This blog is about how a chance encounter with a banana seller and some bold questioning led to an unforgettable week staying with a family of Ugandan farmers and a fish stew to die for. Read on for the story and recipe.
I’m on the hunt for a guesthouse in a small town outside of Jinja when two mamas selling bananas from bowls delicately balanced on their heads approach, “would you like to buy some bananas?” one of them asks. I’m immediately struck by how English she sounds. We already had bananas, so I tell her so, “Ah, you’re English!” the woman exclaims “whereabouts are you from?”, conversation ensues, and it turns out that the woman, Florence, lived in London for eight years. I feel reassured by her and before I know it the words “do you have a spare room?” are out my mouth. “I don’t, but let us go ask Mama”, so off we walk, back to the main street until we reach a large compound with gates.
Walking round to the back of the compound I see a man carving up a ginormous jack fruit and handing round pieces to the various people sitting around on plastic chairs or stretched out lazily on the grass. Gospel music is blaring out from a radio on an old man’s lap and there are several babies tottering around from adult to adult. Bushels of beans are spread out across the courtyard drying in the sun and pieces of cassava are scattered around waiting to be ground into flour later. In the middle is ‘Mama’, dressed in a colourful Ugandan dress with matching headpiece and sitting on a chair in the shade of an orange tree.
Cass and I sit down next to Mama Kaluya as Florence explains to her that we are volunteering in the area and looking for a place to stay. Evident by the amount of people Mama has already taken in to her home and the added fact that we are ‘mzungus’ (whites), which embarrassingly somehow gives us automatic royalty status, I’m feeling optimistic about our chances. Luckily, I’m right and Mama takes no time at all in agreeing to have us. It’s arranged that we will be back the following morning to drop off our bags on the way to work and will stay for the following week.
Turns out asking Florence if she had a spare room was one of the best moves of my trip so far. The Kaluyas are a wealthy farming family with several large patches of land spanning hundreds of kilometres and going back several generations; some of their 40 acres “gardens” as far as 80 kms away. Mr Kaluya started as an accountant, but by his early 50’s had given it up as he was “making more money from cows” than book-keeping. Now 92, Mr Kaluya spends his days listening to the radio and work is divided up between Mama and her six children, their days spent checking up on various pieces of land and supervising work being carried out. Everyone is actively involved, even “the pharmacist” son who lives in the UK phones every few days to check up on his goats and eucalyptus.
Each evening a fraction of the food produced on Kaluya land is brought back to the compound where it is either dried, ground, stored, eaten, killed, sold or cooked. The home is constantly busy, farm vehicles are being unloaded or repaired out the front, thrashing and drying in the back yard, and visitors coming and going. In the evening the conversation is about how well the soya is doing, or how to deal with a cow’s skin disease.
At the centre of it all is Mama, who when not out inspecting land is in her chair in the back garden overseeing the whole shooting match. Mama knows everything going on and one word from her absolutely must be obeyed. When we go to church on the Sunday, Mama is greeted by everyone and sits pride of place on the front pew, the 300 strong congregation behind. Spending time with Mama is a bit like being with some benevolent mafia matriarch.
For eight days Cass and I were welcomed into the Kaluya’s family home and for eight days we ate like Henry VIII, gorging ourselves on the plethora of home-cooked dishes and food that was constantly available and being served up. Oranges, avocadoes, jack-fruit and bananas were always available, great hunks of watermelon and pineapples would be carved up and shared round in the late afternoon, and mangoes would be delivered from the nearest farm by the bucket load. One day I ate five in a row. They soon realised I was into food and relished it, each day cooking a different Ugandan dish: ‘g-nut’ (peanuts) sauce, mzungu drink, fresh steamed milk with cinnamon, matooke, cassava, sweet potatoes, home-made chapati, cow pea stew, katogo, posho. On our last night we had a ‘Ugandan BBQ’ with the best pork I think I have ever eaten. The household was an absolute gold-mine for trying and learning about honest, home-cooked Ugandan food.
One Sunday after church the whole family gathered in the back garden for a particularly delicious meal of spiced fish and rice with a side of aubergine and peanuts. As we sat around in the garden, eating the food from our laps and sipping on a cold beer, I had one of those ‘life is amazing’ moments and made a pact with myself to talk to strangers more, as the saying goes ‘if you don’t ask, you don’t get’.
The fish used in the dish was ‘yellow fish’ which as far as I can tell is only found in Africa. But fear not! This dish would work well with cod, huss or any other fish robust enough to not fall apart after 45 minutes of stewing.
Whilst we were with the Kaluya’s we helped them create a profile on Home Stay so they can take in more visitors. So if you’re in or thinking about travelling to Uganda, why not go and stay with them too?!
Spiced fish stew with aubergine and peanut sauce
50 ml vegetable oil
2 large sticks of cinnamon
6 large tomatoes
7 garlic cloves
1 tbsp cumin seeds
2 tbsp cloves
2 tbsp ground cinnamon
1 stock cube
2 kg fish cut into 12 pieces
1 kg baby aubergines
1 tbsp curry powder
1.5 litres water
This is all cooked on a high heat and requires constant stirring at the beginning, so get ahead of the game and start by preparing your veggies.
Peel and crush the garlic cloves using the end of a rolling pin or a pestle and mortar, don’t use a garlic crusher. Peel, half and thinly slice the onions and roughly dice the tomatoes.
Place a large heavy bottomed saucepan or casserole dish on high heat and add the oil. Once the oil begins to steam add the cinnamon sticks and stir for 1 minute or until the cinnamon has released its flavour and you can smell the lovely aroma.
Next add the onions to the cinnamon oil and continue to cook on a high heat until the onions are a deep golden brown. Don’t be afraid if they are cooking faster than usual, they’re meant to have some crisp (see photo below). Add the bashed garlic cloves and tomatoes and cook everything together for a further minute, still stirring.
Add cloves, cumin seeds and crumbled stock cube to the saucepan. Stir a little more then using the end of a rolling pin or the back of a spoon, smoosh everything in the pan so it becomes more like a paste. Continue to stir everything together for another couple of minutes.
Place your pieces of fish into the saucepan, include any bones and other bits as this will improve the flavour. Add just enough water to cover the fish then add the ground cinnamon and some salt. Give everything one final, gentle stir.
Keeping the heat high, bring the whole pot to the boil, then reduce to a low simmer and cover. Leave to simmer away gently on the heat for about 45 mins to 1 hour, or until the fish is cooked. Take care not to disturb the fish whilst it’s cooking and break up the pieces.
Whilst the fish is gently bubbling away make the sauce. Chop the aubergine up into small pieces and place into a pan of briskly boiling unsalted water. Cook until they are soft then drain the pan, putting the cooking liquid to one side.
Blitz the peanuts in a blender until a smooth paste. Transfer the peanuts into a bowl then using some of the aubergine water work the peanuts into a looser mixture.
Add the peanut mixture, more aubergine water and curry powder to the aubergines and bring the while mixture to a gentle simmer. Depending on how thick you want the sauce you can do two things now: add more water and/or mash down the aubergine pieces into the sauce. It’s completely up to you how thick or saucy you want this to be and whether you would rather your aubergines in there or have them disguised amongst the peanuts. Taste the sauce and season as necessary
Serve the fish stew with some steamed rice. The Kaluyas had the peanut sauce dolloped on top of the fish stew, but you could also serve it as a side dish.