Plates & Bottles

Rwanda is reforming me. No more burgers or quesadillas- I’m on the 95% vegan, 100% Nutella diet. One of the best parts of travel is the adventure of eating: always, always an adventure in Sub-Saharan Africa. It’s not all goats kebabs and dried insects, but it’s still a daily adventure. Here are a few plates and bottles… my food journey in the land of a thousand hills.

Rwandan Buffet

Rwanda isn’t a wealthy country. It’s not even a middle-class nation, though there seems to be a rising middle class emerging as investments in the country grow and high-rises pop up in Kigali. Beyond that, though, the grip of tradition is still strong. If you are Rwandan, and you are eating outside of the home, it’s probably at a buffet. This plate comes to you courtesy of the canteen at the university up the road from me, the University of Rwanda’s College of Agriculture and Veterinary Medicine (which sometimes gives me homesick pangs for Davis).

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The canteen is similar to the buffets, where patrons pile their fixed-price plate high with potatoes, stewed vegetables, and soups that serve as a softening sauce for everything else. Today, it’s chips (a staple), stewed cassava, a vegetable sauce of spinach, onions, and carrots, a small hunk of beef-something (meatball? Offal? Not sure), and delicious brown beans swimming pleasantly in a thin tomato sauce-soup. On the side- a deathly hot pepper, which I only rubbed on the food to impart heat. An actual bite of it would have surely resulted in death.

La Paliotte Pizza & Sandies

Pizza, and Italian food in general, is big here. It makes perfect sense: some of the best pizza ingredients are easy to come by. Vibrant tomatoes, leafy spinach, onions… throw in some fresh basil and fresh pasta and you’re halfway to lasagna. Pizzas tend to be unique: this particular one, from a resto-bakery called La Paliotte, had cooked cucumbers, and, as you can tell from the photo, cheese broiled on top.

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There’s just one type of Rwandan cheese, made from cow-milk and a little bit similar to Gouda. It’s a little spongy when cold and crispy when cooked. But it’s not too common, and I’ve only eaten it in restaurants. It makes an appearance again in this La Paliotte egg and cheese sandie: served up fresh baguette with a reddish mayo (not sure). and that bring us to the other 5% of my non-vegan lifestyle: Rwandan eggs, also known as small packages of heaven. The yolks are a vibrant orange, like a setting sun: almost red, similar to how Bill Buford describes Italian market eggs: “they came from grain-fed, half-wild, not just free-ranging but virtually proprietary chickens that produced a yolk more red than yellow” (from Buford’s fabulous book, Heat, 2006, p. 183). Il rosso– Rwanda’s got it.

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Home Cooking: Passion Fruit Pancakes

I don’t have a working oven- just the one burner on the stovetop. Most of what I eat is vegetable- and starch-based: soups, pastas, a lot of egg on toast. Pancakes are a new favorite. These were made with passion fruit, those gray seeds coated in sweet, orange-yellow viscous juice.

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Tonight, it’s sweet fruit pancakes with a perfectly ripe avocado and mini bananas. I see these babies much more often than their larger cousins: they are sweet and satisfying, the perfect size.

A Few Brews

Rwandans have a beer culture- although traditional beer here is made from bananas (sorry, Andrea), and I haven’t yet tried it. There’s a bit of a beer war between its two biggest beer companies: Primus and Mutzig. Primus is winning: the ubiquitous lapis blue is everywhere- bar owners get a free paintjob if it’s Primus blue with a large logo.

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It’s a light Pilsner that’s not remarkable, but very drinkable and a good partner to buffet. Better than Bud, and goes great with goat. How often do you get to say that?

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During one stay in Kigali, I dared to exit the Primus club for a darker variety. At home, I’m not crazy about dark beers, but they are a nice change of pace, with Maui Brewing Company’s Coconut Porter my absolute first love. The hostel worker who sold it to me was impressed- “you like dark beer?” Sadly, though , the Virunga Mist, named for the mountains that surround my home in Musanze, had little of the crisp dark bite you desire from a porter- it was sweet, almost syrupy, with an almost artificial aftertaste. Back to Primus!

However, it’s not beer but tea that draws each night to the close. Highland Rwandan tea, with sugar and milk, hot and comforting after a day of teaching, training, or tramping across hard-scrabble volcanic rock.

Muryohe rwe // bon appetit!


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