(I am a cook, in American and in Rwanda)
I was asked recently about what food I’ve been eating over here. First, thank you Jill for the question. Sorry I haven’t mentioned the food yet, I guess it’s not something I really think about including in these rambling posts of mine. Well, it’s not all that exciting to be honest. Let me first tell you what composes the common Rwandan diet: Rice, beans (various varieties), potatoes, sweet potatoes (not yams like in America, but real sweet potatoes), cassava (both the roots and the greens- prepared separately; also in the form of a traditional type of “bread” called ubugali), plantains (big, savory type), local eggplant (they are small and green), tomatoes, carrots, cabbage, avocado, corn (cooked directly on charcoal (on the cob)), onions, green beans, pineapple (the best in the world, I promise you), passion fruit, bananas, eggs, pasta, tea, milk, fanta and beer.
The above are usually prepared in a few ways... potatoes will be fried- either in the form of fries (frites) or whole; sweet potatoes are also fried; cassava root is boiled; plantains are boiled and made into a sort of mushy, saucy mash; beans are cooked exactly how you would expect; all types of vegetables are cooked until they turn to mush, and most of the flavors are similar. Overall, the food is not at all exciting, but it’s not bad either. Oh! for the meat-eaters, you can find meat on a stick (called brushettes) or different types of meat stews.
Getting food in a restaurant is best done in a big city. There is a restaurant that I go to occasionally that’s in the same town I go to to buy bread. The food there is only ok, but the folks who work there are really nice! They all know me and like to ask about how I’m doing, which is always nice. At this establishment you can get the buffet (full of rice, chips, beans, plantains, some nearly unrecognizable greens, a type of sauce to pour on your now full plate-o-food and a genuinely COLD beverage. Since refrigeration is expensive and highly uncommon, getting a really cold drink every once and a while has turned to a big treat! In Kigali you can even get smoothies! Perfect for the occasional lavish city snack.
I do most of my cooking alone, but sometimes Jane and I collaborate or we’ll take turns. Every time I cook she enjoys what I make, but she lets me know that according to Rwandans, I didn’t cook the food long enough. Well yeah, she’s right, I like to have my vegetables remain in some sort of recognizable format. I like my meals to have some semblance of texture, and varied texture at that! This is going to be a never-ending debate between me and Rwandan cooking styles.
Overall, though, the produce is really tasty. Since everything is fresh and natural, this food is the perfect blank canvas. And, thanks to my awesome parents, I have spices and hot sauces to help me create some really savory meals. But at times I am actually surprised by just how good the food does taste. The other week we made some Irish potatoes and they tasted so good! I know, it’s crazy that I am praising a potato, but really, they were perfect. Just like in any sort of farming community, you’ve just gotta know where to find the good stuff. As far as seasonal produce goes, I know there is some inevitable variance in harvest times, but overall, finding what you want is usually possible. Although, yesterday when I went to the market there were no avocados to be found. If I can make me way into Musanze (about 1 hour north by van taxi), I can go to the best market and get tasty, fresh produce of any sort. They even have apples there!
So, as long as I do the cooking, the food here is pretty good. I am able to remain completely vegetarian and feel healthy about the decision. Hell, I’m remaining mostly vegan, which is awesome! From time to time I will indulge in some fresh, local cheese, and I think the bread I get uses some sort of butter, but when I cook, it’s entirely vegan.
Actually, I have a quick little story about drinking milk. The other afternoon one of my fellow teachers popped into my house for a visit. He brought with him a small jerry can full of fresh milk from his mother’s cow. It was still warm... We then had to cook the milk. I’m glad my Rwandan friends here agree with me on that- we need to cook it to make sure that if the cow has any sort of illness it won’t get passed on to us. So, we cooked the milk then poured it into a few thermoses. I then boldly went where I had yet to previously go- I drank honest to god, fresh milk. It wasn’t half bad, though I will be contributing my recent stuffy nose and excess mucus to the milk drinking. But, it didn’t hurt my stomach and it tasted ok. We added some sugar (in true Rwandan fashion) and Jane and I sat drinking our hot, sweet milk. I mentioned to her that I liked it and she said “well, if you like it we can get Juvenal to bring us milk every week.” Nope, I told her that I liked it as a special thing that we indulged in every so often. I didn’t share this with her, but I’d be happy to keep the milk drinking to a twice a year minimum. It was ok, I’m glad I tried it, but I’m not trying to turn milk into a major dietary staple. (Warning- vegan ideology to follow). I am able to get good food most times, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy for me to maintain a super healthy diet. Logistics just make it a whole lot more difficult to remain as healthy here as I could be in America. I still firmly believe that I don’t want to depend on another living create for my health, and I think that I honestly don’t need to. But, I do eat the occasional egg (less now than I did during training) and I indulge in the every-so-often cheese product and bread made with milk or butter. And, like I just mentioned, I will share a glass of warm milk when the occasion requires. And I’m ok with making these small diet changes. I know the cow who’s milk I’m drinking, the chickens who produce the eggs we consume are always clucking around our school grounds and the dairy products used here are manufactured at local establishments using local ingredients. Also, I would feel like a total prude if I didn’t try some new things here. This is not changing my ideology, just allowing me to experience some new things (like fresh milk). Some of you may think that I should try any and every food that I’m offered, but I am going to draw the line at meat. No thank you. I don’t think I’ll ever eat that stuff again if I can avoid it. And fish? This country is land-locked baby... and being from Florida makes you a potential fish/ seafood snob. If it’s not super fresh, count me out. On the other hand, some of you may scoff at my lax food consumption practices. To that I say whatever, I feel good about the choices I’m making. I feel like I am remaining fairly healthy while simultaneously experiencing new things and acting in ways that allow me to assimilate. I don’t mean to jump to the defense, just trying to explain my thoughts a bit.
Anyway, that’s my take on the food here. Perhaps a little inconsistent, but that’s how I like it. But, please be aware, that my soon to come wish list consists of mostly vegan snack food items. I love getting granola bars, chocolate and cookies from my parents- they really do sweeten my day (har har). One thing I really miss? Vegan ice cream and popsicles... upon my return to America I am going to devote an entire day to eating vegan ice cream. Who’s with me? :)