Yasmin Alibhai-Brown on Uganda
Uganda, my birthplace, is naturally exuberant, green, green, green, like nowhere else, profuse. Winston Churchill on a visit there in 1907 joked that if he stuck his walking staff in the lawn and left it unattended for a couple of hours, it would sprout.
When I was growing up, society was rigidly divided. White colonialists were at the top of the hills, middle-class Asians in the middle and indigenous Africans in the pits and valleys. My forebears – the skilled Asians from the west coast of India – were recruited as indentured labour by the Victorians to build the railway across East Africa and they stayed on. The Gods, they believed, had delivered them to paradise. In spite of the inequalities, there was abundant food for all.
Below our tiny flat above the marketplace, passed the traffic of sellers and buyers; policemen with whistles; children eating a mango; chunks of sugar cane; those plump, lemony bananas of Uganda; and enormous tomatoes sweeter at times than the cane. There was no need there for pick-and-mix confectionary counters.
At midday, everything stopped for lunch, the main meal of the day. Neighbourhood children would speed across corridors delivering samples of grub from their mums, spilling liquids and licking what fell on the hands.
At those daily feasts, my family ate too much, rowed and then, all spent, fell into deep sleep. Silence befell the town like a duvet. The afternoon rain falling on hot tin roofs roused us, and it was back to school or work.
My mother made the best bateta champ, patties of spiced mashed potatoes, with a zingy meat or vegetable filling, dunked into a hot sauce of chilli and tomato ketchup. Auntie Dee, a Zoroastrian Parsee with rosy cheeks, was known for her dhanshak, a sweet and sour concoction of five sorts of lentils, meat, butternut squash, pumpkin, courgettes and aubergines, bouquets of fresh herbs, tamarind and spices. And Indira Masi, a next-door neighbour, was always cross, yet made this cool, velvety shrikhand – homemade curd cheese with pistachios, saffron and sugar. We were taught to let the tongue lick it slowly off the spoon so the pleasure was drawn out.
Goat bones filled with marrow were boiled in clove-scented water, loved by young children. You sucked and sucked, straining your face and then suddenly, this intense, soft pulp shot into your mouth and was gone. The other big treat was grated jaggery (unrefined sugar) slowly melted in butter, then spread on cold chapattis. I can smell the buttery, toffee sweetness as I write.
Vendors outside our school gates sat on gunny sacks and sold unripe mango slices and white paper packets, containing a mix of hot chilli powder, salt, sugar and Eno’s Fruit Salt, which, mixed with water, was a sure cure for indigestion. But we loved the fizz it made on the tongue as we bit on the mango slices covered in the red powder potion. Even better were the fresh cassava crisps, fried as you waited.
After sunset, out came the mishkaki men with their aluminium barbecues, on which they cooked goat meat and beef marinated in green papaya and lime. Other sellers offered thick, dark coffee from beautiful Arabian brass jugs. They gave the children free halwa, an orange and almond sweet that tasted like Turkish Delight but had the texture of soft jelly.
My mother was always famously copying and ‘repairing’ English food, which she was convinced had made that nation as powerful as it was. So her Victoria sponge had lime juice and cardamom added to it, and she marinated fish in coriander, mint and green chillies before frying up fish and chips for lunch.
Our mosque was filled with aromas: fresh jasmine flowers, incense burning in the corner, perfumes and food. Yes food. People brought in platters of freshly cooked produce. After prayers they were sold cheaply to travellers, lonely bachelors, the old, infirm and poor. Kuku paka was my favourite offering: chicken in yellow and green coconut sauce, eaten with crusty French bread.
The making, eating and sharing of food became a mark of identities old and new, gave shape and rhythm to the day, evoked old homelands, and affirmed every day that migration had given us bountiful lives.
One staple food of the indigenous Ugandan population is green plantain – matoke, boiled, then mashed and eaten with groundnut sauce; it’s both nutty and soft, spicy and gently sweet. How I craved this mush when I was pregnant with my son. Matoke wasn’t available in London then and so my cousin brought some over from Kenya in her suitcase full of silk saris. When I was about to give birth to my British baby, I wanted a taste of Africa again.
Here in London my family eats together every night, talks too much, rows, too, just like back home. And for my half-English, foodie, teenage daughter the best thing I make is fried cassava. Food memories thus pass down, keeping alive the remarkable story of Ugandan Asians, twice-removed migrants, adventurous people of multiple parts.
Yasmin Alibihai-Brown’s The Settler’s Cookbook: Tales of Love, Migration and Food (£16.99, Portobello Books) is out in March 2009. British Airways supports the Kabubbu Community Library Service in Uganda, which offers literacy and numeracy classes to adults and children.