Ask anyone who has ever visited Uganda, even briefly, if there was one thing that stood out to them; they will probably say matoke. Matoke is a type of plantain, like starchy green bananas, and is eaten almost ubiquitously throughout Uganda so myself and the other thirteen UK volunteers have all become extremely familiar with it during our first couple of weeks in Kampala.
As some of us had heard before the trip, and in the minibus travelling with our team leaders through the outskirts of Kampala and to our training venue, matoke is essentially the national dish of Uganda. It’s eaten at almost every meal by many people – it’s filling, relatively cheap, abundant and (in my opinion – there are disagreements over this) tastes sort of like potato mashed with swede. On meeting our counterparts on the first Monday evening at Peace Cottages, our training site, I think matoke played a surprisingly large role in building introductions and friendships. It’s a bit of a Marmite food – some of the UK volunteers just could not get on board with it – and it was relieving to discover that in fact, many of the Ugandan volunteers also were not exactly fans, despite its national status. They do say people bond quicker over mutual dislikes!
Throughout the first week we all spent together, with so much new information, new people, training, and adjusting to the heat, sitting down together at mealtimes to eat matoke, beans and rice created a stable point. We could relax and begin to cement friendships whilst stuffing ourselves with starchy foods together. At this point, somewhere around the 7th serving of matoke, it began to sink in that we would be here for 3 months and that these people, foods and surroundings would soon begin to feel like home.
1. Traditional Matoke
This is steamed matoke, a staple food, and our only exposure to matoke throughout training week. Although not the only way, it is best when covered with its own leaves and steamed slowly, the traditional cooking method. It’s lightly mashed and can have a bit of a gluey texture, but when it’s done well this is a real comfort food. The best I’ve had so far is at a tiny place in a district called Kibuye, where you can get a full plate of matoke, rice, beans, sweet potato, cassava and avocado for 3000 Ugx (Ugandan shillings – about 64p). Joanna, my work partner, and I discovered it on our first day at work and have been back every weekday since for lunch!
2. BBQ Matoke
Very much a roadside snack! These coal fire BBQs are everywhere, with rows of matoke looking like bruised bananas slowly roasting over the fire. Street food is enormously popular in Kampala, in particular the ‘rolex’ – literally ‘rolled eggs’ – which is a fresh cooked chapatti topped with egg, peppers and tomatoes, and rolled up to eat on the move.
3. Baked Matoke
My personal favourite style – though I’ve only eaten the smaller ones like this – the skin is sliced and they are baked with Irish potatoes (‘Irish’ is what potatoes are called, otherwise you will be served sweet potato – not that that’s necessarily a bad thing!). This is much drier than steamed matoke, and with more texture, good for soaking up sauce from beans or peas, or peeled and eaten with tomatoes.
4. Matoke Chips/Crisps
These are more like thick crisps than chips – they look like sweet dried banana chips, but even unsalted have a rich and almost smoky flavour – very moreish. These are sold in small bags all over the city, especially in the taxi parks, where people will sell them in through the windows of taxis waiting to depart. (Interestingly, a ‘taxi’ or ‘matatu’ here refers to a small minibus style vehicle, with more seats than you’d think possible, which run their routes and pick up and drop off passengers along the way. If you need to order a taxi then you order a ‘private hire’ car.) A slightly more unusual snack which is also available round the edges of the taxi park is something which looks like small roasted crickets or locusts, bought by the scoop; personally, I’m sticking to the chips.
5. Stewed – ‘Katogo’
I’ve encountered some controversy over exactly what constitutes kotogo, but apparently the literal translation is ‘mixed’ and it generally refers to a mixture of foods cooked together as a stew rather than separately. My first introduction was as a breakfast dish – everything from the last few days cooked up together, with matoke as the main base – it neither sounds nor looks very appetising, but is surprisingly good and extremely filling. However, my second kotogo meal was cassava and beans, which I was assured was ‘real kotogo’ – so what kotogo contains exactly seems to be partly regional and partly just what happens to be left over from the day before!
Matoke may be a simple food, but like Kampala itself, it is hugely varied and constantly being reinvented in new ways. I’m sure as our placement develops there will be more lessons to learn, more surprises to come, and plenty more matoke.