don’t take Ugandan food for granted…ever

IMG_6059WE have a vernacular reference that goes something like ‘ssi mmere’ (“It’s not food”), indicating that the matter being referred to should not be treated simply.
My girth will tell you that I do not subscribe to the use of that phrase or the spirit behind it. I am of the persuasion that food is a serious matter, to be taken seriously, and all else be damned.
Living in Uganda has helped firm up that position, because of the tastiness of the foods over here – from the boiled cassava my grandmother wrapped in banana leaves, to the spicy matooke and meat balls designed by my brother’s kitchen at his Ntinda bar, and my recent discovery linked to smoked meat and sim sim (more on that later).
It is because of this tastiness that I have eaten my way happily through life at every turn and opportunity presented to me in bufunda and hotels with varying star classifications across the country, and why I am very excited by the increasing number of food festivals and events taking place here.
It is also why I get confounded up to this day we still have concepts such as ‘Mongolian Dinner Night’ happening in our towns. Finding one such night in progress at a top-notch hotel this week reminded me of a cooking competition I entered into a few years ago, where our team came second in a competition against hotels.
We were pleased to perform so well because we had been pitched against professional hotel chefs, but our greatest pleasure came from seeing one of those ‘professionals’ scoring very, very, very poorly because the chef had done ‘Mongolian’ food.
I recently asked the internet about the big deal we here call “Mongolian night”.
It turns out that the “Mongolian night” we know, that involves involves stir frying strips of meats and vegetables on hot pans as people queue up with their plates and watch, is a concept that began in Taipei in 1951 – and Taipei is not in Mongolia.
Why are we doing this?
Where is Mongolia, even? Or is it Mongol?
Mongolian food is a whole different story, just as you would be hard pressed to do Ugandan night and focus on one or two styles of cooking or individual foods.
We’ve got luwombo and muchomo; foods like Pilao, Biringannya, entula, nsenene, malakwang, angarra, boo, firindi, eshabwe, akaro; different stews and sauces; foods with an Indian and Swahili influence but of Ugandan origin, like the Chapati (yes – it IS Ugandan!), modern creations like the Rolex and the Ekicommando…
The list is endless and could easily keep an army of food enthusiasts occupied for a weekend just eating.
Hence my excitement these last couple of months at finding more and more food-related events taking place in towns around me, allowing me to join the army of food enthusiasts.
One was the Kampala Muchomo Festival, and the other the Tokosa Food Festival. The third, coming in a few day’s time, is the Kampala Food Network ‘Twist & Cut’ Cook-off, with a focus on beef, and the fourth is the Kampala Restaurant Week when we will sample food from a long string of high end eateries.
The events typically involve cooking competitions between amateur chefs, and attract sponsorship from wise corporates promoting food-related or domestic items.
As all this happens, my hope is that we are heading for the ultimate food festival in Uganda, involving thousands of stalls of street food served in small amounts, at very IMG_6062low charges, and available all day from breakfast to breakfast.
The events we are attending now are fun, family-oriented, small events that made me think of one word echoing all through like the thud of a persistent toothache (which I also developed, from all the meat eating). That word was: Potential.
If our Export, Investment, Tourism and Commerce promotion bodies woke up to the opportunities these events represent then we could translate this industry into benefits for a whole range of other sectors:
– agriculture, processing, tourism, to name but three.
It should all be pretty obvious: everybody in the world eats something, and people must eat regardless of how broke they might be – so tourists will alway spend money on food even if they carry tents on their backs to sleep in instead of taking up a hotel room.
Plus, food events attract people in families, therefore increasing participation numbers. And food draws in very many sectors in many ways and creates jobs for various reasons – designers get involved in packaging and branding, chefs cook, waiters and waitresses serve, energy (gas and kerosene) is spent preparing food, petrol and diesel are spent transporting it…
I am double convinced, diets be damned, that food is not a simple matter and should not be treated simply.
I am available to attend the first proper food festival arranged to the scale of the Uganda Manufacturer’s Association International Trade Fair. ANY day!

what’s our beef with cows, steaks and leather in Kampala?

MY FAVOURITE Argentinian was a fellow in Uganda called Pedro Seambelar.
I found him working at British American Tobacco and made friends pretty quickly for a number of reasons, and the one time I was upset with him was when we were planning to host the gods of our global tobacco leaf business, on a visit to Uganda.
In that Board Room putting plans together, I was irritated that Pedro spoke up in support of the idea that the meat that would be fed to the visitors in Hoima be bought from all the way in Kampala. I objected on the premise that there were certainly enough butchers in Hoima to supply our needs, but heard back the view – not from Pedro alone, but also from a South African, an American and a Briton in the group – that our beef was generally not good enough.
I eventually lost the argument, but heard quite a lot about how we don’t achieve good cuts of beef, don’t age it well for tenderness, and so on and so forth.
As I ventured out to my first of many restaurants in Buenos Aires the other week, that discussion was on my mind because I very badly needed to demystify the superbovine Argentinian concept of beef.20150621_192606
Even as I type this out, my salivary glands are reacting to the juicy memories of the week’s dining in fine restaurants, train station meatstops and mall food courts. Every one of them, without fail, offered up a consistency of beef that caused me some concern about my situation back here.
For about a year now I have boycotted beef in general at home unless it is minced into a hamburger patty or braised in an upcountry location preferably at a traditional ceremony – both guarantees that it will be extremely tender and full of 20150621_194504flavour.
In urban spots and most Kampala restaurants I generally avoid it especially if it is served up in those chaffing dishes that form the buffet gauntlet that is honestly the bane of the busy lunchtime diner.
The Argentinians certainly know their beef, I agreed, but so do a good many people in upcountry Uganda.
As I munched through various types of tender, juicy steaks I read through piles of brochures and leaflets and magazine and internet articles about this Argentinian beef and kept finding references to the cows themselves being given special treatment throughout their lives.
A lot of specific care and attention goes into the cows’ feeding, breeding, transportation and even slaughter and carcass management.
The role of the chefs, therefore, is made much simpler because the product presented before them is in such fine form, rather than driven down in cramped trucks to crowded abattoirs for slaughter then hacked up with pangas into indeterminate chunks.
With toothpick firmly in mouth, a number of questions shot through my mind after every meal:
  • Is it possible that beef over here would taste better if we had abattoirs positioned in upcountry Uganda where the bulk of the cows are produced?
  • And what is so complicated about abattoirs that we cannot have some set up in locations closer to where cows are herded?
  • Are refrigerated trucks very hard to create?
  • Can’t engineering students design some and modify things to make them?
  • What do our food, science and technology students study and why can’t they give us ways of turning all our cows into superb steaks that we can use to attract dollars to Uganda the way Argentina took mine the other week?
  • Where do all those hides and skins go after the abbatoir, and why isn’t Basajjabalaba a producer of leather belts, jackets, wallets, luggage and furniture the way so many Argentinians are?
  • What simple item can we pay enough attention to all through the process from inception to the time we serve it up, so that we make Uganda world renowned for it the way Argentina is for their beef steaks?
  • And where, in Kampala, can I find as juicy a steak as the ones in Buenos Aires? (This is NOT a rhetorical question. Email me, please.)