Anyone who says they came to Rwanda for the food is a liar. Shame on you. Variety is the spice of life, however neither variety nor spice have ever graced this little countries' dietary imagination. The standard Western three meal fare of breakfast, lunch and supper are replaced with the combination of ‘tea’ and ‘buffet.’ Eating after dark, as evidenced by the availability of food past 3pm, is an unspoken taboo. Rwandans are slender people, obviously accustomed to a diet with substantially less food than Canadians.
9:30 am is the time I live for. Starting work at 8:00am on an empty stomach leads to an unproductive morning and a longing…wanting…needing of tea. All staff at the Institute leave whatever post they are occupying at the time (I stopped my own class 40 minutes early solely for the sacred nature of the event), and head to the meal tent, a giant-circus style structure for morning tea. I rush past the ambling ones ravenously, much like Fred Flinstone leaves work at the quitting whistle.
A massive container of African Tea awaits for all to ask the tongue-in-cheek question; Would you like some tea with your milk? Essentially, its steaming milk spiced with ginger and nutmeg and usually served with one (no, really that’s enough), two (this is my effort at ‘blending’ in), three (why does my heart hurt so much?), four (really now, that’s just not necessary) overflowing teaspoons of fresh, brown sugar. For most, this is enough for morning sustenance.
I learned early on that there is enough tea for everyone, so my energies immediately divert to the Golden Tombola; the Holy Grail… the Food Tray. If you get there late, there is a queue, where all former allies and notions of respect for your fellow colleagues get thrown out the window as an unspoken survival-of-the-pushiest contest exists for the breakfast goods. Like traders at Wall Street, you stand back and yell, hoping your order gets heard among the crowd. Waiting for you are 5 items; Boiled Eggs, Chappati’s (flour cooked on a flat pan on an oven with oil), Sambousa (the equivalent of a greasy Indian Samousa stuffed with meat), Spring Rolls (a cylindrical, rolled and deep-fried morsel of goodness packed with beef (?) and an occasional pea, justifying the chef to use the word ‘spring’ in the title). There is also a deep-fried ball of flour (mandwai), but its taste is akin to what you would expect from un-spiced and un-sweetened flour, so I avoid it. I purchase one of each of the desired items (for a total of 450 Rwandan Francs; $0.79 CDN), and make my way to the table with my head down, careful not to make eye-contact with anyone. I learned that my share is far more than the local custom suggests and renders the occasional “Is that ALL for you???” quirk from neighboring tables. Breakfast is served.
Lunch provides a different experience; leaving connoisseurs of the event to ask, “Is that ALL for you???” meaning you simply haven’t taken enough. I’ve given up trying to please everyone, it’s not possible. Apparently someone in Rwanda decided that an informal, impromptu, un-judged eating contest should exist at buffet, everyone silently competing for an unknown prize. It is a testament to humanity how such skinny individuals can fit so much food into their stomachs at one sitting.
For 1000 RWF ($1.75 CDN), the pride of Rwandan cuisine is presented to you in the form of 8 metallic, steaming trays of food set-up in a linear sequence. If there was a Carbs-Only Diet, this would be the model example of it. The locals and ex-pats alike have a variety of colorful and appropriate nick-names to describe the Lunch Buffet experience; with Volcano and Network Down (meaning your cell phone doesn’t receive reception around the pile of food) topping the list as personal favorites. Grab a plate, stand an inch behind the person in front of you (or someone will gladly fill the space) and prepare to be awed.
Tray 1: Rice. Plain, or, if feeling ambitious, the cook adds the equivalent of ¼ of a carrot to the massive tray, in little chunks (for style points, of course).
Tray 2: Stewed Bananas with Onions in Red Sauce (a fan-favorite).
Tray 3: French Fries (Large Chunks, comes with EVERY meal in Rwanda)
Tray 4: ‘African Cake’ (Grey, dry potato gush)
Tray 5: Spinach or Casava (Vegetables? Yes, Please!)
Tray 6: Kidney Beans (Protein)
Tray 7: Meat (Beef maybe? Two very chewy small-chunks are plopped on the plate by the host)
Tray 8: Vegetable Stew (This reddish, lava-like sauce is poured directly on top of the mountain of the food and gushes down the sides, giving the food a “Volcano” like activity.)
When you sit down at the table you wish everyone a good meal by saying, “Mujo Huergway,” which directly translates to “Chew Well.”
Anthony and I usually stare at each other, about an hour after the sun goes down, and ask the question that’s on both of our minds, “Are we going to eat tonight?” If the answer is yes, we roam the streets of Nyamirambo, or, if we are really ambitious, take a Moto downtown for a hearty fare. You have to work for this meal.
India has chana masala and chicken curry, Germany has bratwurst and sauerkraut, while Mexico claims burrito’s and quesadillas as their culinary delights. Rwanda, on the other hand, has the brochette.
Man kills meat. Man makes fire. Man cooks meat. Game, Set, Match. Skewed meat (goat, beef, or fish) is cut into medium-sized chunks, separated by square-pieces of onions and sequestered on a stick, which is promptly charbroiled (well, well, well done) over a fire. The product is a Brochette which is best served with French Fries, a salad, a grilled banana and a large, cold Mutzig. The whole finale costs a whopping 2000 RWF ($3.50 CDN), and apart from the hair you can find from inspecting the meat (now I claim ignorance and simply not look for it), it is a delightful, but time-consuming way to end the food experience for the day.
Eat, Sleep and Repeat, if you must.