When “Uganda” and “food” are put together in a sentence, it’s usually to talk about green bananas or rolex. I share fond memories of other Ugandan starches that filled me up while we cycled through (1,900 words).
I’ve chewed on different ways to write about rolex, Uganda’s onomatopoeic “roll-eggs” that we ate as much as possible during our two-month bike ride through the East African nation. The rolex—an omelette wrap—is delicious, the culture surrounding it interesting: was it invented for hungry Kampala university students, or by Kenyans? Will it be Uganda’s next big thing for tourism, like what pizza may have done for Italy? The rolex now has its own festival, a place in CNN travel article; food bloggers recreate it.
I wanted to contribute to this conversation about the rolex’s origins and where it’s headed, because I was intrigued about the kerfuffle such a humble meal created. But I had nothing original to add: I’m simply one of many who love eating rolex!
It also seemed sad to exclude all the other ways I stuffed myself with Uganda’s doughs. Samosas, mandazi, chapatis, kikomondo: like the rolex, they kept me excited, they kept my body jiggly even though we cycled all day, they kept me spending time with the men and women making them.
So for now I’ll keep that draft about rolex as a draft, and share a few memories of Uganda through one way I came to know it: its other delicious starches.
SEARCHING FOR SAMOSAS
As I crunched through chickpea samosas, my lips and fingers slick with Fortune Butto palm oil, I was unaware that I would leave these delicacies behind once we left Jinja. The Nile River town is popular for white-water rafting, but if I ever return I will probably just vegetate on a bench across from the bubbling wok, eating chickpea samosas as they are plucked out perfectly cooked.
The woman making these snacks with what I considered a luxury ingredient—chickpeas—explained that unless the oil was very hot, the samosas would get too hard during frying. I bought them from her four at a time, and would usually finish them before they had cooled.
We left Jinja and quickly learned that samosas were uncommon, their whereabouts unpredictable: a bucket bobbing on a man’s head; a bucket on a shop counter today but not tomorrow; piled up in a stall only for an hour or so; in the glass display on a mobile cart, everyday but Sunday.
I hunted and hoarded them. Evan was neutral towards samosas, which meant that although I included him in the amount I justified buying, I’d often eat most of them. It was an anxious pleasure, every time felt like the last time, and the time fleeting because they quickly got soggy and crumbly in the bag. Samosas were for eating immediately, regardless of hunger or time of day.
Instead of chickpeas, cowpeas were the standard filling. The green-grey pulse is mixed with curry, and sometimes carrot and onion. This was my introduction to cow peas, and without the context I heard “cow piss” when they were first described to me. Bought them anyway.
Why this excitement about samosas? In Uganda, sweet tastes are diverse: soft drinks, biscuits, sugared tea, mangos, pineapples, bananas, sweet porridges. The range of savoury flavours is narrower, especially without eating meat. It felt special to find something vegetarian, curried, crunchy, fresh, warm, made with a pulse we never buy because it takes a long time to cook.
HOME IS WHERE THE MANDAZI ARE
We move around a lot. The concept of home is adjusted. Home has become Evan, the act of connecting with friends and family over the internet, and my own company. Home is also sought in routines that are repeatable almost anywhere: reading, writing, meditating, daydreaming, drinking coffee, filtering water, wearing the same clothes.
Three or four days or a week in one place feels significant, and trivial consistencies are appreciated like long-lasting routines. This is how I felt in Fort Portal, in Masindi, in Kampala, where we paused to rest and work—Evan on consulting, me on a writing course.
In each of these places I found our favourite mandazi soon after arriving. This meant that on that day, and the next, AND the next, I could go out in the warm-but-not-hot early morning while Evan made our caffeine, to greet the same vendor, buy the same bounty. Returning with the brown paper bag stained with grease to my partner, coffee, fresh fruit chopped into our worn camping bowls and sprinkled with cinnamon felt like home.
CHAPATI, THE BLANK CANVAS
In the back kitchens of their small restaurants called “hotels,” Kenyans will commonly knead and squash the chapati dough back onto itself several times before rolling it into thin circles. This results in a flaky chapati that I took my time with, treasuring them. Instead of eating them rolled up and stabbed through with a fork, I preferred to lay them flat, pulling off the thin flaky layers.
In neighbouring Uganda, chapati is a street food made right in front of passing potential customers in no-frills bakeries: dough is made in a plastic bucket, partitioned into balls and rolled out on the wooden counter of stalls shaded by bright umbrellas advertising telecommunications companies. Here, the pursuit of flakiness is put aside for what I believe is the pursuit of efficiency.
The young men (they’re usually men) operating these stalls might decide that they’ll stand out by making rolex, or kikomondo (more on that below), or even both, but their business plans are all built upwards from chapati. It’s such a ubiquitous part of Ugandan cuisine that rappers Young Cardamom and HAB use chapati as a light-hearted way to “discuss identity, migration and pride” in this awesome, bass-heavy video.
Chapati was our foundation, too. This East African take on a classic South Asian carb helped us get more creative with our meals and our travel plans.
We now saw market vegetables as wrap fillings, as salads that could be fleshed out. They were the perfect guacamole vehicle, and our avocado intake reached worrying levels. They literally helped us go farther: Chapati pack small and keep for days. In remote areas we stocked up, bringing the peace of mind that seems to only come from the comforts of dough. When it’s hot and flavour fatigue sets in, lemonade and shade aren’t always available but chapati and tea are close seconds.
Like the saying that “everyone seems normal until you get to know them,” Ugandan chapati seemed entirely consistent until we began to notice the little things. Time to time, we’d stumble upon men who added grated carrots to their dough. One woman proudly explained that her recipe included some milk instead of just water.
As the moon rose on one town’s bustling night market, a man patiently held his light to illuminate the whole table of dough balls he had prepared for his evening shift. He had tried other small businesses, but dealing in chapati and rolex was proving more lucrative so far.
SLOWING DOWN WITH KIKOMONDO
The multi-tasking chapati is also half of kikomondo, pronounced “cheekomondo,” a shallow bowl of beans with one or two chopped chapati mixed in. Evan likes his food saucy, and cooking stews and curries often leads to bickering between us: he lobbies for more liquid, me for thickness. With kikomondo, he got what he wanted.
All of the doughs I’ve shared with you so far are generally packed up to go, but kikomondo is a little different. The chef needs their plastic bowls back, so the saucy feast is typically enjoyed sitting nearby on a bench, a chair, a ledge, or standing.
This allows more time to get to know the people making kikomondo, the nuances of their business. Running a kikomondo stall is a balancing act: There’s only one stove, a three-legged stout cast iron contraption, heated with charcoal. Time for boiling the beans has to be balanced with keeping a stock of chapati ready. If rolex is also on the menu, there are a few more tasks to juggle, like frying the eggs and chopping slivers of tomato and onion and cabbage into the mix.
It was the kikomondo crews that we spent the most time with, but I don’t want to exaggerate; we didn’t learn each other’s life stories. When we walked into Masindi’s public market each day for lunch, me for rolex and Evan for kikomondo, a lot of our attention was given to our meals, to each other, to silently people watching.
But we learned some little things, including that the chef’s mother also worked in the market. We noticed the thoughtfully painted sign on his stall. Each day, women from the restaurant next door would sit beside us, never faulting us for never eating at their restaurant but using its bench. There was always a group of people milling about, and I was unsure who was a friend and who was a relative and maybe that wasn’t even relevant. We didn’t learn each other’s names but we learned each other’s faces.
These Ugandan doughs and the stalls where they were made, how self-contained they were, how cheap the food, the attention to detail, the taste, amazed me.
Eating this way was more than good enough, and still the Ugandans went beyond. In between boiling beans and preparing chapati and giving change and chopping vegetables and beckoning customers and washing plastic bowls in dirty water, Evan handed an avocado to the man making his kikomondo, who expertly peeled and chopped it into his bowl.