Oluwombo

By Sophie Gitonga I Resident Foodie

I’m in Uganda for the umpteenth time this year. A cousin is getting married and I’m here to celebrate with her. In truth, I’m also here on an eating excursion. Ugandan weddings, like many of their celebrations are over-the-top affairs, especially when compared to Kenyan events. Every available cent is found and spent because a good time MUST be had.

Another cousin is supposed to pick me up but he’s not at the stage when I get there. I call him and he tells me that he’s caught up in traffic. “Go into a restaurant nearby,” he says, “I’ll be there shortly.” He says it in that classic Ugandan-ism, adding an “i” at the end of some of his words.

“You get whatever you want-i I’m coming-i” he says to me. I find a place and plop my bags on the floor with a thud. There’s a football game blaring on the screens so the wait staff are glued to it and don’t immediately notice me. When I do get one’s attention, he comes over with the menu, moving rather languidly. Everything on the menu is available, he tells me. (It’s 10am mind you.) I have a hankering for chicken and food. Food here is synonymous with matoke (pounded or whole bananas) and a side of soup. You can order anything with a side of food. My meal comes piping hot and my waiter resumes his TV watching. The matoke is creamy and not as pithy as the variety we get back home, the perfect comfort food. You can also get a drink at this hour of the day, and I do. Besides, I er…need one. I go for the local gin, Waragi, and the waiter brings me the ka-quarter. It feels mischievous to be having a brew so early in the day but the other patrons are unperturbed. I ask for my usual condiments, ice and sliced lemons. The waiter does the funniest thing – he brings me a whole lemon and a knife so I can “help-i myself-i”. Ha! I love this place. When my cousin arrives, he asks for the bill and the waiter says “that’s twenty thouthand.” That’s another ism in these parts, thouthand. I sometimes catch my own mother saying it and it always elicits a smile out of me. My cousin drops me off at his place so I can freshen up and get over the jet lag from my ‘Overseas’ travel.

Later that evening we head out to Wandegeya to celebrate the bride’s last hurrah before she heads off to wedded bliss. My uncle owns a drinking den here, it’s called Casablanca. It’s open 365 days a year, rain or shine. People come here for the Supersport, the betting, for the food and drink. Tonight there’s an Arsenal vs Someone Else match so the place is brimming and bets have been placed. We come here for the roasted pork. Ugandans’ affinity for roast pork is similar to Kenyans’ love affair with mbuzi choma, they eat it hand over fist. Someone goes off to place the order and we start our own debate about how well Arsenal is doing this season and the tragedy that is Chelsea. The sizzling pork is ushered in; we are already eating it with our eyes. The waiter is pulling off the meat from the skewers – he has to bring the skewers so that we can confirm the number ordered. He places the meat on a bed of kachumbari, cassava and avocado. Hands washed and sleeves rolled up, we dig in. If the second coming was to happen right now I’d have to say, “Sorry Jesus, I’m kinda in the middle of something, can you come back in 30 minutes?” In Uganda, I’ve never met a bite of pork I didn’t like. The soft meat is seasoned only with salt and smoke from the smouldering coals. The cubed cassava is boiled and sometimes roasted as well so you feel guiltless about eating it. There’s not much talking happening while we eat – you don’t want to waste your time with words when you could be filling your mouth with fast diminishing pork. I wash my meal down with a perfectly chilled Club beer. Jesus, I’m ready for you now. We drink and dance the rest of the night away.

It’s wedding day and the bride and her bevy of beauties have been up since 4am getting pretty. I roll out of bed at full daylight, needing an aspirin to loosen the fog that’s swirling in my head. Breakfast is ready but I seem to be the only one interested in it. My grandmother ambles in as I’m eating and as soon as we are done hugging she goes on to chastise me as she always does – affectionately. She wants to know why I’m not yet pregnant, why I still can’t speak fluent Luganda and why I didn’t bring the husband on this trip. On the first two charges I assure her that I’m working on it, on the third I tell her that the husband had another wedding to attend to in Nairobi and that he would be joining us the following day. We jointly feel sorry for all the mukimo and brown rice he will have to endure at that wedding. So she invites us to her home in Masaka for lunch where she’ll prepare a special meal just for us.

The wedding reception meets all my culinary expectations and then some. Every living thing has been cooked, beans, vegetables, meats, starches, sauces…they have it all. Oh and no chapatis here, it’s important to stick to what you know and Ugandans don’t know how to do chapatis. And then there’s booze and drink to sate every thirst of the 600 plus guests. A Ugandan wedding without alcohol is simply a meeting for smartly dressed people. This is doable in Uganda because food and drink is cheap here. The local beers, Nile, Bell, and Club, cost the equivalent of Kshs 105/- even when you are purchasing them from a decent joint. You couldn’t dream of doing that in Kenya, you’d have to contend with the useless jean-clad chaps who would show up at your wedding sans gift just for the pints.

The next day, husband dutifully arrives as promised and I call up grandma to let her know that she can start firing up her jikos because we are coming for lunch. The 130km drive to Masaka from Kampala is pleasant since the road is tarmacked. We stop by the road to buy some tilapia, fresh catch of the day. My aunt bargains mercilessly and pays the equivalent of Kshs 1600/- for 4 large fish. We also buy some gonja (roasted plantain) from the food vendors. They are also selling chicken on a stick, roasted meat, and pan-fried locusts. Let me tell you something about eating those locusts, the idea and experience of eating them are polar opposites. They taste so much better than what you would imagine or than how they look. Little crunchy bitings, they pull out the jumping legs so they don’t get caught in your teeth. Sheer amusement for your mouth.

I’ve put in a special request for what I’d like to eat in Masaka: Oluwombo. This is a dish steamed in banana leaf. It’s often reserved for special occasions like holidays, and guests such as a visiting groom or a royal, so I’m very honoured to have my grandmother do this for me. You can do this with most foods, from pumpkins to whole chickens. The special skill lies in making the banana leaf packet so that everything, including the liquid, stays in. The banana plant has got to be the most revered crop in Uganda. Every part of it is used for something. The banana leaf used to make the packet is softened over coals to make it pliable. Everything that is to go into to the meal is added at the assembly stage. That includes all seasoning, tomatoes and onions. The package is then neatly tied up with a banana stalk. And now for the theory of cooking oluwombo: you make a bed of banana peelings in the sufuria you are going to use, to it you add water. Then you place your banana leaf assembly in the sufuria, cover and place the sufuria on the jiko and go about your business. It’s slow cooking so while that happens, my grandmother plies us with pineapple and tonto, a local liquor brewed from bananas. It varies in strength and colour depending on how long you’ve been brewing it. She also brings out the family album, showing us pictures of her 50th wedding anniversary celebration, an event I regrettably missed, and pictures of my mother and her siblings when they were little and never smiled for the camera. Their faces always seemed to say, “I’m not in the mood.”

The lunch is served and my grandmother retreats to eat with her friends while we commandeer her dining table. The display is gorgeous, the banana leaf packets presented like gifts. A whole kienyeji chicken with tomatoes and onions, steamed in its own juices, smoked fish cooked in groundnut sauce (the fresh tilapia that we brought in earlier), matoke, pumpkin, cassava also cooked oluwombo style and a whole helping of groundnut sauce. According to tradition, the groom is required to eat the entire whole chicken by himself so he gets to serve first. My favourite has always been the smoked fish in groundnut sauce, so I start there and round it off with the chicken that is wickedly soft. I give the obligatory moan with each bite – this food deserves every moan it gets. We eat slowly and deliberately, adding some of this and trying some of that. The food in itself isn’t unique, what’s rare and special is the moment. Of being my grandmother’s guest, of dining with my family, of having the husband see where I have come from…that I’ll carry in my heart long after the food has left my body. At some point we put our fingers down and surrender, and gently unfurl ourselves onto the mats that have been laid out on the grass. The tonto and lunch are now dancing a slow waltz in our bellies, lulling us into the most peaceful sleep.

We take a picture with Granny before we leave and this time she smiles. We promise a return visit, hopefully with a baby in tow and she says she has just the herb to speed things up in that department. What a sly woman this one is…

 

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77 thoughts on “Oluwombo”

  1. Denniece Black says:

    Sophie!
    You nailed it! That’s a familiar experience. The culinary skills of preparing Luwombo is extraordinaire! I enjoy it!

  2. nelly says:

    You make me hungry. Beautiful prose.

  3. wanjiru says:

    This read has got me very hungry sigh. Very nice

  4. Elvis says:

    you just posted these some minutes to Lunch..that looks delicious..such a pity am eating Githeri *sighs*

  5. Steve says:

    I have been salivating from the word go. I need to go to Uganda now. I’d have loved to see pictures of all those different foods. Especially the pork and chicken.

    I don’t know how Biko is still on that diet after reading this. I am heading out to my nearest lunch place and dig in.

  6. MartinO says:

    My oh my. Beautiful piece. As enjoyable to read as the food obviously was

  7. S says:

    Grasshoppers not locusts. Brilliant read.

  8. Mike says:

    Sophie please open a Ugandan eatery here in Nairobi, I promise I will stop by every day of the week except weekends. In October 2015 I was in Kampala for three days and I ate the ground nut sauce every lunch and supper, couldnt get enough of it.

  9. abdullah omar says:

    next time you visit lamu or any coastal town ask for mkate wa nazi and you will have a made in kenya oluwombo

  10. Irene Muya says:

    am reading this just before I have my lunch. can almost taste all the food – in my mind!!!

  11. owira says:

    Am going to be a groom in Uganda…a whole hen to myself…if that offer stands after the wedding i will have no problem visiting my in laws every two weeks

  12. keenjoz says:

    Awesome…you can make someone really salivate..i need to visit Uganda

  13. Loise says:

    Reading this from Mulago,5 minutes to Wandegeya, ha ha ha Ugandans and bananas!!!

  14. Annie says:

    Enjoyable read! Nimependa

  15. robert says:

    i had to wait and read this after lunch otherwise i would have had to go to Uganda

  16. Noni says:

    Lovely piece! Good read….. I could almost taste every bite

  17. Toni Suswa says:

    The pork Joint is a must go place every time I’m in Kampala. The Luwombo and ground nut sauce is also a must have. Very nice read, I miss being there already… let me know where I can find these delicacies in Nairobi.

  18. Muthoni says:

    Was I the only one reading this article with a Ugandan accent? 🙂 it’s hilarious

    http://www.treatsonabudget.co.ke/nairobi-restaurant-week-2016-is-almost-upon-us-and-i-have-a-plan/

  19. mimah says:

    Sophie..,i was with u..,i washed my hands with u,tasted the meal..,
    Nice..as always

  20. Does it matter? says:

    Who said Jesus would come for drunkards and gluttons?

  21. Ythera says:

    If you could post the recipe for gnut sauce here I’ll buy you a gift. Their food is to die for. Beautiful writing Sophie. *stomach makes dying whale sound*

    • Sophie says:

      Ythera, let me call my good relatives and hook you up

    • Fiona Kyazike says:

      @Ythera, contact me and I will teach you how to make it. Groundnut source is a staple from Busoga. Even the Baganda do not know how to make it the way we(Basoga) do. And Sophie, Ugandans know how to make chapati just not in Kampala. You have to go to Jinja for this. I promise you they taste even better than yours. Having said that, I liked your article very much and I am fasting!

  22. Kodi Barth says:

    Oluwombo, huh? The food deserves every moan it gets. Now that’s sexy eating. Boy, do I love good food! I’m taking my mouth to Uganda. And, oh, the tonto. Lord help me. – Thanks, Sophie Gitonga. I’ve loved your pen since “Goat Days” last October. Don’t stop writing.

  23. ayub suleiman says:

    sophie you are on pointi!!

  24. Peninah says:

    The insects you saw/ate are not locusts bur grasshoppers.Very delicious little things.

  25. ..and now just because of this article i will be forced to make the painful decision of eating one of my laying hens before the sun sets.

  26. clement says:

    Every man in Uganda is an equivalent of 2 Luhya men. No amount of eating shocks those guys

  27. Sophia says:

    I need me a Ugandan Grandma
    Nicely told by the way.

  28. Joe says:

    did you bring more of that herb from your granny? its needed here ‘overseas’, Word on the street is, Mukombero is just a hyped up placebo.

  29. Miss bush says:

    Sophie that was a good read. I loved it

  30. kioi says:

    At last i can put a name on the dishes cooked wrapped with banana leaves.oluwombo awesome read sophie.

  31. Brenda says:

    Sophie is Ugandan??? Loved the writing, thats Uganda for u, we take our time cooking our food. Luwombo It shows is a dish that was served by women to impress their men. It shows how much time and focus she put to cook in a delicate banana leaf which tears should you mess up. Besides, its purely boiled and not like the normal sufuria cooked chicken. Was nice reading someone write about our food, yummy tastebud teasing stuff. But on the accent? Haha… good one.

  32. Carol says:

    Lovely read.

  33. Annrose says:

    Thanks Sophie, you never dissapoint.

  34. Vivian says:

    Well, i have added a visit to Uganda on my bucket list. This is a beautiful piece Sophie.

  35. Carol says:

    Nice read Sophie. I lived in Uganda for sometime and this story brought back good memories!

  36. Nava says:

    now i want to go….sigh….

  37. Leon says:

    Well now I’m hungry. Riveting read. I was in Uganda recently and I absolutely loved the food. The chapatis too.

  38. Kirabo says:

    that must be some pretty fast smoking
    “smoked fish cooked in groundnut sauce (the fresh tilapia that we brought in earlier)”

  39. Alvin says:

    Well, I am now hungry, you can’t read this piece and fail to have that obligatory salivation. I definitely have a date with Ugandan food, kwanza the luwombo. Keep up Sophie! Love your literary acumen.

  40. Rae says:

    Now I miss Uganda! Wandegeya pork is the truth!

    Great read as always!

  41. lessiano lesswanyika says:

    very delicious,both the writing and the food!

  42. @clif_the_tall says:

    Ohhhh Seenchuuu very muchi for thisi article…How i miss Uganda . There is a place around Ntinda that make Super delioious Oluwombo and mouth watering Rolex…When it comes to food Ugandans got it right. At 8 am in the morning they are busy cooking. They eat real food for breakfast! That storo for chai na mkate is a big NO! in UG.

  43. Aly says:

    I pictured every meal…perfect piece, it couldn’t get any better than this

  44. skaheru says:

    Right from the beginning I knew this was not going to help my diet in ANY way. I will revenge one day, but in the time being may you be inundated with luwombo, nsenene and meaty katogo in the mornings…

  45. Chalo says:

    Reminds me of emere yona,kinyaja na bijanjaru we used to devour at Nalongo’s in kikoni.

  46. Sharpe Ssewali says:

    Ah Biko! You write beautifully. I giggled all through this piece. It of course also made me super nostalgic. I miss how great our food is. There is no food like Ugandan food. I’m biased, I know, but how can I not be? I’m also super excited to know you’re Ugandan too.

    BTW, that would be “Helepu myselefu” I find that our “i” ism applies mostly to words that end in “ing” or “ed” — Running-i, sitting-i and commenting-i. See what I did there? I just commented-i.

    Thank you for your awesome work.

  47. yoni says:

    awesome read.. am already hungry , yet it’s 2 in the night!

  48. Earnest Hassan says:

    I read a while back that epilepsy were prevalent in Uganda more than other African countries. Couldn’t locate the exact document I read then, but I found this one http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3581814/ which echoes the same sentiments.

    Now I know the cause: ROASTED PORK.

    Poorly cooked pork is likely to contain the worm that causes epilepsy. Ugandans please watch out; cook your pork

  49. Redempta says:

    Good read Sophie . I too love the groundnut sauce each time I am in Kampala, I make it a point to have that awesome sauce. Continue writing, this is very awesome, I laughed all through and got more hungry at the mentions of food here and there , let me get me some food now .

  50. tina says:

    The sauces; ALL OF THEM, are to die for in Uganda! And I lie not when I say that chicken on the stick has my name written all over it. Hands down, Ugandans have GREAT food.
    But our chapos still rock… GREAT READ SOPHIE! Thank you!

  51. ben'z says:

    nice piece….will be going back there soon….can’t wait!If i could relocate from Kenya, i’d readily go to UG…they might be ‘behind’ us in terms of development but life there is cheaper and enjoyable!

  52. Mercy says:

    Lovely piece Sophie Gitonga.

  53. Elvis says:

    Thoroughly enjoyed the read. Definately going to Uganda

  54. Esquire says:

    Been postponing reading this but got round to it and oh, am I impressed and super hungry! I will visit UG just to live the food. Great stuff Sophie.

  55. Mukami says:

    Sophie, please write about shabwe! It’s the most delicious thing I’ve ever eaten! Kenyans need to know!

  56. penina muchiri says:

    the story, the food, grandMa who’s a treasure… and the rare humor!! ooooh! Now I want to visit my niece who is a Kikuyu married to a Ug man. She’s a Kikuyu so am gonna need the address to Cucu in Masaka 🙂

  57. Rhenadhis says:

    I loved the fact that Ugandans eat food in the morning, something i also do back here. I’m however not a crazy fan of g-nut sauce – both Ugandan and Kenyan – and definitely not a fan of plantain/matoke in all it’s cooked forms so i didn’t enjoy my meals much out there.

    But, great read as always Sophie

  58. Belinda says:

    Im impressed by your ability to make an article about food so interesting and diverse . Very beautiful

  59. Asila says:

    I’m so hungry-I just cannot wait for my next trip to Uganda

  60. TNgash says:

    Gosh for a foodie like me reading this was torture…I’m now soo hungry. .:) anywhere I can get this in Kenya?

  61. Dee says:

    Such a tasteful article. Loved it!

  62. Angie says:

    This post has seriously made me reconsider my detox regime, njaa nayo!

  63. aleky says:

    please sophie I need that special herb your grandma promised…. thanks in advance

  64. Moni (Houston) says:

    Delicious read Sophie, Its been yonks since I had Matoke and beef stew, I will try my local Meki grocery store (I’ve found ndumas, guavas and seen sukaringuru among their chili mangoes Ha!) Anyway, I need some Matoke and some beef stew ASAP – Thank you.

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