The culinary influence of Asians

What you need to know:

  • This month, 50 years ago, hundreds of Asians expelled by Idi Amin’s government flew out from Entebbe International Airport to seek new opportunities mainly in the United Kingdom and Canada.  
  • In this third instalment of our series marking the golden jubilee of the expulsion, Robert Madoi looks at how Asians and African foods interacted with each other to put something palatable on the plate.

Make of it what you will, but food provides the conceptual thread that knits together the before-and-after of expulsion of Asians from Uganda in 1972. A weighty study of misfortune and grief around the famines in the subcontinent between 1870 and 1890 suggests that they were one of the push factors for the Indian labourers that went on to build the East African Railway.

Once the railway was built from coast to hinterland, the Indian labourers—who were only with great difficulty able to come through the unsettling construction experience—unwittingly elevated subcontinent gastronomies to the realm of the sublime. But their suggestions did not suit everyone’s palate. Certainly that of Uganda’s army commander in 1968.

“I ...asked him why there were no Asian recruits. He looked down at me, a malevolent laugh burned up from his belly like lava, and he spat: ‘Because we do not eat chorocco [lentils] in the army. We are brave people, we Africans, we eat red blood meat. You are not African,” Ms Yasmin Alibhai-Brown offered a fine-grained analysis of her interface with Idi Amin in her 2008 memoir, The Settler’s Cookbook. A Memoir of Love, Migration and Food.

Ms Alibhai-Brown got the chance to meet Amin after being selected (one of only five Asians) to be part of a political boot camp. Despite being economical with meat and using beans, lentils and rice to fashion recipes such as Khichri, the indentured labourers recruited from India still worked energetically on the Kenya-Uganda railway from 1896 to 1903.

Not that this mattered nearly seven decades later. By the time Ms Alibhai-Brown graduated magna cum laude in English at Makerere University, Amin—now president of Uganda—had had enough of the people he believed routinely overlooked adding red meat to their diet.

In August of 1972, after making their way through a four-course meal, with beef unsurprisingly on the menu, representatives of the Asian community who gathered at Amin’s house—fearsomely referred to as the command post—learnt their fate. They were to leave Uganda in three months.

“I took this decision for the economy of Uganda, and I must make sure that every Ugandan gets (sic) a fruit of independence,” a poker-faced Amin said from the command post.

Ms Alibhai-Brown’s family was among the tens of thousands that yielded with reluctance and against their better judgment to take refuge in the United Kingdom. Born and bred in Kampala, she lived the first 11 years of her life “in a small flat above the main marketplace in [Uganda’s capital].”

Longing for matooke
Exiled from Uganda, Ms Alibhai-Brown took with her several mangoes which—as a little girl “peering through the lattice walls” on a balcony with a view of the marketplace—she had seen many thieves “grab … from some vendor.” When the immigration officer in England shot her a puzzled look, the defence was the mangoes are “for all the cousins, aunts and uncles, brother and his children; they miss Ugandan mangoes. If I leave any one of them out. I will not be forgiven.”

If she was not quite as free from guile and pretence as children are supposed to be, her first pregnancy while domiciled in England made her long “to eat spicy matooke more than anything. A wealthy friend smuggled some matooke in when she was over from Nairobi ... After six long years in exile, memory filled in the missing taste, and I was content after weeks of demented cravings.”

When the expelled Asians descended on the English midlands—10,000 of them in Leicester alone—their culinary skills turned around a place once infamous for its unpalatable food. Soon gastronomic itineraries ceased being difficult to understand or explain as natives—much like immigrants—entertained the thought of going out for a curry.

Cross-cultural encounters
In gastronomy, such is the interweaving that natives and immigrants work reasonably well together so much so they are either reproduced together or abolished together. The cross-cultural encounter in Uganda produced some stunning results.

“How common it is today to stop at a wayside kiosk and ask for chapatis or samosas, kebabs or bhajias? How many Kenyans [Ugandans, Tanzanians] realise the origins of these popular foods?” Ms Alibhai-Brown asked rhetorically in her memoir.

Chapatis trace their roots to the Indian subcontinent where they remain a staple food. With a vegetable omelette tucked in between its rolling, a chapati is a key ingredient in Uganda’s most sizzling street food after dark—the rolex.

Even before the rolex, culinary practices of natives and immigrants had inhabited a space with permeable territorial limits.

“Matooke with groundnuts is the first dish known to have come of [the] intimate encounter between black Ugandans and Indian settlers,” Ms Alibhai-Brown writes in her memoir.

Chapatis trace their roots to the Indian subcontinent where they remain a staple food. PHOTO/ABUBAKER LUBOWA

To further show that East African recipes were rarely spared cross-fertilisation episodes, Ms Alibhai-Brown references an intermixture that includes “coconut cassava”, “posho and rice”, “fruit pudding East African style”, “fried green tilapia”, “matooke with peanut curry”, “ngonja in coconut cream” and “chilli matooke.” This could be down to the fact that since time immemorial, East African natives have been known to have a flavoursome taste.

Ms Alibhai-Brown revealed: “When Ibn Batuta, the Arab explorer, wrote about his sojourn on the East African seaboard in 1324, he wrote: ‘Rice roasted with oil is placed on a large wooden dish. Over this they place a large dish of roasted meat, fish, flesh, fowl and vegetables ... they also cook unripe bananas in new milk.’ This rice dish, known as akni, has passed down the centuries and is, in an adapted form, a perennial favourite of East African Muslims.”

In a state of flux
It is important to be clear about what Ms Alibhai-Brown is not. She writes: “I am often invited by true-born bigots to [return] where I came from. Where would that be then? Kampala, where I was born? Karachi, where my father hailed from but left forever at 17 to come to his beloved England? Or Porbandar in the Gujarat in India, whence my maternal grandfather was dispatched as a small boy? Or Dar-es-Salaam in what was Tanganyika where my mother was born and raised?…”

So, one would expect the dishes passed down to her to have many strands. Ms Alibhai-Brown’s mother—Jena—however, had noticeably different priorities (studies) for her daughter whom she told there will be “plenty time in life to learn to cook.” Despite learning how to cook rather late, Ms Alibhai-Brown would go on to trust her instincts to slalom social transactions around food that “is constantly updated, adapted, altered, recast…”

Like any Ugandan Asian, she confesses to loving “bargains” as much as “fresh culinary ideas.” She takes great pride in “being able to turn wilted vegetables and the cheapest cuts of meat into delightful dishes.” When she settled in England following the 1972 expulsion, she found British milk to be “more creamy, white and pure than” options in Uganda.

She adds: “Other than milk, almost all food in Britain disappointed. British ingredients were cleaner and cooked miraculously fast, but there was something special in Ugandan soil and water. Meat too never smelled as strong as it did in England, as if it had been wiped with a damp, dirty cloth.”

To date, much like what Ms Alibhai-Brown recalls, a “dense stench of congealing blood hovering in the hot air [and] profusion of flies sweeping about audaciously” still typifies meat markets in Uganda. Chef Henry Wanyama, who is met with those conditions whenever he is replenishing stock for his Culinary School Uganda, opines that Ugandan adaptation to the culinary ingredients and indeed practices of Asians “is such that one can hardly exist minus the other.”

No place like home
Students at his school brush up their knowledge on recipes and passed-down cooking instructions from the culinary history of Uganda’s Asian community. Some of the students are of Asian descent.

“The influence of Asian spices and style of cooking cuts across and we dedicate an entire course unit for at least four weeks teaching the Asian cuisine,” he reveals.

The plasticity of recipes of Uganda Asians in England attests to the intricacies of food insofar as acting as a signifier of social relations is concerned. Ms Nisha Patel, whose parents lived in Uganda before relocating to the British city of Birmingham in 1970 where she was born, had this to say about the language of food: “We also inherited Ugandan cuisines here in the UK. We cook matooke, cassava and others.”

Such are the complexities of food that it can at once be inclusive and exclusionary. Amin’s dismissiveness of Uganda Asians on account of their vegetarianism reified the latter. Whether it also helped him come to the conclusion that Uganda was better off without Uganda Asians rests on a cornerstone of conjecture. It undoubtedly leaves us with food for thought.