My whole life I’ve been particular about what I eat. I’ve always claimed I’m not picky; I just elect to ingest food that stimulates, not depresses, my taste buds. Veggies always took a backseat in my personal food pyramid. I clarify to friends and family I can count the kinds of vegetables I eat on one hand: broccoli, green beans, cauliflower, peas and cucumber. I enjoy some borderline veggies. Avocado is technically a fruit. Corn is formally a starchy grain. I can stomach lettuce and spinach but never on its own merit, always with Blue Cheese, Caesar or Italian salad dressing and a slew of croutons.
I made the conscious decision before I left for Rwanda to try unfamiliar meals. I expected the absence of the security of Chipotle, a burger joint, pizza parlors or a basket of wings — the latter I’ve come to miss the most and wish to be my first meal back in the States. At peace with the departure of several American comfort foods, I landed in Rwanda ready to take on a diet of whatever was available. Even if that meant my palate would curse me along the way.
I have to say, I didn’t expect the kind of cuisine I’ve stumbled upon. The diets of Rwandans don’t venture too far off the tracks. Carbohydrates are the name of the game, and they’re everywhere.
In Kayonza, buffet-style restaurants line the main road. There’s a joint we were told to avoid called “Friends.” Don’t ask me why. Another outside the bus park is named “Mama Doreen,” hard to miss at night with its neon-resembling, multi-colored sign. A third labeled “Hakuna Matata – A Pork Joint,” displays its title on the front of a weathered storefront in dark letters, but paradoxically has no pork available. Then there’s “Difference,” the hole-in-the-wall self-serve buffet where I’ve come to call myself a regular.
The layout at “Difference” never strays from routine. The walk-in entrance exposes a crowded hallway formed from a line of hungry customers, workers rushing about and patrons leaning too far back from their table in double-stacked plastic lawn chairs. Iron trays, some divided in half, stretch alongside the right wall with hot plates underneath. The left-most tray holds plain spaghetti noodles up top and white rice below. In the next tray over, there’s fried rice in one opening and in the other, mitoke, a mixture of cooked bananas that taste like potatoes and are soaked in a mild, tomato-base gravy. Then, a full tray of “chips” — potatoes resembling poor man’s steak fries. One more over, cassava is separated above a section of pumpkin in an auburn sauce. Thereafter, lumpy pinto beans and a second serving of mitoke, this time, boiled plain. Lastly, in the top right platter, sits individual pieces of beef with plenty of bone still attached, and in the final rectangle, a murky soup-like mixture of grinded greens called isombe. Depending on the day, and if you’re lucky, yellow bananas will end out the rotation on the remaining short corner of the folding table.
Fortunately, I don’t mind eating pounds and pounds of rice. My self-serve product at each trip, and it never wavers, is a full plate of the fried rice and beans. We learned you can ask for a watery, fried beef soup on the side, a nice change of pace. The whole meal rounds out to be 1,500 RWF (the equivalent of just under $2 USD).
On nights I want to fulfill my craving for meat, I walk into Midland Motel or Janeiro Bar for goat brochettes and chips. Every bar serves brochettes. Brochettes are kebabs on a wooden stick. Exactly what you’d picture. Goat is chewy. A substandard batch could leave you gnawing away at fat for a few minutes. I will say though, I relish in the taste of the lightly charred and seasoned farm animal. The only drawback is the sight of numerous goats “bahhhhhing” alive and well on the daily. I watch them struggle while tied up by ropes in local yards. I imagine what it would be like to see one butchered; I wonder if my fondness for brochettes would vanish. I don’t ponder long, however, and I don’t let my fleeting thoughts persuade me to disgruntle my inner carnivore.
Home cooking is limited. A bakery and the local market is just a minute’s walk from our house, which is nice, but there’s only so much available. My daily breakfast is two slices of bread topped with smeared peanut butter, sliced bananas and drizzled honey. I don’t necessarily like to cook, so sometimes Liz is a saint and cooks a meal for multiple servings. We’ve prepared fried rice, vegetable stir-fry, spaghetti with tomato sauce, eggs (some hard-boiled, unbeknownst to us) and mashed or diced potatoes all from a propane-generated stovetop.
Some extremes? I’ve seen grasshoppers snatched by delighted children knowing they’ll hand the insects over to their mothers to fry up in a pan with tomato paste. I once went to a bar in Rwinkwavu where the brochettes weren’t exactly of goat meat, but instead goat innards. I innocently chewed into a slimy, crunchy mixture of intestines and God knows what else.
To my disappointment, apples and oranges are a luxury. I bargained over a bundle of each for a couple minutes with a guy named Alfred who more than likely had them shipped in from Kigali. I prevailed, but it still cost me, and they didn’t last long. In Rwanda, apples and oranges can be compared; they’re both too expensive.
Anyway, someway somehow, I’m well fed. I’m filled with lots of carbs and lots of goat. That pretty much covers village eating.
Now I’m starving.
Damn, I could use some wings.