassava can be chopped to pieces and fried to make crisps or milled to make flour that is mixed with ripe dessert bananas when making Ugandan pancakes (kabalagala). Cassava is very popular during the dry season as a famine crop although it has low nutritional value. Cassava at times can be roasted over charcoal stoves and this form makes a great road side snack you ought to try on safari in Uganda. Cassava leaves are also cooked as a sauce by some northern tribes of Uganda especially in the dry season.
Roots of swamp yams are an important food item though they are planted on a small scale. The tubers are cut up into sizable pieces, wrapped in banana leaves before cooking. After cooking the skin in peeled off before serving or eating.
Uganda is endowed with a lot of natural fresh water bodies. The lakes, rivers and swamps are all fresh water bodies that are good for the livelihood of a number of fish species. Uganda, being the Source of the Nile, is home to the Nile Perch. However, L. Victoria the second largest fresh water lake in the world is home to other fish species like the cat fish, lung fish, silver fish, and tilapia, which is the commonest of them all and is also locally known as ngege. The silver fish make cheap but interesting fish sauce.
Garden peas or field peas
Peas (Pisum sativum) form a large part of the local diet especially in the southwestern part of country and in most urban areas. These were introduced into Uganda before the arrival of Europeans in Uganda.
Peanut Paste or Binyebwa
For the non-meat inclined, Uganda has you covered also. They are many vegetarian dishes you can enjoy here. Plain pounded peanuts (locally known as groundnuts) are cooked into a paste which can also be mixed with other food items such as dried tilapia, smoked Nile perch, mukene (a small sardine-like fish), and smoked beef. At times dried mushrooms can be added to the sauce. The sauce is often served as an accompanying sauce for steamed plantain (matooke), rice, pumpkin, potatoes, and other traditional foods.
Fowl and chicken
Chicken are plentiful, both free range and commercial indoor varieties.
If you want to sample authentic Ugandan food, head for Luwombo, one of the classic creations Baganda people in central Uganda have been perfecting for decades. Luwombo is one of the oldest traditional foods of Uganda. The luwombo is a stew/paste that is prepared in banana leaves and steamed to achieve a very attractive aroma. It is common with chicken, beef or peanut paste. The Luwombo is a common food in central Uganda and it is a ceremonial dish mainly served at traditional wedding ceremonies and festivities.
Beans are consumed on a large scale in Uganda. French beans are also obtainable in most urban markets year round.
Leaves of a number of indigenous plants are also used to make sauces. Some of these are also sold in bulk in most local markets. Some of these include red amaranth leaves, green amaranth leaves, collards, cabbages, African spider plant/African cabbage, and nakati leaves (Solanum aethiopium).
It wouldn’t be a list of Ugandan foods without chapatti. It is almost impossible to walk through any town in Uganda without coming across a chapatti stand. Chapattis were introduced in Uganda by the Indians. Today, the chapatti is the quintessential Ugandan street food to have. It is extremely popular with Ugandans and visitors alike. If you get any craving for a quick but cheap snack, head to the nearest street corner kiosk and ask for one of these local obsessions. More profoundly though is the rolex. Rolex is a Ugandan version of a roll. It is a chapatti sandwiched with an omelet. It can come with other ingredients as well but it is common with the omelet. The best part about the chapati and rolex is that they can be yours for around $0.14 and $0.40 respectively.
Kikomando is a mixture of chopped chapattis and bean sauce. It is usually served in a small polyethylene bags.
Eshabwe is a white paste made of (cow) ghee. A pinch of dissolved rock salt is added to ghee and stirred together forming a smooth white paste. The paste is served fresh without any contact with heat. It is commonly served with matooke or millet. The paste is a common delicacy among the pastoral regions of south western Uganda.
Grasshoppers are regarded as a seasonal delicacy in Uganda. They are eaten after the wings and legs have been removed and the bodies fried in their own fat spiced up with onions and seasoned with some salt. You cannot travel to Uganda and not indulge in a plate of crunchy grasshoppers or nsenene when they are in season.
Uganda grows more coffee than it consumes, tea being the preferred beverage. Most of the coffee is exported to the international market. For many in the villages, all consumption of coffee is confined to chewing a few berries for ceremonial importance. However, there is a growing demand for coffee on the local market and you can always enjoy a cup of coffee in many different versions.
The oldest form of coffee consumption in Uganda is eating Robusta dried berries. Among the Baganda coffee has long been used as a ritual of ‘brotherhood’ – the berry would be husked then the two beans separated. Each man would take one of the beans then moisten it with his blood before giving it to the other man to chew.
You can always be sure of serving a hot cup of coffee in any of the town trading centers you stop.
On your safari to Uganda, we would like to guide you to tasting our Ugandan cuisine.