You have probably heard people talk about a staple food and maybe or maybe not you have wondered what in the world a staple food is. A staple food is a food that is eaten routinely and in such quantities that it constitutes a dominant portion of a standard diet for a given person, supplying a large fraction of energy needs and generally forming a significant proportion of the intake of other nutrients as well. It is eaten regularly or even daily. We have about 41 tribes here in Uganda and each of these have a staple food that has been handed over generations down since time memorial although many tribes share in the regions where they are. These staple foods are mostly shaped by the geographical conditions of the area where these people hail.
Uganda is generally an equatorial country although the climate is not uniform as temperatures and rainfall vary with altitude across regions. The southern part of Uganda is more rainy, and the rainfall is generally spread throughout the year. On the northern shore of Lake Victoria, the rain falls from March to June and from November to December. In the southwest, on the border with the Democratic Republic of the Congo, it rains heavily all year round. The northeastern region has the driest climate and is prone to droughts in some years. Annual rainfall ranges between 500 mm in the northeast and 1300 mm in the southwest. However today let us look at the different staples and native foods that shape our cultures in Uganda
Overall, plantains (also commonly known as matooke here in Uganda) and cassava are the most common staple foods in Uganda. Plantains or simply matooke are starchy bananas that are cooked and consumed as a staple which you will find as a part of most household diets here. Plantains are common in the central, western, and southern regions whereas cassava is very in eastern, northern, and northwestern Uganda. The other staple foods we have in Uganda include sweet potatoes, Maize, wheat, rice, millet, groundnuts, sorghum, to mention but a few. Food staples vary from place to place like earlier said, depending on the food sources available. Most food staples are inexpensive, plant-based foods and usually full of calories for energy. From the examples given above you can see that cereal grains and tubers are the most common food staples. Although staple foods are nutritious, they do not provide the full, healthy range of nutrients. People must add other foods to their diets to avoid malnutrition.
You maybe wondering the ‘other foods’ I am referring to that ought to be added to get the rest of the nutrients. These ‘other foods’ are called complementary foods and just as their name suggests, these complement the staples. They may not be routinely eaten and not in large quantities as the staples but the serve an essential role in meeting nutritional requirements. They are also more expensive compared to the staples. They include protein sources like meat, poultry, fish, legumes and milk products; energy sources like fats, oils and sugars; and vitamin and mineral sources – fruits, vegetables and animal products. Just like the staples they are varied in regions depending on their way of living, for example fish will be found common in the Albertine region and Lake Victoria basin while milk products will be found among regions that herd cattle.
That being said, I will leave you with Uganda’s must trys when it comes to native foods. These comprise of most of Uganda’s staple foods in all regions that we have.
Being the most common staple food is Uganda I will start here. It is a type of plantain belonging to the East African Highland Banana group that can be peeled and be boiled in water, steamed in banana leaves then squeezed to make a golden yellow mash or else boiled together with ground nuts, beans or meat, offal to make the delicious meal commonly known as akatogo. Another type of plantain that is enjoyed by many is Gonja which can either be steamed or fried. Matooke can also be cooked without being peeled to make a dish known as mpogola or roasted in hot ash which is a very tasty meal accompanied with a complementary dish of choice. Probably what makes it even more common is the various options of preparation that it has.
This is a very common dish that has spread to almost all parts of the country with it’s roots in Buganda. History tells us that it was invented by Kabaka Mwanga’s personal chef in the 19th century, in 1887and was meant to be eaten by the royal family. Over the centuries, this opened up to his subjects and is now popular in most parts of the country. Because of it’s length of preparation, it is preserved for special days like Christmas, Easter, Eid, weddings, introduction ceremonies, business meetings and also when one has important visitors at home. There are restaurants however that have made it part and parcel of their daily menu and one does not have to wait for a special day to enjoy it. Luwombo can be prepared using chicken, smoked fish, beef, goat meat, mushrooms and ground nut (peanut) sauce. The ingredients are put in smoked banana leaves to give the luwombo the best aroma. Note that smoked beef or goat meat also make very delicious luwombo. Recently I found out that there is pork luwombo which I am yet to try.
I have decided to use my native language for this but this is a mixture of millet or sorghum flour and cassava that is mingled with boiling water until it stiffens and becomes solid. The mixture of the ingredients differs as some tribes prepare it with less proportions of cassava and others with more cassava flour while others prefer it with no cassava. For instance the Bakonjo enjoy just mingling cassava flour known as Obundwe whereas people in eastern Uganda enjoy Atapa where more cassava flour is mingled with less millet flour. In Western Uganda it is millet with less cassava, they do not use sorghum and it is known as Akaro
I got the privilege for tasting this for the first time in my life just a few weeks ago and if I had not seen it before preparation, I would have sworn that it was fish. This is a popular meal in Eastern Uganda where soft bamboo shoots are harvested, dried, cut into smaller pieces and boiled. Groundnut or peanut sauce is added and boiled together with the shoots until it is ready to be eaten. It is commonly enjoyed by the Bagisu, they serve it with Matooke and will leave you biting at your fingers.
Have you ever imagined fat and salt making a delicacy? This is a traditional meal for the Banyankole, one of the tribes in western Uganda, although just like luwombo, it has gained popularity in other parts of the country too. It is prepared by using mature ghee of about 2 or 3 weeks, salt, cold boiled water and rock salt. For a variety and enhanced taste, some go ahead and add smoked meat.
Originally, this dish was reserved for dry seasons when food was scarce. Originating from the northern region, it is prepared using sour vegetables together with groundnuts and can be served with sweet potatoes and millet bread. Gone are the days when the dish was reserved for dry seasons, it is now eaten almost everyday given its affordability and it is also gaining prominence in other parts of the country.
Growing I dreaded the day we had this on the menu. The work that went into un-shelling of the beans was exhausting especially those last 5 beans that would take forever. Firinda is a traditional meal popular among the Banyoro and Batooro in Western Uganda and is prepared by soaking the beans for a night and then they remove the husks. They are then boiled until they are soft and mashed into a porridge like consistency (puree); tomatoes, onions, ghee or smoked meat are added to make the firinda get the perfect taste and aroma. Other ingredients that can be put are vegetable eggs, pumpkin leaves, eggplants. The Bagisu and Acholi also enjoy this sauce and it is served with Akaro, sweet potatoes, cassava.
This is not all of the native foods, I have sampled just some of the most common ones in all the regions. Food shapes any culture or society and it would be interesting for you to try out all these if you happen to come to Uganda.