I have recently been asked what we eat here. Do we have things from home that we eat or is it all new cuisine to fit the region? The simple answer is that it is a combination of both.
While we have adopted many new African culinary items like chapattis, rolexes and samosas into our diets (see “Not by Bread Alone” dated 22 May), I still fix a lot of American dishes. Having to modify some of my recipes for what is available here, I try to use as many fresh ingredients as possible. While canned goods can be found here, they are imported and typically more expensive, so I try to avoid them.
One of our staples is spaghetti. Ground beef is relatively inexpensive here, so we tend to use it frequently. And my spaghetti sauce recipe is very compatible with other ingredients I can find. The recipe calls for tomato sauce, but I use tomato paste and add water since a can of paste is considerably cheaper than a can of sauce and goes twice as far. I suppose, if I wanted to go all natural, I could stew my own tomatoes which are readily available and cheap, but that is just a little too much work for this city girl.
We do enjoy a lot of pasta here, both of the meat variety and vegetarian. It is interesting to note that while you can get a variety of pasta types, the average Ugandan knows only spaghetti and will refer to all types of pasta as such. Because we eat so much spaghetti, I had to come up with other sauce options to put on it. Pesto is always a good option. I try to keep a jar of premade pesto sauce (which I can get at the more mzungu supermarkets) in the refrigerator for when I don’t have basil readily available in the yard to make homemade pesto sauce. Sauteed vegetables are always a good option, and we have also discovered a creamy avocado pesto type sauce that we like to put over pasta on occasion. I use that one sparingly as we get kind of sick of avocados after a while when they are in season.
Speaking of avocados, another good ground beef option is tacos. We do these “African” style with chapattis rather than tortillas (I tried making tortillas once, but they did not turn out well) and cabbage instead of lettuce (you can get lettuce here, but cabbage is definitely a lot cheaper and more readily available). To season the meat, I use either ready-made taco seasoning brought from the States or a combination of individual seasonings for which I have a recipe. The challenge is that the recipe calls for “American” chili powder which is a combination of paprika, cayenne pepper, cumin, oregano and some other spices whereas Ugandan chili powder is made from spicier actual chilies…we discovered this the hard way. We also tried using chapattis for fish tacos, but the tastes just weren’t compatible.
And we do eat a lot of fish. When you can get fish fresh from the lake that was swimming just the night before delivered by a guy who cleans and fillets it for you, it is really hard to pass up. I have a variety of fish recipes that I fix, the most common of which is fish and chips (the picture is actually Ugandan style fried fish, not mine which I coat with cornmeal and then fry). I could never get fish and chips to work out in the States, but I have no problem fixing it here. I don’t know if it is the fact that the fish is fresher or what, but it just cooks easier and doesn’t disintegrate. And I have no idea why the potatoes cook up better here, but they do. I also bake the fish occasionally and use a couple of recipes I found in a Ugandan cookbook we are quite found of.
We also eat quite a bit of pork. A local little butchery shop I like to frequent has great pork chops and sausages. So far, I have not gotten sausage from them that we have not liked. Unfortunately, the bread here isn’t so great, so sometimes I have trouble finding decent buns for the sausages. In those instances, I just slice the sausages and pan fry them with some onions.
We really like the beef here, so in addition to ground beef, we have other kinds of beef dishes as well. Robert’s favorite is fillet, which we grill with some McCormick’s Seasonings we brought from the States. While individual seasonings are easy to find here, seasoning mixes are not. We also do stir-fry on occasion. When precut stir-fry meat is available for the same price as the meat I would cut for stir-fry, it’s kind of a no-brainer.
As far as vegetables are concerned, we eat a lot of fresh ones, or at least prepared from fresh. As I mentioned before, tomatoes (what we would call roma), onions (red, not yellow) and cabbage are plentiful and cheap here. I can also get carrots and usually green beans. When in season, I can get okra (currently in season) and zucchini (not in season at the moment). We can find other more mzungu vegetables, but you have to go to the larger stands at the supermarkets for those. Just last week, I found some sweet corn for the first time here. Apparently, it is just coming into season. You can find maize almost year round, but we think it tastes like cardboard.
And we can get just about any tropical fruit you can think of. The pineapple here is to die for, and the watermelon is ok but has seeds. Robert really loves the mangos and jackfruit, but no one (in our family at least) really likes papaya. Unfortunately, these fruits all have seasons, basically meaning they are available year round but are cheaper certain times of year (when more plentiful). The only thing that doesn’t really have a season is bananas, of which there are about six different types. Our favorite is the little sweet bananas, but we have gotten tired of even these and have been taking a break from them for a while. You can even find fruits from the west here including apples, oranges (as opposed to native African oranges which can be rather tart), pears, grapes and even cantaloupe. But again, you have to go to the larger stands at the supermarkets and pay for importing. Interestingly, I have not seen coconuts here. We have lots of palm trees but no coconuts. Apparently, they are a coastal thing.
The one thing that we cannot really get and do miss is dessert type things. Ugandans do not eat sweets for dessert; they eat fruit which is probably healthier anyway. Sweets are considered something for children. The cookie options are not the greatest and can get rather expensive. Selection also varies according to what has been shipped in. We can get Oreos and Chips Ahoy fairly consistently, but considering they are coming all the way from the States they can get quite expensive. I try to make things when I can, but that is not terribly often unless we are having guests or there is some other special occasion I am baking for.
One thing I am finding trying to feed my family here is that I cook a lot more from scratch. While I miss the ease of prepackaged and ready-made things (just the other week, we were reveling in the familiar flavors of Rice A Roni brought from the States), I am enjoying the challenge of finding recipes to use the things I can get. At the very least, I will be heading back to the States with some new recipes in my repertoire.
Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’ ”