When a tourist visits, they, in most cases want to partake in everything of that area; sights, sounds and tastes. Uganda, is, as per popular expression gifted by nature in all the above. Uganda’s culinary offerings are as numerous as her tribes. They often include tropical fruits, grains, vegetables and root plants, though poultry, fresh and dried fish, and meats are also popular.
Luwombo is one of the unique delicacies, among Baganda, a tribe in Central Uganda. It is a meal prepared in a traditional wrap of tender banana leaves that are gently warmed over fire. The leaf is laid down into a basket where contents are placed.
If it is meat, it is usually roasted over fire first. The meat is then cut into pieces along with ingredients such as tomatoes, onions, carrots, garlic, among others. Oluwombo can be made from groundnut paste, chicken or mushroom. For additional flavour, salt or curry powder is added. Attention is paid when wrapping the meal.
The ingredients are fastened with banana fibre. The way the Baganda prepare food is that one saucepan can prepare both the stew and what will accompany it. Whatever will accompany the stew for instance matooke is placed in the pan and oluwombo on top of it. You can also cook it separately.
Whereas it is widely available in restaurants that serve traditional meals, oluwombo is a delicacy for special occasions such as traditional marriage and wedding ceremonies.
Paulo Lubega, a field officer at Uganda Community Tourism Association (UCOTA), explains that initially oluwombo was prepared in a clay pot locally known as ensaka which has been replaced by saucepans, and served in ekibya, now replaced with plates.
UCOTA is a non-government organisation (NGO) that works with communities to empower them plan, manage and develop small scale tourism and handcraft enterprises.
Kampala Serena Hotel’s Mercy Kateera quotes her favourite chef, Anthony Bourdain, to stress the importance of traditional cuisine: “Food is everything we are. It is an extension of patriotic feelings, familial attachments, your personal history, your region, your tribe, your grandma. It is inseparable from those from the get-go.”
“Many customs in our society such as architecture sometimes became obsolete, a phenomenon that seldom occurs with food. Gastronomy has a unique and fascinating way of preserving our cultural affirmation while contributing to the enrichment of our local customs. Take eshabwe for example, a rich creamy sauce made from ghee that was traditionally served in Ankole at almost every meal.”
She adds, “It was traditionally known to hold the Bahima fabric together in many ways. However, this has changed and eshabwe is now served like any other dish at special ceremonies or occasions as a condiment to compliment a main course of karo (millet meal), potatoes, matooke, beans, among others across Uganda.”
Eshabwe which almost tastes like mayonnaise, is a mixture of ghee with salt and water.
Karo, atap, or millet
Karo or kalo is special to the Banyankole and the Banyoro in western Uganda, and also among tribes in eastern Uganda, including the Teso region, where it is called atap, and among those in northern Uganda where it is called kal, as millet food or kwon kal for millet bread.
Robert Musiitwa, the public relations officer at Uganda National Cultural Centre (UNCC), or National Theatre, explains that kalo (millet bread) known as obwita among the Basoga where he comes from, has become a common delicacy among the locals.
“According to Namukose my late grandmother, this delicacy was originally not for Basoga but with time, it was adapted into our menu. Together as a family we harvested the millet, dried it and then pounded it to get the grains which were then mixed with dry cassava and then manually ground on the grinding stone (olubengo),” he explains.
He adds that the grinding was an activity where two or three ladies would grind on a rhythm and song.
“It was so captivating and interesting enough to lure us to try it out. The flour would then be mingled with boiling water to form the bread (obwita). Obwita is best with fresh or dry fish as the sauce. Others enjoy it with pasted beef/ikubi etc. I always look forward to this meal,” Musiitwa relates.
From the east, comes omugoyo, made out of the mixture of cooked sweet potatoes and boiled dry beans. matooke or green bananas is a stable food among the Baganda, a dominant tribe in central Uganda. When the banana fingers are cooked, they soften and the Baganda mash it in banana leaves and further steamed under fire.
Lubega also lists popular traditional foods which are nutritious, including balugu, kyetutumula, endaggu, all in the yam family.
“Ekobe which is a fruit from a vine; millet bread, cassava bread is mostly eaten with fish by a number of tribes. There is kamalewa, or bamboo shoots a delicacy eaten in the mountainous tribes of eastern Uganda then; pasted groundnuts or envuluga,” he adds.
Street food is ready to eat food sold by vendors, on streets or other public places. Sheraton Kampala Hotel recently introduced a street food menu, to offer its international guests to experience what the country has to offer in terms of culinary adventure. It is also an affordable option for Ugandan customers who are not comfortable with international cuisines.
“The Sheraton street food menu includes, rolex, gonja (plantain), maize and chicken, among others, to carter for all sections of the public,” Jacqueline Nalubega Mugisha, the hotel’s publicist, says.
“Indeed as a country, we do have an opportunity to use food as a selling tool for tourism, just as wine is to France, pasta is to Italy and seafood is to the Orient. Uganda has some very well-known traditional dishes such as the wide varieties of oluwombo cooked in a way that is distinct to our region, not to mention the many other local cultural foods that Uganda has. Then there is the ever popular rolex which as much as the name may not be original, the concept is simple and very affordable- likened to the street food cultures in Asia and South America,” Tendo Lukwago, assistant manager-sales, public relations and marketing at Golden Tulip Hotel, explains.
From feedback, Nalubega says most of the international guests want to experience all that they can from a country they visit.
She adds, “When you ask people of their impression of a place, one of the first things they will talk about is the food. Most street foods are ranked as both finger snacks and fast food and are cheaper on average than restaurant meals.”
Kateera says sometimes, Serena makes rolex for visiting celebrities.
“We also serve kabalagala (pancakes) on the breakfast pastry buffet. Kabalagala draws a lot of interest and usually flies off the buffet because it is categorised as a gluten free product which is of special interest to guests with allergies,” she adds.
Cultural enthusiast Lillian Bakko is a fan of street foods and nyama choma is her favourite bite.
“In Kampala, I have never tried street food because I am worried about their hygiene. One specific area I have enjoyed nyama choma is towards Masindi along Kafu Bridge,” she shares.
Popular traditional drinks are prepared from fruits for instance banana juice (Omubisi), which if fermented turns into a local a brew known as Tonto. There are also drinks made from sorghum such as busheera or enturire in its fermented state. There is also malwa and ajon which is made out of germinated millet and later fermented. These drinks are popular at cultural festivals.
Tapping tourism potential
Kateera says genuine interest in food has steadily increased in the last few years, ultimately transforming food tourism into a new global trend fuelled by countless unique food experiences shared digitally on social sites.
“Both domestic and international tourists are now determining their holiday destinations to follow a cuisine trail as they seek to explore the attractions of different local gastronomies in diverse regions,” she adds.
Moses Bakora, the organiser of Uganda Food Festival, has benefited from this trend.
“This year’s festival was better than last year’s because we had Oluwombo and other traditional meals which pull in crowds,” he explains.
The Rolex Festivals promoted by the Ministry of Tourism and Uganda Tourism Board (UTB), attract droves which attests to the popularity of the delicacy.