OTRWJ Uganda 2 – All Things Food

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All Things Food

Food is a big part of travel for me. I have an adventurous palate and vacations seem to give me permission to eat more than I would otherwise …particularly on this trip where four hours of tracking chimps, monkeys and gorillas through the brush at 4500 feet, up and down hills, over tree roots and through stinging nettles all seem ample justification for a hearty appetite.

But in Uganda, food isn’t casual or frivolous. Food is, for many, the day’s work. It may be a source of income. A source of medicine. It is rich in social customs. And if it isn’t food for humans, it is probably food for some other living thing.

For example, there is the tree commonly referred to as the elephant beer tree. This tree is covered with fruit that – when in season – the forest elephants find particularly tasty. But after gorging themselves, the fruit sits in their belly and actually ferments and, yep, makes them drunk. Apparently, per our guide, a drunk forest elephant is a pretty crazy thing, stomping and rampaging around the forest and making quite a mess of things.

Bananas. Bananas. Bananas. They are everywhere! Different size, shapes, and colors and all cooked different ways. There are acres of them spreading up the mountainsides; some growing wild and a few in every front yard. You see them loaded in trucks PICTURE, on motorbikes, on women’s heads. The green ones, steamed and mashed, are a diet staple at every meal. And they even turn it into gin.

Banana gin is uniquely Ugandan. There is one that is branded and marketed, although I was told it is basically just gin with a banana passed over it. The “real” stuff is distilled privately, kinda like moonshine. The shot I tried definitely smelled like banana (and gin), had a smokey flavor, and the burn of – well – moonshine!

Banana gin is useful, however, as relief from a cold or the flu. Mixed with honey, bottle brush sap, African fire flowers and eucalyptus, it is the Ugandan version of a hot toddy.

Of course, there are amazing fruits we have never heard of. I was keen on the jack fruit. But there are some only eaten by the monkeys, such as the sausage fruit and the testicle fruit. Yes. There is a Latin name, but it didn’t seem as descriptive!

I was lucky to enjoy a “traditional” lunch with a man who has done much to bring conservation practices to his village, raise education levels and promote responsible tourism. He explained the ritual of sharing coffee beans with guests. Like banana trees, every home has a coffee bean tree. When ripe, the beans are picked, roasted in the sun and then steamed over a mixture of herbs. Like growing grape vines and making your own wine, the flavor is unique.

When you visit a Ugandan in his home for the first time, as a gesture of welcoming hospitality, he will offer you a small pouch of his coffee beans wrapped up in a banana leaf. You take out a bean, break it open with your fingernail, remove the two beans that are inside and proceed to suck on them until soft, malleable and slightly chewy. Now the bean flavor may not be to YOUR liking, but it obviously is to your host. So you are polite and enjoy the beans.

Coffee beans have also, traditionally, been used among Ugandan men to form, what we would call, blood brothers. The outer shell is split. Each man takes a piece and makes a cut in his stomach. The two inner beans are then rubbed in the blood, exchanged, and put in the mouth to chew.

As ubiquitous as coffee is (Uganda’s #1 export), so too are tea plantations. Watching the people picking tea leaves and throwing them over their back into the basket reminded me of grape picking. A good worker can pick 199 kg. per day and is paid 80 Ugandan shillings per kg. About $3 per day.

With limited electricity in most of the country, my host explained food is not refrigerated. “It stays in the ground until we eat it. ” Ugandan for “farm to table.” The soil is so rich, there is no fertilizer. Any pest control is handled with a combination of red pepper and coal ash. Hence, it is also organic.

During our chimp tracking, explaining how chimps – like humans – can plan and organize, the guide told how chimps hunt for meat (antelope, wild pigs, monkeys). They hunt in groups of 40 or so, each with an assigned task: chase, herd, ambush, kill. Of course, food sharing is an issue with the alpha male typically getting his full first. With one exception.

If a female chimp is in heat and there has been a kill, she goes over to the alpha male and shows him her back side to get him interested. Assuming he is, he gives her a piece of the kill. She takes it and allows him to have his fun (a quick 4-7 seconds) and then proceeds to eat her dinner. So. Women of all species are similar: “buy me a nice dinner first and then…”

Janice

OTRWJ Uganda 2 - All Things Food originally posted on by Elegant Island Living magazine.

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