By Joseph Ondiek
Jean Rekemanganizi is the chief chef at the Red Rocks Cultural Centre in Nyakinama village, some seven kilometres west of Musanze town, northern Rwanda. He has been working at this widely renowned social enterprise, which promotes community tourism and conservation around the Virunga chain of volcanic mountains, for a couple of months now.
Rekemanganizi knows that when tourists and other visitors come to this establishment, they are not only to be received with a big smile, but also that they’ve come to experience something different. Some visitors who come to Red Rocks would love to enjoy Rwanda’s traditional cuisine and he and members of his kitchen staff are always ready for such special requests.
“When we receive such request, a member of the kitchen staff goes to the nearby Kinkware market to purchase ingredients that are going to be used to make the particular choice of traditional food. These are always fresh produce that are going to make mouthwatering meals,” he says.
A traditional Rwandan breakfast consists of sweet potatoes and porridge. Lunch and dinner may consist of boiled beans, bananas, sweet potatoes or cassava. Umutsima (a dish of cassava and corn), isombe (cassava leaves with Eggplant and spinach) and mizuzu (fried plantains) are common dishes. Dinner is the heaviest meal.
Between meals, Rwandans often snack on fruits. Tropical fruits such as avocados, bananas, mangos, pineapple, and papaya are abundant in Rwanda. Roadside vendors in urban areas sell roasted corn and barbecued meat.
Rwandan food is neither spicy nor hot. People eat simple meals made with locally grown ingredients. The Rwandan diet consists mainly of sweet potatoes, beans, corn, peas, millet, plantains, cassava, and fruit. The potato is now very popular, thought to have been introduced by German colonialists.
Rekemanganizi says that there are some visitors to Red Rocks who specially want to have the experience of home away from home, and since traditional Rwandan cuisine resembles many found in regional countries, they are always prepared to fulfill such requests.
For instance, he says, they have had visitors from Kenya who, during their stay at Red Rocks, normally ask for Ugali.
Ugali is known by many different names across Africa (ubugari, fufu, posho) and is a staple in many countries around the Great Lakes region and southern Africa. It’s made of maize or cassava flour and water and cooked to a sort of dough or porridge-like thickness. It’s usually eaten by grabbing a lump of it, rolling it up into a ball and dipping it into sauce.
“There are some people who love it, though most visitors from outside Africa don’t. But if you are one of those who are into Ugali, then you can grab it at Red Rocks,” he says.
Another favorite local dish for local visitors is Ibirayi. This side dish of fried potatoes is usually offered up at Red Rocks with a plate of brochettes. They’re tasty potatoes cut in half, spiced, and deep fried. But he says that you should beware that ordering one ibirayi will mean one whole potato (two halves). “Done right they’re crispy and golden and delicious. Add a bit of pili pili for some spice,” he says.
Isombe is a rich favorite Rwanda local food made from cassava leaves. When making it here, as the chef explains, the ingredients include 500 g cassava leaves, washed and chopped (or other greens such as kale, collard greens), 6 spring onions, chopped 500 g spinach, 2 medium cubed eggplants,
2 sliced green bell peppers, 3 tbsp peanut butter, 3 tbsp palm oil.
The procedure for making Isombe includes washing the cassava leaves to free them from any dirt then adding them to salted water, boiling till tender. Once tender they add the chopped onions, spinach, eggplants and green peppers and continue to cook for about 10 minutes.
To this they add peanut butter and palm oil to the mixture and form a smooth paste. They simmer it for 10 minutes till the sauce thickens. This can be served with any carbohydrate especially rice. With bread it is also a delicacy for those who have tasted it.
Peterson Akandinda has for many months been doing his internship at Red Rocks Rwanda restaurant. He says that most of the traditional foods are normally prepared during monthly cultural events organized by Red Rocks, where visitors and locals come together to share in Rwanda’s rich culinary.
“During such occasions, we have a special traditional place and hearth, away from our modern kitchen at the restaurant, where such foods are prepared, using traditional cooking equipment,” he says.
“What I like about Red Rocks is the wide choice of food they provide. You can choose to have the ‘normal’ food you’re used to or request for local food that gives you a whole new culinary experience. The good thing is that you can help in cooking it!” says Patricia Sauer, an American tourist who recently camped at the Red Rocks Cultural Centre for two days.