In Rwanda, one of the greatest adjustments has been the daily task of cooking. My house came equipped with some of the basics: nine various-sized pots with lids, a small non-stick frying pan that has lost nearly all non-stick coating, spatula and other cooking utensils, plates, bowels, mugs, silverware, and several plastic storage containers. Appliance inventory: stove with one working burner (out of four) with broken switch, non-working oven, non-working hot plate, small fridge (in the dining room), and wonderful, and magical hot water kettle that boils water in less than five minutes. In America, I never see these kettles (especially since you have those fancy “microwave” contraptions to heat water quickly), but you don’t know what you are missing out on. That convenience aside, cooking, mostly because of my one-burner situation, can be a slow process.
This post is inspired by my dear friend who writes a cooking blog that I have been avoiding as of late- her food is so delicious, and now that she and her cooking at 9283 miles away (trust me, I checked), it just makes me salivate and miss home. Thus, in honor of Ai, I present my own step-by-step recipe for homemade tomato sauce, slightly adjusted from its usual form and adapted to the East African environment.
Spicy Tomato Sauce from Scratch (TRULY)
Time: Don’t ask.
Serves: One hungry teacher for a week (we hope).
– Lots of illicitly purchased tomatoes (several kilos/pounds- who knows how many)
– 3 small onions
– 4-5 peeled garlic cloves
– 4 small green peppers
– 1 small hot pepper (in this case, a small orange one)
– Cooking oil
– Salt to taste
Step 1: 7:30am.
Plug in stove. Take a wild guess at which setting on the single burner is the hottest one. Fill pot with hot water from the kettle. Put it on the burner. Go write emails until the water boils.
Step 2: 8:30am.
Check water. Still not really boiling. Go back to laptop and try to download Masterchef. Swear at internet several times. Write more email.
Step 3: 8:45am.
Wash tomatoes. Throw out the moldy ones. Spend several minutes examining those that are a little odd, with strange spots. Shrug and decide that they will be boiled to death and can’t possibly give you a strange tropical disease. Slice an “x” into the top of each one, at the stem. If water is starting to show the slightest sign of boiling, start to add to water, cooking for several minutes until the skin starts to peel away from the tomato. Fish done tomatoes out and put into cold water bath. Repeat until all tomatoes are in cold water bath. Peel skins from the tomatoes and put them back into the main pot.
Step 4: Chop Chop!
Start chopping your other vegetables: onions, garlic, green peppers, and one hot pepper. This is the place where you get to be creative. I tend to add the vegetables that are right on the verge of complete disintegration. Be careful when you chop the pepper and wash hands very thoroughly before wiping nose unless you too want to experience nostrils of fire. Cry copiously as you chop the onions. Try to chop everything very fine, which isn’t very possibly with your large solitary knife. Cut finer. Get a band aid.
Step 5: Sauté
Remove the pot with the peeled tomatoes. Put on another pot and add a small amount of oil. Wait again for the pot to get hot enough. Possibly activities: eating Nutella straight from the jar, washing dishes, checking if internet is functioning, practicing Kinyarwanda words, etc. Start to sauté garlic and hot pepper then add the rest of the vegetables and deposit all of it into main pot.
Step 6: Foiled again
Find two cans of tomato paste purchased from the supermarket. Realize I don’t have a can opener. Look at knife for a fleeting moment before deciding that is a terrible idea that will probably end in a trip to the urgent care (far) down the street. Put tomato paste cans away and put “can opener” on Kigali shopping list.
Step 7: Contemplate
Add cooked vegetables to the pot of peeled tomatoes. Using a slotted spoon, try to smash everything as much as possible. At some point, you will probably (if you haven’t already reached this point) give up on this being a sauce and consider it more of a “strange soup” which can put served over coffee or pasta.
Step 8: Boil, Smash, Repeat!
Let it cook for a while until you are comfortable with the consistency. Keep it covered, and every so often, uncover, smash the ingredients with the slotted spoon, and cover again. Spend some time thinking wistfully about basil, oregano, and thyme; search Kinyarwanda dictionary for these words. Add spices to Kigali shopping list.
Finish: Add cooked pasta. Eat. Be happy.
The experience of cooking here is all an elaborate lesson in patience. It’s yet another reminder of the comforts of American living that you take for granted when in the States. It gives you time to think, to act consciously, to slow down, to reflect. At least for today, I’ve made enough to last the week, and the slow food movement won’t need to start again (to this extent) until next week.