[~ 7 minutes]

Listening to: Etana, On my Way

{In case you’re wondering, “Uganda? Uhm, but why?”, an intro to these Ugandan Portraits may be found here.}

My deepest thanks go to Kato and Liz for their great help in sharing with me what they know about Ugandan food, and in this case, most particularly matooke.

One of the funniest conversations I recall witnessing (and, I confess, encouraging) in Uganda was the criticism leveled at Italian food by, let’s call him E: Italian food is, in E’s opinion, much less diverse than Ugandan food. And he’s been to Italy—and hosted by Italians!—, so he’s had a sample of the country’s cuisine.

This is akin to gastronomical sacrilege to an Italian. No, really. We were lucky nobody ended up stabbed with a fork.

The reasons put forward by E were the following: in Italy, everything boils down to pasta. It’s always pasta cooked in one way or the other, mixed with one sauce or the other. So, the starchy basis of diet is always the same.

In Uganda, on the other hand, you have many different starchy possible basis: you have matoke, or Irish potatoes, or sweet potatoes, or cassava, or millet, or maize… And each of these, you can combine with many sauces.

This had my Italian companions sputtering protests and shaking their heads at top-speed in denial. Ma no!, absolutely, most emphatically not the case, so the conversation went.

It was vastly amusing to see—and so much fun to encourage, too.

In truth, cuisine in Uganda is not as highly stratified and differentiated as in Italy, nor Europe more generally—or India, or China, or any other Eurasian, hierarchical society one might think of. It is at times like this, that I think again of Goody’s Cooking, Cuisine and Class as a book addressing a question that’s puzzling if you go south of the Sahara: why no cuisine in black Africa? (with exceptions, eg. Ethiopia)

However, E does have a point, an important one in my opinion: the wide variety of starchy staples that are grown and consumed in Uganda.

Oddly enough, their provenance is usually non-African. Manioc (Manihot esculenta Crantz) is American, as is maize (Zea mays L.), Irish potatoes (Solarum tuberosum L.), and sweet potatoes (Ipomoea batatas (L.) Lam) (these two, by the way, taste exquisitely well grown on Ugandan soil). Sorghum (Sorghum bicolor (L.) Moench) is 100% African; millet, I’d have to see which kind they refer to, but to my knowledge African millets do exist and are cultivated in northern Uganda.

But, matoke now. Matoke, or matooke*, being the indigenous name for ‘local cooking bananas’ (Musa sp.).

*I’ll use both spellings because both seem to be valid when checking it up, and because whereas Kato, my informant n.01, uses matooke, Liz, collaborator n.02, spells it with one O.

There’s a mystery, that only now I’ve begun to become acquainted with.

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Not everybody in Uganda relies on matoke as a staple; however, for many Ugandans, it seems to be one of the foods that most often come to mind when you ask them, “So, what’s the food like in Uganda?

The first recipes that Liz, my lovely correspondent and friend, sent me about Ugandan food were, indeed, about matoke.

musa-nakasero
Bananas at Nakasero market, Kampala

In the central regions of the old kingdom of Buganda, where Kato (my other expert and collaborator concerning Ugandan food here) comes from, indeed matooke is one of the main crops, along with sweet potatoes. There are also sweet bananas, but that’s a different crop (ameenvu).

When I’ve asked my Ugandan friends and acquaintances about the difference between matooke and sweet bananas, some are convinced that they’re one and the same, just the former is still green and the later is ripe. Others tell me they’re different kinds of bananas—as Liz put it, “green bananas – matoke; yellow bananas – bogoya”, this latter term being the Luganda word for sweet bananas that can be eaten raw, as opposed to matoke which must perforce be cooked.

Diving into the literature, one must conclude that Liz and Kato are right: matooke and bogoya are indeed distinct banana types, not only in kitchen matters but in genetic ones, too.

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If we dive into kitchen matters, matooke, or so Liz tells us, can be prepared in many different ways. Two of the most common ones are steamed matooke, or boiled matooke; then, you can also combine it with other ingredients and prepare a sauce in which matooke will be stewed, a meal I understood is called katogo.

(Curiously enough, I have seen no evidence of ovens in Uganda in home cooking. When I asked about it to an Italian who is only now beginning to import baking ovens into the country, he confirmed that Ugandans don’t bake much—so, no baked matoke for you. However, when I asked another friend from the slum, he assured me they did have, and indeed use, ovens. I remain a bit sceptical, as I recall having read something about this oven-less state in black Africa kitchens. Will have to conduct further research on the subject.)

If you happen to have matooke nearby, and want to steam it, this is what you will need:

· a sauce pan
· matoke,
· banana leaves,
· stalks from the matoke plant,
· water
· and a knife

As you can see, it’s not all in the fruit; the leaves, and even the pseudo-stalk will come in handy when cooking matoke.

So, the recipe is as follows (I’ve introduced minimal alterations to Liz’s instructions, but the words are mostly her own):

1. Start by peeling matoke very well;
2. Wrap the peeled matoke in banana leaves;
3. Put a small amount of water in a sauce pan; add the stalks to act as foundation for the the banana leaves to set on in the sauce pan, and then place the pan on the stove;
4. Steam the matoke for a few hours;
5. Squeeze the matoke (while still wrapped in the banana leaves) to mash it.
6. Serve hot; can be combined with any sauce of your liking, eg. beef stew, groundnut sauce, fish sauce, or pork sauce, if you want to remain faithful to the Ugandan way*.

* however, I don’t think they’d be adverse to getting creative and throwing in a different sauce, if they could. Frank and I cooked cassava with pesto, because he’d much enjoyed the sauce before and there was a jar left in the kitchen.

Mashed matooke

If steaming seems far too long a procedure, or you have no banana leaves around to do all the wrapping, a quicker way of cooking your matoke is boiling it:

1. Peel the plantains (matoke);
2. Put them in a sauce pan with water;
3. Place the sauce pan on the stove; bring to boil, and let cook for a few minutes;
4. Serve hot with any sauce.

Boiled matooke
Matooke boiled in water. Photo courtesy of Liz

If you want to incorporate your matoke into the sauce during the cooking process, instead of mixing them at the end, you can prepare katogo of matoke. For this, you shall need:

matooke (no surprises here);
– onions (not originally Ugandan as a crop);
– tomatoes (the American crops are also a big hit in the Pearl of Africa);
– green pepper (… what was I saying about American crops?)
– garlic (one point for Eurasia!);
– eg. meat stew, or beef broth;
– oil (usually palm oil, I believe, but sunflower is not unheard of).

The way to go about it is the following:

1. Peel the banana plantains (matoke), and slice into chunks;
2. Heat oil in a sauce pan; add sliced onions and stir until they turn brown;
3. Add sliced tomatoes, green pepper, garlic and salt to taste;
4. Add meat stew or beef broth, and cook until ready;
5. Add banana plantains (matoke); cover and let simmer on low heat until plantains are tender.
6. Serve when hot.

Katoogo of matoke with rice. Photo courtesy of Liz :)
Katoogo of matoke with rice. Photo courtesy of Liz 🙂

When I talked to Paul, from the Eastern district of Mbale, he told me that for them, matoke is one of the main crops grown and eaten, and that for it being more watery (than eg. maize, millet), is preferred by women. According to him, there are at least 3 types of bananas: matoke, sweet bananas, and bananas for brewing.

Because, yes, alcohol is brewed from bananas. But we’ll get there another day, I believe.

Now, on with the Matoke Mystery, or: African bananas’ slightly convoluted genetic stories

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Notes

Sometimes, asking the locals is a source of confusion rather than clarity. My trying to untangle the difference (or lack thereof) between Liz’s bogoya, and Kato’s ameenvu only got me into further bananistic chaos. According to Kato, bogoya are roasted before eating, whereas [a]meenvu are eaten raw when ripe enough. Charles confirms something quite similar: “ameenvu are small sweet bananas but bogoya are big and not very sweet as sweet bananas (ameenvu)”, and the latter are the ones mainly eaten raw.

Plus, according to the promusa.org website, bogoya refers to a specific variety of sweet bananas, ‘Gros Michel’. No information, on the other hand, on ameenvu, not even on Google… I’ll keep you informed if I get news on the subject.

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Sources

My sources for today are called Liz, Kato, Charles & Paul 🙂 but the hardcore, scientific stuff will come in the next articles… I’m not citing it here, but there shall be lots of it in a near future, oh yeah.

Illustrations

All pictures of food are by Liz : D; the other two, mine.

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