Recently, we were asked if we could write a blog on food in Rwanda. Here is an overview of our experiences both in rural areas as well as urban.
Our first visit to a person’s house confused us slightly as we were invited for a Fanta. To us this meant that we were going to have a soda together and a short visit. To the Rwandan this meant, bring a case of Fanta and we will have a meal together. One of the cultural adjustments for us has been that one invites oneself to another person’s home. So if we want to extend a hand of friendship, we say, “I want to come to your house for a visit.” A case of Fanta is now in order!
Photo: A typical Rwandan buffet lunch
When we are in someone’s home in the rural setting, the food is cooked over an open fire and placed in pots with the lids on. Grace is said and then the special guests go first, then the “big men”, then the rest of the people and last the children. Rice, beans, cassava root, isombe (cassava leaves), potatoes, boiled bananas and sometimes a piece of meat (beef, goat or fish) are served regularly with a tomato sauce. If it is a special occasion, a plate of avocados, onions and tomatoes will be served with a heaping dollop of mayonnaise. At the end there are usually bananas and even sometimes pineapple! Fantas are always served warm and with a straw.
Photo: Buffet of rice, beans, chips, isombe and grilled talapia
A Rwandan buffet is quite different than a Canadian buffet. In Canada, a buffet usually means go up as many times as you like until you are full. In Rwanda, a buffet means fill your plate as much as you can as you are only suppose to go up once! Even children manage to fill their plates to the max as you can see in this picture of a six year old’s plate.
Photo: Six year old takes a second helping at Christmas
Only one piece of meat is allowed unless otherwise stipulated. If you are muzungu (westerner), they don’t usually complain if you take more meat but they might charge you for the extra protein. Cream of mushroom soup or Rwandan green soup (vegetable, dodo, etc.) is often served first at a nice buffet. Then the usual carbs (rice, potatoes, baked beans, boiled bananas, chips, and ugali). Cooked vegetables are served depending on what is in season (carrots, green beans, aubergine) and usually some fruit is an option at the end (bananas, pineapple, passion fruit or tree tomatoes). And of course the ever present Fanta! But one has a choice of cold or warm.
Photo: Jonathan with a Fanta
Fast food is not really available here. If you stop en route somewhere to grab a bit to eat, plan for at least an hour or two. Unless you want just a snack like boiled eggs with Agabaga (hot chili oil), roasted corn, brochette (goat intestines) or a sambuza. Often when traveling, we will grab a yogurt (with a straw) and maybe a mandazi (like a big day old timbit). We tend to stay away from the roadside meat if at all possible as our stomachs just can’t handle it.
Photo: Hard Boiled Eggs
The urban setting is a lot different than it use to be. Kigali has all kinds of restaurants and as Canadian Baptist Ministries staff we all have our favourites. The Bustins love New Cactus as it has a lovely view of the city, good lemon buttered tilapia and friendly service. The Derksens like Urban Blue as it is fast and their coffee crusted steak is to die for. Andre Sibomana loves to eat at The Great Wall Chinese restaurant. We like The Indian Chef as it is authentic Indian cuisine. There is even a Japanese restaurant around the corner from us now but it costs $30US per person to even have 8 pieces. Being in a landlocked country means that seafood is expensive. Jonathan doesn’t really care for seafood but I miss my shrimp.
Cooking at home has gotten much easier now. When we first arrived it seemed like every day we ate ham sandwiches. Our meals rotated between hamburger casserole or chicken & rice. The grocery stores have a decent selection of western food but one has to be willing to pay for it. Torilla wraps are available for about $5 to $6 US. Kellogg’s cereal can be as much as $15 US. But if you don’t mind some of the local brands then things are a little more affordable. Our regular grocery store list would be: Rwandan yogurt, Rwandan gouda cheese, Rwandan coffee, oatmeal, raisins, chicken, ground beef, pasta, any thing from the expiry table that looks fun and is a good price (2 for 1). Our house help goes to the market for us weekly and that list is usually: fresh milk, eggs, mangos, cucumbers, tomatoes, potatoes, peanuts and Rwandan honey. We have a nice kitchen garden where we grow lettuce, peppers, onions and carrots. Our trees also supply us with enough avacado, bananas and guava to feed the birds, monkeys and some people in our neighbourhood. So nowadays we eat a lot of taco salad, curried rice, chili, casseroles, pineapple chicken, omelettes, smoothies, etc. We always have a case of soda in the pantry in case locals drop in unannounced for a Fanta.
Photo: kitchen garden in our back yard
We really don’t want for too much although Jonathan constantly misses Twizzlers and I miss good chocolate. Western visitors are always asked to bring these two things for us to enjoy and we seem to have trouble making them last until the next visitors come. Sushi and seafood are my favourite foods but I ate Asian the whole time I was on home assignment so I can’t complain. Jonathan would love to have a roast beef dinner at some point but it is hard to justify that for just the two of us.
So, if you happen to be in Rwanda, you are always welcome. If you want to drop in for a Fanta, it is ready for you. But don’t forget the twizzlers and chocolate!