Friday, October 9, 2009

Eating in Kigali

After one month here in Kigali, I have dropped several pounds (maybe 10???). None of my pants fit any more and I am no longer “busting” out of all my shirts (pun intended). People want to know my secret and I don’t have an answer. I only know I am okay with this! I have been trying to shed some pounds for ages. And, rest assured, I am totally healthy, which had been one of my main concerns about living here. But no longer, though I remain vigilant.

I have mostly adopted the Rwandan habit of not eating until noon. Thus, I usually just have a café au lait in the morning, using the little stovetop espresso pot I brought and boiled water, powdered milk and sugar. Sometimes I have a chapatti, made by Simon early in the morning, with melted cheese. He makes the best chapattis and I am trying to learn all the secrets from him. It helps to have invested in a non-stick pan to cook them in! For awhile we had fruity cornflakes, which was nice with fresh milk (cheap at 300 RWF/litre, but needs to be heated to almost boiling to ensure safety).

The cheese here is very good though too expensive for most people. The most common cheese is medium soft and encased in rind. It tastes like a mild cheddar/brick combination. We eat a lot of cheese (3000 rwf for a 6”x 2” round). We also eat lots of eggs (100 RWF/egg) in omelet form. The other thing we try to eat a lot of is fish, which is also expensive but worth it (4000/kilo). The two main fishes are Tilapia and Capitaine, both a firm white fish. The struggle is always to dream up ways to cook them that don’t involve frying in tons of oil, which is the usual way of cooking things here – fry everything up in oil, which, sadly, is mostly palm oil. Simone found a can of coconut milk at one point and made the most amazing dish, but we haven’t been able to locate another can. Almost everything here is cooked from scratch. There is very little processed food, and what there is, you pay for dearly. Like a can of coconut milk…

Thus, the diet is somewhat bland. The blandness of the diet is mainly because the use of spices, except salt (which is laid on in abundance), is not part of the culture. Indeed, although some spices are available (for a price), no one knows what to do with them. I brought a bag of spices with me: basil, oregano, curry, chili powder, cumin, dill. For me, the basics. So we are able to make some pretty tasty things. Also, tomatoes here are a staple. They are small tomatoes, rather like Romas but not. They are full of flavour and can be found in abundance. Onions and garlic are also easy to find. It takes some doing, but fresh ginger is also available and can really make a dish quite amazing.

Food prices have tripled since the economic meltdown last year. Some people are really struggling to get by. I struggle with paying some amounts, but only because everything is cash. There is just one place in town that takes Visa. So it feels as though I am bleeding money sometimes. Everything is pay as you go, from telephones, to internet to electricity to gas. And of course the numbers feel so big. When I actually stop to think about it, I am okay. But when something as simple as coffee says 4,500 RWF on it, I balk! I mean, the coffee is made here, man! But that is only $9 CDN, and I would pay that much at home too. And more.

The staple foods for Rwandans are beans, rice, potatoes, bananas, a weird kind of eggplant, sorghum and plantains. And fruit! There are many varieties of flour here made from vegetables and grains I don’t know. Manioc flour, peanut flour (!), sorghum flour. I have been served these things, but, like Rwandans faced with spices, I don’t know what to do with them myself. So I seek out the familiar, like flour and pasta for my starches, though always white. We have found a source of whole grain bread though, though it is $3 per loaf. But it’s worth it. I think here it is a bit like America at the time of Wonder Bread; everyone thought it was the most awesome thing. But it turned out to be not that good for us after all. Here all bread is made from white flour. So actually the people with the least money probably eat the best since oil is expensive, as are meat and fish and eggs. So they tend to fry less and cook more sauces.

Last weekend, I went shopping with Simon at a big market about 2 km from the centre. He doesn’t get out very often, because he is supposed to be guarding the house. So this was a real outing for him. He showered and changed his clothes several times before he was ready! We walked there in blazing heat (undoing the effects of our showers!), stopping halfway for a Fanta and to mop our faces. (Oh yes, soda pop is “in”! But not diet, unless you are willing to pay double the price.) Very refreshing.

At the market, Simon and I went with my list and my cloth shopping bags to find what we needed. The market was enormous and so overwhelming. Mountains of beans in all directions, piled on tables. Big bags of flour and sugar and salt. Stallls filled with all manner of fruits and vegetables. Meat and fish stalls. And people everywhere. Women peeling garlic. People selling, people buying, people haggling. The smells, sounds and sights were really something.

Simon was so helpful because we kind of understand each other and he can bargain in Kinyarwanda. Lots of people were very eager for my money, ready to gouge the muzunga. But he got us good prices. We came away with tomatoes, avaocadoes (the best!), pineapples, papayas, cilantro (for salsa) and basil (for pesto), all at good prices. I had wanted to find black beans, my favourite, and they had everything but. Also at the market, we looked for some tools for the house: a hammer, a pitchfork (for the new garden), a wrench, a file (to sharpen the hoes and spade (you would be proud John)). Simon haggled good prices for everything. We took moto-taxis home, Simon with a massive smile on his face, worth a million dollars1

Simone and I have been out for several moderately priced restaurant meals in various contexts. I have not dared to go into the many local (and cheap) restaurants, because I would feel unsure of the food safety measures in place. But we have eaten Italian (pasta dishes at Sole Luna), Indian (Kameer), American (a very good hamburger at Bourbon Cafe), North African (couscous dishes at Shocola), and Rwandan (grilled meat and fish kebabs at Baobab). All equally good in their distinctive ways. But especially, set in the loveliest locations! Very romantic, very magical. Well except Bourbon Café, which is in a mall, although it is lovely too, especially on the terrace.

There are some foods that are part of my normal diet or Simone’s that we simply can’t find here. Raisins, fresh nuts, prunes, high fibre cereal, whole grain flour, brown rice, potable tap water, fresh juicy apples, good (trustworthy) yogurt and Smarties! Things that are available but super expensive are ice cream ($20/tub), butter ($6/½ pound), wine ($12/bottle), flour ($8/2 kg), honey ($5/jar but worth every franc), peanut butter ($3 for one cup, but ground from fresh peanuts – yum!), olive oil ($8/litre but a staple for us, used rather sparingly), chocolate ($22/big Toblerone bar). And so on. So we do splurge on these things every once in a while, just to feel rich and lucky and indulgent. But not the Toblerone so far… ; ) Not even a small one… : (

One of the things I found at the market last weekend was a small can of yeast. Tonight, I hope to make us little individual pizzas, baked in the toaster oven. I may splurge on a bottle of red wine to go with. Preparation will be a production for sure, taking much of the afternoon and early evening! But then the food will be ready, and Simone, Simon and I will sit down to a meal together, giving thanks for all we have, and enjoying every mouthful.

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