It may not seem like an obvious place for it, but the street food scene in Uganda is live and kicking. Town centres, bus stations and roadsides are full of people selling chapatis, grilled chicken, maize and a glorious bounty of fruit and vegetables – avocadoes bigger than your hand or seven different types of mango. Young men wander the streets with buckets of mendazi, sambusa and boiled eggs, and women sell sim-sim (as sesame biscuit), peanuts and fried maize by the bag.
If you need something heartier, behind every market is a treasure trove of very cheap, local restaurants. If you’re in Kampala then the Kamwokwa Market close to Fat Cat Backpackers is a good place to start. Women have several pots full of posho, matooke katogo, beans, meat stew or g-nuts with fish, all boiling away on charcoal stoves whilst workers sit at the communal table and benches eating their food. Wash it down with a glass of fresh cocktail juice and you will be very satisfied.
Here is a list of my favourite street eats from Uganda, and a rough cost for them. 1000 UGX is about 20p, or 27 cents.
Chapatis are eaten all over East Africa and Uganda is no exception. In every town and on every roadside you can find men rolling out and frying chapatis from the early hours. They are pretty filling and cost around 500 UGX. Best eaten fresh.
Whilst chapatis can be found all over the region, only Uganda has the unique ‘Rolex’ – an omelette (usually with tomato and cabbage) rolled up in a chapati and eaten like a wrap. The snack is such a symbol that the country even has its own annual Rolex Festival. Greasy, but fills a hole at the end of the night. Around 1500 UGX
All over Uganda there are local authority owned ‘service stations’ run by local men and women. Chicken legs are grilled over hot coals and sold by the hundreds every day. A more expensive snack at 2500 UGX, but if you want cheaper then they also sell chicken gizzards.
Also sold at the service stations are these ‘genjo’ bananas, which are grilled. You can also buy grilled cassava and tastes great with a bit of salt or piri piri powdered over it. 200-500 UGX
Pork joints are the place to go for a proper sit down meal (2kgs pork with sides cost 25000 UGX) but if you want something on the fly (and aren’t picky about which part of the pig you’re eating) then head to the road-side grillers for a skewer at about 600 UGX.
Maize, sold by women in towns, behind markets and along the roadside. They are much drier and less sweet than the corn of the cobs in the UK, but a relatively filling and healthy option. 500 UGX
EGGS! Young men carry around buckets full of boiled eggs for 100 UGX each. They helpfully wait whilst you peel your egg and add some salt or spicy pepper. You’re most likely to find them at bus and taxi stations or walking round the markets.
Sambusa – a version of the Indian ‘samosa’ and found in many parts of East Africa. The Ugandan sambusas mostly come in two varieties 1) mince meat and a bit of spice 2) cow peas and onions. Between 200 – 500 UGX.
Mendazi, again, found in most East African countries and are a deep-fried sweet dough ball. They’re commonly a morning snack and mostly sold around the markets and bus stations for between 200 – 500 UGX.
Lots of little chai shops are open only in the morning serving African tea – a sweet milky tea made with ginger and other spices. Most chai stands will also have boiled eggs, mendazi and sambusa for sale on the counter.
‘Cocktail juice’ is for sale in most local restaurants and cafes and is usually a mix of two of the following – passion fruit, orange or pineapple. If they’re making it fresh then (if you want) ask them not to add sugar. 1000 UGX
These don’t need much introduction, but well worth a mention as the pineapples in Uganda are the best pineapples I have ever tasted in my life. Men push bikes like these around the town all day, and are relatively easy to spot, but if not then head to the market. Range between 1000 and 2000 UGX depending on size.
Jack fruits are weird, smelly, sticky alien fruits that completely won me over (because of all the above). The fruit itself tastes astonishingly like candy. They are notoriously sticky so if you don’t want to deal with the fallout then you can buy pre-prepared bags of the fruit and eat it daintily with a cocktail stick. Not cheap though, about 1000 UGX for a small bag.
You can get hearty and cheap meals like this for 1000 – 2500 UGX in most local food places. Posho and beans (pictured), katogo, goat stew, g-nuts and fish usually frequent the menus.
If you want to get pissed on the cheap then head to a local bar for ‘bushera’ a home-brewed beer made from fermented sorghum. It’s also confusingly called porridge, which is essentially what it is. It’s also very filling, so if you want something lighter try the banana beer, made from matooke. Bushera is 500 UGX for 1 litre and Banana Beer more like 600 UGX. If you really like it, a drinks company has now started selling it in supermarkets.
A common breakfast in Uganda is sweetened maize porridge with ‘pancakes’ that are made from millet flour and bananas. The pancakes can be bought separately from markets.
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Florence was responsible for hooking us up with our stay at the Kaluyas. Florence is a formidable woman and has had an extraordinary life of ups and downs, from being a Councillor in the Jinja sub-county, to living in a refugee camp in Sao Paulo. Each morning she would make us the most amazing traditional Ugandan breakfast of Matooke Katogo. Matooke is a green savoury banana that is eaten all over Uganda (peeling them is also somewhat of a challenge, but there’s plenty of help online). The word katogo literally means ‘mixed’, and each morning Flo would prepare us matookekatogo with different variations, baby aubergines, g-nut sauce, beans, carrots and tomatoes. She would always serve it with a fresh avocado picked that morning from her garden.
The eldest of the six Kaluya children, with two children of her own and six grandchildren, Florence is fast approaching something of matriarch figure like her own Mama. To use the cliché, she’s a big character, has a booming voice and a smile that starts from the eyes and lights up her whole face. Accustomed to a life with house-staff and five younger siblings, she has a bossiness that borders on scary. When a parking attendant tried to charge us $50 to enter because of the mzungus in the car, Flo angrily ripped into him letting him know she was a local councillor and there wouldn’t be a car park at all without her. She hadn’t in fact been a Councillor since the 90’s and had had nothing to do with the car park, but the attendant knew better than to argue and let us in for just $5, such was the respect she commanded in the community.
Living in London from 2002 to 2005 Flo got her kids into school and started training as a social worker. Life was made easier by the large African population and the relative ease at which Ugandan food could be found in Lewisham and Catford markets. She came round to European food, some of which she still has a soft spot for. As a thank you for the hospitality we’d been shown Cass and I asked if we could cook supper one evening, to which Flo instinctively blurted out “lasagne!”. It was one of her fondest food memories from her time in England and Brazil, but as few Ugandan households have ovens, its not commonly seen on kitchen tables. Turns out making a decent béchamel sauce on a charcoal stove with margarine and UHT milk is a challenge, but a lasagne we made, and the whole family loved it especially Flo. Flo would probably still be in the UK now had she not suddenly received the news that her husband was still alive.
General William Kon Bior had been fighting for independence in the Sudan People’s Liberation Army. Their guerrilla tactics meant he spent long periods in hiding and Flo, having not heard from him for 15 years had assumed the worst. When news broke that the Civil War between Sudan and South Sudan was over, Flo contacted and old friend in the Ugandan Government to find what may have happened to her husband. Discovering he was indeed alive and living with his family Flo spoke to her husband on the phone for the first time in 15 years and made the decision to move to South Sudan so her children could properly get to know their father.
Unfortunately, things didn’t work out in South Sudan; the General’s sisters were jealous and convinced that Flo was there to take their brother’s money, and thus set on making life very difficult for them. Flo tried to go back to the UK but “by then the whole system had changed” and she wasn’t allowed entry. Desperately in need of money for her son’s university tuition, when a close friend suggested Brazil as a place where they could earn it, she packed her bags again, and left for South America.
Brazil “was very hard” from the start, living in a Sao Paulo refugee camp run by a group of racist nuns, experiencing hatred from black Brazilians who accused her African forefathers of selling native Brazilians as slaves, and receiving further racist abuse from the Latino Brazilians. However, life there regained its purpose when working as an office cleaner, she was able to save enough money to move into rented accommodation, and finally start sending money back for her son’s university fees.
Complications from a war wound lead to the death of her husband but Flo managed to return to South Sudan for a second time to spend the last few months with him and his family, who had mellowed considerably towards her by then. After his death Flo stayed with his family for another 6 months but soon realised they were starting to rely on her too much. A life of servitude to her late husband’s family flashed before her eyes and whilst there was still time to get out, she left.
Now back in her home town for what appears to be the final time Flo has rebuilt her life again. Five minutes’ walk from her parents’ house, Flo lives in a small cottage on a 5-acre plot where she keeps pigs and farms banana, beans, maize, courgettes, sugarcane and everything in between. Plans are afoot for launching a broiler hen hatchery, and she hopes one day she will have enough money to finish the extension to the house.
Sitting in her garden sipping homemade hibiscus wine, munching homegrown peanuts and listening to her life story I realise how much of a survivor she is. The amount of times she’s picked herself back up and changed her situation for herself is inspiring.
Matooke Katogo is traditionally a breakfast but it’s savoury and delicious and could definitely be eaten for lunch or supper back in the UK. A word of warning! This is Flo’s recipe, so the quantities are Ugandan style (i.e – large!!), you can also check out A Kitchen In Uganda’s recipe for classic matooke katogo.
Flo’s Matooke Katogo
24 matooke bananas
15 – 20 baby aubergines
2 medium onions
3 medium tomatoes
1 stock cube
(optional) 2 avocados
Peel the bananas, remove stalks from the aubergines and slice in half. Place aubergines and banana in a large pot and add enough water to cover. Bring the water to a boil then simmer with lid on for 15 minutes
While that is simmering away roughly chop the tomatoes and finely chop the onions. Add tomatoes, onions and stock to the pot and continue to simmer for another 15 minutes. Try not to stir the dish too much as this will break up the bananas and aubergines.
Add salt then leave to simmer for another 5 minutes. When the banana is soft and a knife easily passes through you know the dish is ready.
Take off the heat and serve immediately with drizzle of olive oil over the top and sliced avocados on the side.
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At Kibebe Primary School and almost every other primary school in Uganda, ‘posho and beans’ is the lunchtime meal, eaten by everyone, every day of the week, for as long as anyone can remember. Posho is a Ugandan staple, made by ‘mingling’ maize flour with water until it becomes something that resembles a solid lump of mashed potato. It may not sound appealing, but when eaten with a delicious dish of spiced, stewed beans it becomes something else.
I’m here at the school helping a group to build a water-tank, made using a special interlocking brick that is more sustainable than the ordinary kiln-fired ones. The builders I’m working with have gone through a special training programme thanks to Haileybury Youth Trust (HYT) – young men are trained up to use this sustainable construction method and once graduated are employed to carry out community projects, it’s a win-win-win situation. HYT won an Ashden Award last year, which is how I came to hear about them, and how I eventually wind up on site in a hard hat and high vis, mixing cement, eating posho and beans with my hands and trying in every way possible not to stick out like a white woman on a construction site in Uganda.
There are eight guys in total building the water tank, all aged between 19 and 25 and all very kind and polite (I’ve asked them several times to stop calling me ‘Madam Chloe’). Dennis 1 is the trainer, then there is Erisa who according to Dennis 2 is “the real boss, because he’s built the most water-tanks”. Emma 1 is the quietest, Eric and Ernest are brothers, Mbalak is the only Muslim and finally there’s Emma 2, who thinks I’m a devil worshipper because I told him I don’t believe in God.
The guys live on site whilst they carry out the project then when it’s done move onto the next. They’ve been together now for five and a half months and the group have bonded, evident by the amount of in-jokes, constant ribbing of Emma 2, who “hates cooking”, when it’s his turn to cook, or Mbalak for his speech impediment. The monotony of the days are starting to wear them down and all of the men complain to me about how bored they are. This school “is the worst”, says Erisa because “it’s miles away from the nearest town and has no electricity”; once work is finished there is nothing to do apart from play football. Sometimes they go back to their families on the weekend, 19 year-old Ernest has a three month old baby at home, but most of them just stay on site.
They’re not completely alone though as some teachers also live on site during term-time. Betty teaches P3 (8-11 years old) and lives in a little room at the school along with three of her five children. Up until four years’ ago she was living in Entebbe, an attractive city outside of Kampala, but her husband left them all for another woman so she was forced to leave and find somewhere else to live. I spend one lunch-break sitting with Betty and looking through photos of her past life in Entebbe – Betty freshly coiffured and colourfully dressed at various parties or family portraits on days out. The photos seem like a lifetime away.
Cooking at Kibebe is done on an open fire in a small hut next to where the water tank is being built. The guys take it in turns to cook and throughout the day various teachers also take a break from class to prepare themselves some food. Astonishingly to me, children also use the hut to cook food for themselves or the teachers. There is no official school cook, so when it comes to lunch the children have to fend for themselves. Everyone is cooking posho and beans, occasionally maize is toasted on open fires by the younger children.
The recipe below uses dried beans, but canned beans would work just as well. The beans most widely used in Ugandan cooking are the ‘common beans’ (google image it), but again, other types of beans would be just as nice.
Recipe for Posho and Beans
For the beans:
400 grams dried ‘common’ beans
1 large onion
1 large tomato
1 teaspoon curry powder
½ teaspoon dried ginger
½ teaspoon cumin powder
For the posho:
1.2 litres water
1kg maize flour
For the beans:
Place the beans in a pan and cover with cold water, leave to soak overnight or for at least six hours.
Drain the beans, then add just enough clean water to cover the beans. Put the beans on a hob and leave to boil for 1 and ½ hours.
Whilst the beans are cooking, chop your tomato and onion. Once beans are done remove from the hob and leave to one side
In a new saucepan add a good glug of oil. Add the onions and cook on high heat until beginning to brown. Next add the tomatoes and spices and continue to cook for two minutes
Add the entire contents of the bean saucepan to the onions and tomatoes and stir everything together. Check the seasoning. Let the mixture cook for 10 minutes on a lower heat. Keep stirring to make sure the beans don’t stick.
For the posho:
Heat the water in a pan until it’s just beginning to boil. Gradually pour in the maize, ‘mingling’ (mixing) all the time.
Keep stirring the mixture, adding more maize flour in until the mixture is thicker than mashed potato. It will be hard work to mingle the mixture but keep going! Squash lumps that form with the back of your wooden spoon to ensure an even mixture at the end.
Cook for 5 minutes, whilst still stirring.
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This bad boy breakfast dish comes from Sili, who is one half of the dream team at Mulu Ecolodge and responsible for making a simple sauce of onions, garlic, niter kibbeh (Ethiopian spiced butter) and berbere taste so good that it has been affectionately renamed ‘Sili sauce’. The breakfast dish itself is ‘genfo’ (also called ‘ga-at’ in the Tigrinya region of Ethiopia), which is a porridge-like dish made from mixing together flour and water with a little berbere until it turns into a big blob of comfort. A deep well is created in the middle of the blob and a sauce, in this case Sili’s sauce is poured into it; the whole dish is then eaten with a spoon. Before we get on to the recipe, a little more about Sili.
Sili preparing lunch for everyone at Mulu. She is holding an injera table
Sili isn’t sure how old she is (birthdays aren’t a thing in Ethiopia, especially in the countryside) but through process of elimination and guess-work, she reckons she’s mid-20’s. In some ways Sili is like any other mid-20 woman I know; on the hunt for a boyfriend, is keen to move to the hustle and bustle of a city and loves a cold beer at the end of the day. Yet when I ask more about her past, I am reminded of how different it has been from mine. Sili has been working in kitchens for most of her life, before working in the kitchen at Mulu she helped her mother run the family tea-house, which sold tea and imbecha bread in the mornings and tella and araki (home-made beer and spirit) the rest of the time. She started working at Mulu after they were forced to shut the café because her mother was too ill. Although her mother’s illness is difficult for the family (her father is not around), Sili much prefers working for Mulu, at the cafe “there used to be lots of drunk people, breaking things and refusing to pay”.
Preparing the onions for Sili Sauce
Luckily, Sili enjoys cooking, but when I ask her what she wants to do in the future she looks at me oddly, I don’t think that question is something she has ever had the luxury of considering. Sili left
school about four years’ ago after she failed to pass 10thGrade exams (a king of equivalent to GCSE’s in the UK) and although she enjoyed it, by secondary school she “didn’t understand anything”. The reason being, once children reach secondary education all lessons and exams suddenly switch to English. Whilst this sounds like a sensible idea, the reality is far from it. Teachers, especially low-paid ones in the countryside, speak very little English themselves; regional languages across the country make learning English harder; and many children who reach secondary school are unable to recognise the English alphabet.
The kitchen. Confession: I’m really wanting to show off the kitchen hanging rack that I made whilst volunteering at Mulu
The product of this flawed system is someone like Sili, who, having had very little English taught in primary school, is suddenly expected to read and understand a chemistry textbook in English. The national exams are also in English and multiple-choice which Sili used to prepare for by looking at the English textbooks and trying to memorise shapes of words and letters. If she then recognised those same word shapes in any of the multiple-choice answers, she would choose it. A massive game of chance. No surprise then that she failed to pass 10th Grade and on into further education, along with 48% of the rest of the country.
Without education Sili can’t afford to make choices about the kind of job she will do in the future, if she manages to move to the city, her ticket there will probably be because she’s found an eligible husband, rather than a job.
For the moment though, life is pretty good for Sili. She works alongside her cousin Kalima and because Sili is older, she’s the boss. They live relatively independent lives for two unmarried, Orthodox Christian women, and there is a constant stream of visitors and volunteers to Mulu, making it a lively and fun place to work.
Daily life at Mulu: collecting spring water with Valerie (Manager at Mulu) and Kalima
Life at Mulu: Cass and one of the farmers mud plastering the walls of the new dining room
Daily life at Mulu: local farmers building a new Guard house
Although Sili enjoys genfo, her favourite thing to eat for breakfast is bread and tea because “it’s a real treat to have”. I find this strange considering she grew up baking and serving bread to customers in their tea-house, but Sili explains they were hardly ever allowed it themselves as it was so expensive. Because of its simplicity, genfois considered a poor person’s dish and not a favourite amongst the locals at Mulu, but I loved the comfort of it and most of all the sauce on top. Whilst we were there we ate two variations of genfo, one made with wheat flour and one from tef flour. Once, in homage to one of my all-time favourite Ottoloenghi recipes, we plonked the sauce on top of some polenta that had gouda (courtesy of some Dutch volunteers) melted into it. Now that was a Good Food Day.
The success of a good Sili sauce is on trusting your instinct and knowing how much water to add. Oh, and you can’t forget the secret ingredient of niter kibbeh.
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Genfo with Sili Sauce
Serves 6 hungry volunteers
For the Sili Sauce:
7 onions, finely diced
6 tablespoons berbere spice
9 garlic cloves, roughly chopped
1 teaspoon Niter Kibbeh
For the Genfo:
1.5 litres water
First boil the kettle so that you have a constant supply of hot water throughout the cooking process.
Now begin with the sauce. Add the chopped onions to a non-stick saucepan and allow them to sweat with a lid on until the onions are translucent. Check the onions a couple of times and give them a stir. If they are sticking then add a splash of the hot water.
Add the berbere spice to the onions, give them all a good stir then continue to cook with the lid on for another minute. Now add the oil and some salt, give it another stir and cook for a further couple of minutes, still with the lid on. If it all looks like its cooking too quickly or burning, turn the heat down a little and add a splash of water.
In 2 or 3 stages, add more hot water stirring it well each time. If the sauce looks too thin then keep cooking with the lid off, if there’s enough, then put the lid back on and allow to cook together. After the first bit of water has been added, stir in the chopped garlic. Don’t worry if the garlic doesn’t cook properly, the final sauce has slightly raw garlic in it.
Now stir in the niter kibbeh. Taste the sauce and add more salt or butter if necessary. Once you’re happy with it take it off the heat and let it rest whilst you make the genfo.
For the genfo, place a pan of water on the hob and bring to the boil. Just before boiling point add in the flour, stirring and mixing vigorously. Keep stirring, smushing the floury lumps against the side of the pan as you go to try and get a smooth mixture. You should be stirring for at least 10 – 15 minute. You know it’s done when the mixture stops tasting like flour and water, and more like a cooked mixture. If you’ve made polenta before, it’s a very similar process.
Serving suggestion: the sauce will keep for a few days and the longer you leave it, the better it will get. The genfo is another beast and should be eaten immediately.
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