Monday, August 29, 2011

Eating lower on the food chain

The bounty of last Friday's market trip. Can you believe I got all this
for four dollars and 8 cents? (2450 RWF total, 1650 for the fruits
and vegetables and 800 RWF for the beans)

We are consumers, make no mistake about it. We have to eat. Food at its most basic is chemical energy, transformed by plants from sunlight, that our bodies transform into kinetic energy. It also supplies us with the building blocks for all of our cells and a variety of other essentials. But let us not think in such scientific terms for now. What about taste? What am I eating in Rwanda?

Dining hall food: bean/veggie stew, rice, and potatoes (alternate in cooked
bananas every other meal). About three times a week, they have
cold green bean or cabbage salad and occasionally pineapple.

Cooked bananas are the staple food of Rwanda. Green bananas can be
cooked in a number of ways. Most of the time they are boiled and
mashed (called igitoki). In the above picture, some workers and I cooked
these in a fire when taking a break from building a fence. Cooked bananas
sort of taste like potatoes.

There have really been four phases to my diet here. In the first two months, I ate only from the dining hall by our school. I quickly got bored with rice/beans/potatoes/cooked bananas/the same veggie stews for lunch and dinner and white bread rolls for breakfast. When I started skipping meals, a change had to come.

My breakfast for most of the last year: a small banana and two fried dough
rolls. A bag of 10 of these unsweetened doughnuts costs about 500 RWF
(83 cents). I finally stopped eating them in July. They were essential
survival items until then, but I can't imagine eating another one.

In late January, Michele and I bought an electric hot plate in Kigali, about an hour away by motorcycle and minibus-taxi. We do have electricity most of the time, so we can cook on our own. This began the "Italian" dinner phase. We started eating amandaz (fried dough rolls) from the local market for breakfast, eating the rice/bean/potato/banana lunch at the dining hall, and eating pasta at home every night. Sauces for the pasta were tomato and tomato paste with basil, garlic and onion. It was a welcome diversification for the taste buds, though relatively expensive, as pasta is imported (but you can buy it just down the road for 700 RWF ($1.16 a bag)).

Basil and mint grow here well, as they do in our little raised bed herb garden
outside our house.

From May through July, we began the "Asian" dinner phase. Sticking to the fried dough rolls for breakfast and the dining hall lunch, we cooked veggie stir fries with rice each night. Soy sauce is available in bigger towns and a big bottle lasts a long time. Throw in the onions, garlic, peppers, and even basil, and you have got a new way of eating rice.

Stir-fry. Occasionally, we get peanut butter from the capital and mix it
with soy sauce to make peanut sauce. 

Now, in our final stretch (August-December), I think we have hit our culinary stride. We have started buying beets and carrots for borscht. These root crops are grown locally, as is cabbage. We no not add beef as many recipes call for, but we spice ours up with garlic, onions, salt, sugar, and some sunflower oil (product of Kenya). We now have borscht, pasta, stir fry, and beans/rice/potatoes as the menu options. Not too shabby.

Who knew borscht was so good? Ukrainians, Russians, lots of
Eastern Europeans, and a couple of our Australian friends, who introduced us
to this celebration of the root crop.

We skip out on the dining hall food for breakfast and usually dinner. If they are serving cassava greens, I also skip lunch. Some argue that we should be there for every meal to be with the kids, but I spend a lot of time outside of meals helping kids. Food is an important part of how I stay motivated.

Rice. I eat you every day.

Sometimes there are hard-boiled eggs (rarely more than once a week). ASYV produces its own eggs, but many of them are sold in the capital. The dining hall serves meat about once a three-month term. Meat is very expensive compared to grains and vegetables. This is true for ASYV as it is for people outside the village. I  remember seeing some chickens for sale after their egg-laying days were done (very little chicken is eaten here otherwise), and I asked a security guard if he would buy one. He explained why he would not: one chicken costs 3000 RWF ($5), but he could purchase 30 eggs for that same price. Even a single goat-on-a-skewer brochette, fairly cheap at 300 RWF, costs the same as a full plate of rice, beans, potatoes, and bananas.

Brochettes are grilled chunks of goat meat and fat. We don't eat them often,
but they are a nice change in taste. There are two stands you can
buy brochettes at the local marketplace.

We did not eat much meat before coming here (Michele was a vegetarian entirely). We still don't eat much. I get the impression that Rwandans in general do no eat much meat, but I think it is more related to economics than any moral sensibility. In neighboring Uganda, where per capita income is higher, I observed that meat is much more of a fixture on the plate. Chicken, beef, goat, and fresh fish were widely available in local restaurants (obviously these things are available in tourist places), and I saw a lot of Ugandans eating animal proteins.

Dried fish is a local source of protein, but I don't eat them.
Their bones would actually be a good source of calcium, as people just
cook them in sauce and eat them whole.

We supplement what we eat in the village with food from the local marketplace, about 1.5 km down the hill.

Standard fare at a local restaurant in the nearby marketplace. This plate of
chips (potato wedges), rice, cooked bananas, and bean/veggie stew
costs 300 RWF, about 50 cents. 

Tropical fruits: yellow bananas, avocados, limes, and a couple varieties of
orange-tangerine-like fruits. When in season, mangoes are also grown

Samosas! These little wraps of fried filo dough filled with potatoes,
green onions, and hot pepper are the absolute culinary delight of my
experience here. I eat them every Tuesday and Friday when I go to the market.

Tomatoes are good, but I have had a couple bad experiences eating raw
ones. I now only use them to cook into stews and sauces.

Fresh at the market. Note the rosemary for sale in the upper left, which is
another herb that grows well here. The yellow fruits in the center
are a local eggplant called inhorge. I don't care for their bitter taste, but
most Rwandans I know like them.

People here think its hilarious when I tell them how
much it costs in the United States for fresh pineapple.
Shipping pineapples has to provide most of that cost-
eat local fruits!

One of the major differences here is the lack of refrigeration. Some local stores have it, as do plenty of places in Kigali. Refrigerators are expensive up front, but they are massive energy users. With no guarantee that electricity will be constant, you also run the risk of losing what is in the fridge. For this reason, things like cheese and butter are totally absent from our diet. You can buy cheese in Kigali- you can get Indian, Chinese, even pizza in the capital- but Michele and I rarely go there. We have eaten each of the aforementioned specialties only once in Rwanda (we didn't eat at restaurants in New York much either). We prefer to cook our own food or eat local inexpensive food (we save money that way for more important things, you know, like chasing down rare birds).

The fish plate, from a restaurant on Lake Muhazi, is local food for sure
but prepared for the likes of visitors. Priced at 3500 RWF ($5.83 USD),
there is no way most local people could afford this sort of meal. I have only
had it twice, as it is a 1+ hour motorcycle-minibus taxi-motorcyle journey away.
Also, this type of meal eats up 2% of my monthly stipend, not including
transport. Alternatively, for the same amount, I could buy 12 pineapples
or 70 samosas.  Easy decision.

Milk and a yogurt-like drink are very popular with local people. I find it
a bit sour for my taste. Michele likes it and has a favorite milk shop
that has a good refrigerator.

Without much meat or dairy products, most of what we eat is vegan. This is not a reasoned choice as much as it is a product of what is locally available and the lack of refrigeration.

A vegan chapatti taco. With a few friends, we have a fiesta night
every couple weeks. You find ways to spice up the constant
rice and bean combo. 

A large bowl of guacamole I made for a group of guests, with chapatti
for dipping. Chappati is a flat bread sort of like pita and is made locally.
I gathered the avocados from some forgotten trees near our nature park,
picked the basil from my garden, and bought the rest
from the market 1.5 km down the road. Local food, huh?

Lunch at another local restaurant. This meal included bean/veggie stew
and cooked bananas. Avocado was extra, but there was an interesting
sort-of-alcoholic fermented pineapple drink that I enjoyed (except for the
floaties, but I only saw those when the camera flash illuminated them.
No electricity at this rural establishment).

So what foods do I miss? 

Sure, there are a lot of foods I would eat if I were in the States, but I don't really miss them. I do miss two things. The former staple of both Michele and my diet for years was the corn tortilla chip. I miss their crunch dearly. We rolled through nearly a 16 ounce bag a day, as they go with anything, are cheap, take less time than rice/noodles, and they are actually quite healthy if made from only corn, oil and salt. In the USA, I always had the problem of too many chips and not enough guacamole ($2 for an avocado, unless on sale). Now, I have so much guac and no chips. A cruel twist, for sure.

The only other foods I miss are my calcium sources. Chocolate milk, yogurt, and cheese were a regular part of my diet. They are delicious and calcium-rich. I don't miss the taste so much, but I am worried about my bones. These are available in the capital city, where refrigeration is more available, but I make it there no more than once a month.

I hope you enjoyed this sampler of Rwandan cuisine. Thanks for reading!


  1. You don't miss the taste of cheese, you're just worried about your bones? Who are you, what have you done with Jared?

  2. Too much guac and no chips? That sounds awesome! I love eating avocados with a spoon. Thanks for posting this. Oh, and if you weren't opposed to cassava greens, you'd get your calcium!

  3. Brad, I think the cheese-loving Jared got lost in the woods somewhere. I've taken over for the time being.

  4. Rawbean, You might like Rwanda because you can get all the avocados you want. They are a different variety than the ones I remember eating in the States. I still eat plenty of guacamole; salt, red onions, limes, and hot peppers are all grown locally. Cilantro would also be a nice touch, but I have yet to see it grown here (basil is ok for guac but not as good as cilantro).

    You are right about the cassava greens and calcium (although they are boiled here, which may affect calcium availability as it is water soluble). Apparently, cassava roots are also rich in calcium. Still, the taste of the roots is quite different than anything I have ever had, and the smell is even stranger. I am not yet a fan. Thanks for posting!