The Food

7 Sep

I’ve written a lot about my feelings and experiences but I still get a lot of questions about what Rwanda is like so I thought I’d do a series of posts on Topics like the food, weather, and such. I’ve scheduled them to post every day so stay tuned!

My friend Kelly has been faithfully writing me letters every couple weeks, in one of them she asked me what the most interesting thing I’ve eaten. I told her that Rwandan cuisine wasn’t particularly elaborate but that I had eaten a lot of dirt and rocks. Beans and rice are staples in Rwandan diet but neither go through much processing so it’s the cook’s job to sift through for small pebbles and other foreign objects that may have been included as a bonus. The thoroughness of the search varies from cook to cook though. I the first time I ate at a local restaurant and several bites of gritty greens that tasted as if they’d gone straight from the field to the pan without a rinse.

I’m part of a project called Snapshots of Service, featuring 50 PCVs in various countries. We all wrote short bios for the blog and plenty of volunteers answered the question about a special food/dish they were looked forward to trying in country. I wondered why in my extensive review of staging materials, and PCV Rwandan blogs I hadn’t read anything about Rwandan food. That’s because it’s not particularly remarkable. Though according to the Israeli backpacker I hosted there’s much more variety than in nearby Kenya and Tanzania.

The basis of Rwandan diet is starch and in comes in a variety of forms: potatos, sweet potatos, rice, cassava, green bananas (similar to plantains), and less frequently pasta. Depending on the family, there may be one or more of these present at a meal. For vegetables there’s cabbage, dodo (greens), peas, eggplant, and some terribly sour small eggplants. Tomatos, carrots, onions, and garlic also grow in Rwanda though they’re used in small quantities in dishes and sauces. For protein there are beans, meat and eggs, though eggs seem to be a luxury only the middle class eat with any frequency. Bread is also available but generally consumed only on special occasions. With almost every meal there’s a sauce, either a ground peanut (NOT tasty like Thai peanut sauce) or tomato based sauce.

The women in my host family stuck to the basics when it came to cooking so the food was pretty plain Jane. We rotated starches and had beans and cabbage with pretty much every meal. The cabbage is actually pretty good. They cut it so it’s pretty close to shredded, steam/cook it in oil with a small amount of tomatoes and onions. We ate the ground peanut sauce every day for a solid month, at the time it wasn’t so bad but I can’t bring myself to eat it anymore. Sometimes I’d find myself gagging from the repetitive taste and texture of the food and I hoped my host mom and sister didn’t notice. I’m rather embarrassed to say I developed an unhealthy love for ifrites (Rwandan French fries) because the taste and texture was so different from any of the other food I ate. I ate more than my fair share on the days when they were served for lunch. While fries are something I love, they weren’t something I indulged in very frequently living in the US

There was one meal that I absolutely loved when my family made and that was ubugali with meat sauce. Ubugali is a doughy substance made from cassava flour that you eat with your hands dipped in the tomato sauce. It’s what I asked to eat for my first dinner back from site visit when I called to tel my host family how much I missed them. It’s also the only time, except for a couple meals shortly after my arrival, my family would eat meat. In fact, it was really the only time I would eat meat because my host sister would pick out pieces that had the least fat and gristle for me. There are some things that I would rather go without than have poor quality, and meat is one of them. Occasionally I’ll have a brochette- which is basically a goat ka-bob and the bar food of choice, but even those can be on the fatty side. So mostly I go without.

At my site I have a house worker who does most of the cooking. She does pretty good when she doesn’t use too much oil and where my host family only used salt, she uses Rosemary when she can get it. My host family grew Rosemary but only used it to make ichai (Rwandan black tea). I eat pretty much the same thing for lunch and dinner every day a starch, beans, cabbage and a tomato sauce with onions and carrots in it. My roommate and I share meals for the time being though my house worker is going back to finish school in Dec/Jan so I hope to start cooking more after that. Another welcome addition to my meals here is pepper. I bought some at swear-in in Kigali and apply liberally at every meal. I thought it would be rude to do at my host family’s.

For snacks there are peanuts, amandazi aka fried dough, keke aka a sweeter and cakelike version of amandazi, ‘biscuit’ similar to animal crackers, sambusa (like tapas) and chiapati. Chiapati ranges from a corn tortilla to naan in similarity depending on who made it. With the exception of the biscuit, these snacks are all oil heavy.

Fruit is the one bright spot in a rather bland Rwandan foodscape. Bananas are the most readily available and I eat at least one every day. I’m curious to see if I’ll ever get sick of them. Passionfruit are also widely available and pretty cheap. There’s also pineapple, papaya, and mangos. I don’t know when mango season will start again, but there are two kinds, Rwandan which are smaller and stringier, and Kenyan which are like the ones you might traditionally think of.

I was worried about getting enough protein here but between peanuts, avocados, eggs, powdered and regular milk, and beans I hoped it would be ok. Lately at site though I feel really sluggish and tired all the time, it seems I’m getting an idea of what less than optimal nutrition is like. My hair is also falling out with increasing frequency. Thankfully I haven’t noticed any bald spots, yet because I don’t exactly have a lot of hair to lose. The prenatal vitamins are supposed to help with this but sometimes I forget to take them with meals. Lately I’ve been taking two a day since vitamin supplements aren’t efficiently absorbed most of the time. The other bad news about my protein sources is that they’re all high in fat, some of them good fats at least. Just have to make sure I get plenty of exercise.

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One Response to “The Food”

  1. Jill teVelde September 12, 2011 at 8:17 pm #

    Mmm mangos and passion fruit! Dried some pears today AND found a seal a meal on CL. I”m all set to vacuum pack u fruity love. Not sure if I could do leafy greens .. gonna check. I’m so excited to start vaccum packing everything, soups, stews, spices, herbs…even dried cookie do mix. CRAZY…

    Do you want me to send you recipies like mango salsa and sweet potato black bean burritos? What about the morracan stew. Can’t wait to hear what you create. Your garden will be awesome. LOVE YOU … Llama

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