Finding the Breakfast You Didn’t Know You Were Meant to Eat
Rolexes in Uganda
The sweetest surprise of moving to Uganda has been re-discovering the breakfasts of my south Indian childhood.
Since the late 19th century, when Indian workers were brought over by British colonialists to help build the Uganda-Kenya railway, certain Indian dishes have become so assimilated into local cuisine that they are now considered Ugandan by all measures.
The chapatti is a good example. Long bus journeys are thankfully broken up by vendors crowding around the vehicles, hawking chapatti, samosas, and bhajji (vegetable fritters), still warm from deep frying. The chapatti is also critical to the rolex, the ubiquitous Ugandan street food and ideal breakfast: an egg fried quick-quick on a sizzling round black stove, garnished with tomatoes, onion, peppers, cabbage, and if you’re lucky, avocado, all folded into a chapatti. The perfect portable breakfast on a hungover Saturday (or jam-packed Monday that leaves no time for lunch).
Ugandan soil also yields giant, deformed-looking jackfruit and sunrise-colored mangos in copious quantities. As a child in Madras, I remember their sticky juices leaking down my chin as I gobbled up the flesh so fast that my mother would worry about me choking. Later, growing up in Canada, I would sometimes splurge on a mango, only to be inevitably disappointed, the taste of the imported fruit a mere shadow of its freshly plucked cousin. Fortunately, the Ugandan equivalents are as fleshily sweet as any I remember having in India.
These familiar foods were unexpectedly comforting as I tried to find my footing in a foreign land. But it was when I visited one of Kampala’s oldest Indian restaurants that something clicked, that feeling of forces beyond your comprehension bringing you to a place that you did not even know you were supposed to be. I had expected the north Indian dishes available in most Indian restaurants in North America: butter chicken, paneer tikka, naan. But it was their south Indian menu, with dishes perfect for breakfast or tiffin (light midday meal), that almost brought tears to my eyes: mysore masala dosa (spongy dosa with a red chutney and potato stuffing), uttapam (vegetable pancake made from rice flour and dal), idli (soft white steamed lentil rice cakes) with sambar (lentil-based vegetable gravy), mango pickle, and coconut chutney. And, incredibly, the desserts displayed behind the glass counter held pal kova, my favorite sweet, the one that would wake me in the middle of the night in Madras, compelling me to creep into the kitchen like a thief and steal a few pieces, shivering with illicit delight.
The entire meal tasted—felt—like home.
The melding of Ugandan and Indian cuisine remains rather one-sided, at least to my foreign eyes: Indian dishes have been absorbed into local food culture, but only a few Indian restaurants serve any version of matoke and beans, or posho with g-nut (grounded peanut) sauce. Maybe such fusion is next, or maybe not. Maybe like in any healthy relationship, the cuisines are meant to co-exist, sometimes mingling, doing things together, but living out their own stories.