RWANDA: THE LAND OF A THOUSAND GRILLS
Expat writer Laura Wotton on the food and restaurants of Rwanda.
A while ago, a well-meaning friend from the UK arrived in Kigali. In her suitcase, bursting at the seams, she’d secreted two, perfectly ripe hass avocados, carefully preserved in a stocking of socks. “Some little luxuries from home”, she smiled, somewhat smugly, looking out into our garden in leafy Kacyiru, home to no less than three, terrifyingly productive avocado trees.
Our garden is not unique. Rwanda is an impossibly green and fertile country. If you drive from Kigali up to the Northern Province, you’re immediately rewarded with the sight of some of its dome-like ‘one thousand hills’ punching like knuckles to the sky, forest green in the morning, gold-green at dusk. Over 72% of Rwanda’s population work in agriculture, easily visible in the patchwork of farms arranged in a tiered system on hillsides, growing cassava, potatoes, sweet potatoes, maize and bananas. Tea fields stretch across valleys in iridescent green swathes, and coffee plantations meet the roads. For someone who was, before, a committed drinker of Nescafe’s putrid instant sludge, this is somewhat of a paradise.
Set against this backdrop of abundance and fertility, Rwanda feels a little like God’s garden. My favourite greengrocers in Kigali - Garden of Eden - lives up to this biblical theme. Everything is twice, triple, quadruple the size of the plastic-wrapped goods you’ll find in Sainsburys, and the produce takes on an inciting forbidden fruit-like quality. My own fall from grace in the Garden of Eden is perhaps less documented than that of Eve’s, but comes about as I try to squeeze these magnificent vegetables into my backpack for the drive home. Leeks the size of forearms protrude out of the top flap, potatoes arrive pre-mashed under the weight of an enormous butternut squash, and my cauliflower has to be hacked into tiny florets and stuffed into the side pockets.
Rwanda, though perhaps not known for its food, offers some mouthwatering national dishes. Most Kigali buffets will offer meat on the bone, hot stewed beans, and five or six types of carbohydrate - casava, potato, chapati, rice, sweet potatoes. Head to any of the local bars and you’ll likely sample brochettes, skewers of beef, goat, or fish cooked over a charcoal grill and spiced with chilli, which have since become less appetizing after a friend pointed out their similarity - in both shape and size - to my slimline guinea pigs at home.
Akabenz is another meaty delight, known to be at its best at Come Again bar in bustling Kicukiro. Though a recently-turned and, I may note, unenthusiastic vegetarian, I immediately crack when six sizzling kilos of barbequed pork appear from the kitchen on large steel trays, draped in circular layers of onion. They’re accompanied by another favourite - matoke - a starchy member of the banana family which, though delicious, takes on a startling swelling property the second it hits the stomach.
Before COVID called an end to all fun, you might after a night out have swayed your way to a mildly depressing nightclub, inappropriately named Envy. What’s not remotely depressing are the cheesy potatoes served in front of the velvet rope outside - crispy exterior, piping-hot, papillae-stripping interior and a glaze of something sticky and glorious. Walk one hundred meters down the road and you’ll hit Repub Lounge, an oasis of warm lighting, dark carved furniture, and an untypically cosy smoking room. The menu expands to the wider East and Central African region, Nyama Choma (roasted goat), fish steamed in isombe (cassava leaves) with smoky grilled aubergines, and, my personal favourite, the Congolese-inspired coconut Fish Liboke stewed in sealed foil.
Over lockdown in Rwanda, restaurants, cafes and bars close and my fiance Jim and I - two of the world’s least enthusiastic cooks - reluctantly take to the kitchen. I churn out 1,352,109 variations of the same tray bake that take on a cumulative format; potatoes with quartered onions; potatoes, quartered onions and cubed aubergine; potatoes, quartered onions, cubed aubergine and sliced garlic. The list goes on. I am resigned to simple dishes because, writing plainly - I have a bad track record.
When living in a shared house in London, our otherwise otherwise mouth-watering weekly dinner rota was pock-marked with my experimental entries of stuffed gourd, or courgetti carbonara served in a pool of tepid water or, on one particularly sorry occasion, a pie made of 60% mayonnaise, 30% broccoli and 10% McCoys crisps. Hardly a good use for Katto's knives in partnership with Hugo Byrne.
There have been very few occasions, yet nonetheless memorable ones, where I have been beaten by the food here. The time an Asian grilled beef salad had me semi-translucent and writhing in sweaty sheets, comes to mind. As does a spatchcock chicken dish which left me looking almost exactly like the offending meal for nearly a week after. Both occasions, I should say, were entirely my fault. Even at home my menu choices are subpar - take me to a cosy Cornish pub and I’ll order Moroccan tagine, if the restaurant is renowned for its fish I’ll be opting for the pork cutlets.
Pork cutlets aside, if you do travel to Rwanda, it will almost certainly be to lap up some of its greeness, its enviable climate and its silverback mountain gorillas. But don’t write-off it’s culinary offering. Push past the starchy, beige banquets found in most hotels and seek out the fantastic Indian food, Korean barbeque and small ‘r’ rolex - a Ugandan street food favourite made of doughy, egg-wrapped chapati. And whatever you do, don’t forget the grills.