Born in the state of Georgia, raised in Uganda, schooled in Costa Rica and now living in Illinois, Northwestern senior Nicole Magabo can call many places home. However, it is Kampala, Uganda where both her parents are from and where she spent the majority of her childhood and teenage years. We sat down with Magabo to learn more about Ugandan food culture and her unique perspective on American cuisine.
Many Ugandans eat whatever grows best in the part of the country they are from. “Our food is centered around lots of cereals like wheat, flour and various grains,” Magabo says. In the southwestern region, people often eat kawunga (cornmeal made from corn or maize flour) and Irish potatoes. People in the central region of Uganda often cook with bananas, which are staple crops found in the area. One of the most popular foods made in this part of the country is matooke. Matooke is a meal consisting of steamed green bananas that is eaten with meat or a groundnut sauce.
“In Uganda, we eat meat a lot and we often purchase it directly from a butcher,” Magabo says. Popular meats consumed in Uganda are chicken, beef, goat and mutton. Magabo finds meat in the United States to be “seemingly perfect and too refined.” She particularly dislikes the chicken, which she says is too white, too lean. “My family does not buy lean cuts of meat in Uganda, and we don’t worry about non-fat and organic meat,” Magabo says. “A lean cut just gives you the bare minimum. You don’t get the real fat.”
Vegetarianism is a foreign concept in Uganda. “I had never seen a vegetarian until I left the country,” Magabo says. Meat is an extremely important aspect of Ugandan cuisine. “A meal without meat would be very funny,” Magabo adds.
In Uganda, barbeque is referred to as muchomo and it is ubiquitous to Ugandan nightlife. It is very common for people to go to bars, eat muchomo and have a couple of drinks. “By the bar someone is roasting pork, chicken, beef, or goat, etc.,” she says.
Spice and Seasoning:
“Ugandan cuisine is generally plain, and food is either boiled or fried,” Magabo says. In order to spice it up, people often shop at outdoor markets for spices and vegetables. While techniques used to cook meat, rice or stew are standard among Ugandans, “people take their own initiative to add spice to their food and because of this, flavors vary across families,” she says.
“I do not understand skim, non-fat or half and half. They just look watered down,” Magabo says. One would not find organic or any type of low-fat milk in Uganda. She explains that some people in Uganda milk their own cows and then send it to a factory to be pasteurized. “This is the type of milk I like; I know that it is full milk,” she says.
“You can’t talk about Uganda without talking about alcohol,” Magabo says. “We drink a lot and we savor our drink.” Magabo says that Ugandans appreciate the effect of alcohol and how strong it can be, compared to the United States where she says it seems a lot of young people just drink to get “willy nilly.” She adds that the concept of chasers is something that does not exist in Uganda because people want to really taste the alcohol. Waragi is a popular distilled spirit in Uganda made from either cassava, bananas, millet or sugar cane. Another popular alcoholic beverage is tonto or mwenge’bigere, which can be translated to foot beer. Magabo explains that tonto is made out of bananas and that one must stomp on the bananas before fermenting the drink. “Unfortunately, these beverages cannot be purchased outside of Uganda,” Magabo says.
In the early 1800s, Asians began to immigrate to Uganda, resulting in a South Asian (particularly Indian, Bangladeshi and Pakistani) influence on Ugandan cuisine. Magabo’s favorite food is a South Asian-inspired dish called chapati, which looks similar to Indian naan. “Chapati is, however, more elastic than naan and while making the round shape of the chapati, you use a rolling pin to help flatten out the dough,” Magabo explains. “I love it because you can eat chapati with anything under the sun, for any meal during the day.”