Eating Uganda

by Kitty Drake in September 2021
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Current affairs Food & drink

Fare travels to a different city per issue to paint an intimate, detailed portrait of a place through its food. This issue is about Kampala, the seat of the ancient Buganda kingdom, and the capital of Uganda. Editor Ben Mervis has handed the reins to guest curator Katasi E. Kironde, founder of Elevate 256, a diaspora based organisation that promotes Ugandan culture and history.

Over zoom, Katasi talked through her favourite images in the new issue, taking readers on a deeply personal culinary tour, via steamed chicken, yam, and fried grasshoppers.

This is a photograph of fried grasshoppers, ‘nsenene’, a delicacy in Kampala. Mainly harvested in November, they come with the rains. In one of the local languages, Luganda, the month of November is called ‘Museenene’, the month of grasshoppers. At night, you can see people trying to attract grasshoppers to farm with corrugated iron sheets and lights and smoke to draw them in. It makes the skyline very beautiful, because you can see the lights and the plumes of smoke.

Flying food is having a moment in the west, and it’s being billed as something new. But I wanted to emphasise that for so many countries around the world, flying food is a tradition. In town you will see hawkers selling spoonfuls. I have actually never tasted nsenene because the grasshopper is my totem, a symbol of biological linkage for a grouping of people that goes back a long, long time ago. In the Kingdom of Buganda there are 52 clans which are represented by a totem. It’s a taboo for a Muganda to eat their totem so potentially about 1/50th of the Baganda population have never tried nsenene. Apparently they taste like prawn or crispy chicken.

This is a woteli. It’s a commercial venture, but it’s in the style of a home kitchen. The “maamas” are preparing food for working men. Woteli is our spin on the word ‘hotel’. The wotelis are the best places to eat in Kampala; they’re not fancy, they’re just really good. We have this thing about eating more than one starch at a time. You know how in the UK you would just have one starch with your protein? We will have all the starch on one plate. The lady on the left is cutting up plantain, then there’s purple yam, white sweet potato, pumpkin and pea aubergines which are bitter and provide a contrast to all the sweet food.

Women do most of the cooking in these establishments, and they dress beautifully. In Uganda, even if you are doing a simple job, you dress up. Your hair will be perfectly braided, and your clothes will be immaculate. I love this woman’s hairband, and her makeshift apron, with such a lovely dress underneath it.

This is luwombo: roasted chicken, groundnut sauce with a little water, and vegetables all wrapped and tied in a banana leaf, then steamed for hours. It comes with white potatoes, which the British introduced to Uganda, so we call them “Irish” for short. Luwombo is a slow cooked meal, and the amount of love and effort that goes into it makes it special; traditionally for the Baganda it is to be eaten in your finest clothes at an important occasion. I wanted to show that Ugandan food can be elevated; this is fine dining, just in a traditional style.

Even though Uganda is landlocked we are blessed to have these various lakes, like Lake Nalubaale (Lake Victoria is its colonial name). This is the place I like to go on a Sunday because it’s very low-key. Kampala can be quite flashy; the whole looking-good-thing, there’s a pretentiousness to that. But here you can get a freshly caught fish and have it fried right in front of you, and just enjoy the view of the lake. These little children move me because they’re so sweet, and also, this isn’t the typical image you get of Africa. They look really content and peaceful, which is how I feel when I am in this area. This is Kampala: the blue on the green, and those clear skies.

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