Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Rwanda: "Disneyland Africa"?

A local ex-pat posted this thoughtful blog entry a few weeks ago.  She compares and contrasts highly-functioning Rwanda with its not-so-fortunate neighbor to the south, Burundi.  Read it!

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Food, Part II: Rwandan Cuisine

Brochettes and Chips for Sunday Lunch
Bill is pictured with our friend Gavin.  He and his wife Bronwen 
(sitting next to Bill but sadly not in the picture) are with 
Mission Rwanda, a very cool outfit from Scotland.  
Check out their blog in the blog list.  

The nagging question we had was, what is Rwandan home cooking? We finally got a decent taste of it when we happened on a weekend buffet lunch at a local cafĂ© we like.  During the week, this restaurant (which few abazungu frequent) serves burgers and pizza.  The only local fare that we could understand were brochettes, which is meat, usually beef, roasted on a skewer with onions.  (See the picture!)  Brochettes and chips (French fries) seem to be the Rwandan version of a burger and fries.  Except that it’s not fast.  Nothing here is fast.

But back to the buffet:  for ~$5 a piece, we could load one plate as full as we liked of several local dishes.    Given how we’ve been eating the past weeks, which is pretty simple and spare, this spread was a cornucopia.  For those of you from the South who know of such things, it was an African Luby’s, but without the ladies who chant “Thank-you-m’elp-you”.  It was all Rwandan home-cooking, and it was completely soul-satisfying.   Here’s my attempt to list from memory the items that were laid out on two sides of a ten-foot table:  On one side were the hot items; cold salads were on the other. 
On the hot side: 
  • Rice (jasmine, with a few cubes of vegetables mixed in for color).
  • Potatoes slightly mashed in a light tomato-y sauce. (The sauce was pureed, but I thought I tasted some green pepper in it.)
  • Roasted cassava root.   Boring but substantial.
  • White beans.
  • Aubergines (small eggplants that really look like eggs, both in color and size) in tomato sauce with a vinegar kick.
  • Greens that were cooked to look like an Indian saag.  They are the leafy part of the cassava and taste a bit like collards or mustard greens but are not nearly so strong.
  • Fried plantains.
  • Cubes of stewed beef (the sign said “3, only”).  Meat in Rwanda is a challenge for the jaw.
  • Gravy for the beef and whatever else.  It’s a gravy seen everywhere here—you can buy plastic packets of it in the produce section at a few markets.  It has a tomato flavor added to a thin beef gravy.  It’s pretty good.
  • For an extra $2, you could add in a piece of chicken or fish, both in what looked like the same gravy, but we didn’t feel the need for it. 

On the cold side: (I don’t remember this side as well because I loaded up on hot food.)
  • Cauliflower that had been batter-dipped and fried, chilled, then mixed with strings of carrot in a light vinaigrette. 
  • Sliced tomatoes.
  • Potato salad.
  • Carrot salad.
  • Cucumber salad.
  • Large slices of perfectly ripe avocado with vinaigrette on the side.
We hear complaints that Rwandan food is boring and monotonous.  It might be that we will get tired of it, but still this was the best meal we’d had in a few weeks.  (And we don’t bore easily, anyway.)  There is a saying I find myself repeating on a regular basis these days:  “If you’ve had a good meal today, it hasn’t been a bad day.”  So true.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Food, Part I: Buying It

Welcome to Nakumatt

Some of you have been asking about Rwandan food, and finally I think I can say what we’ve seen and eaten.  The bottom line is that, except at fancy restaurants, eating in Rwanda is not an inspiring experience. Unless you are very hungry, and then it’s downright spiritual. 

During our first few weeks here, we have mostly eaten our own food, both cold and cooked.   There are a few supermarkets in the city center, which is a half-hour walk from our guest house.  The one we tend to go to is called the Nakumatt, and it is an African Wal-Mart on a smaller scale.  In addition to food, toiletries, etc., you can buy appliances (including large ones), clothing, hardware, bedding, and furniture (for both home and office—you can buy a boardroom table and appropriate chairs for ten).  All this squeezed into a space 1/3 the size of a non-super Wal-Mart.  Much of it at prices that are twice those of Wal-Mart, or more.  Nakumatt is a Kenyan chain, and most items in the store are imported from Kenya, including the produce. 

For that reason, the produce there is pitiful.  It is often sad and tired, and the availability is unreliable.  (They have been out of bananas for the past several days.  How does a store in a country covered with banana trees run out of bananas?)  A few times we have been to a meal at someone's house, where we have been served the most astounding mangoes, pineapples, avocados, tomatoes, and even berries.  Each time, when I asked where they got their produce, they shrugged and said that their cooks or housekeepers got it for them.  We have since been introduced to the local marketplaces, which are crushes of humanity with bananas galore, and everything else you can imagine.  (We often eat little half-sized bananas which are a little sweeter yet have a light, almost lemony taste behind the sweet.)  Most locals do their daily shopping in the smaller mom and pop stores that line the neighborhood streets. 

Nakumatt caters primarily to abazungu and rich Africans.  I do not think the average Kigali resident can afford much that is in there.  ($140 for a standing oscillating fan.  $10 for a box of Weetabix.)  Actually, the staples are fairly affordable, even at Nakumatt.  They carry Rwandan dairy products, coffee, and tea, and buying them is not painful:  $3/pound of Rwandan gouda vs. $20/pound of imported gouda.  We like the Rwandan gouda, and have been eating it steadily for the five weeks we’ve been here so far.   We have been splurging on the Weetabix, however. 

The groceries available are not extensive.  If you want to get interesting with your cooking here, you cook Indian.  In Texas supermarkets, an entire supermarket aisle is devoted to Tex-Mex.  In the Northeast, it’s Italian that gets its own aisle.  In Kigali, it’s Indian.  We can live with that.