Top Five Food Finds of East Africa

Traveling is a feast for the mind, eyes, soul, and most of all, stomach. This is a post about what has kept my stomach happy in the last 3 months in East Africa; I’d like to share five East African foods that I’ve enjoyed.

1. Let’s start with the ubiquitous staple dish, the star player in almost every local restaurant – a heaping plate of various starches/carbs with a side of one or two pieces of meat if you want to treat yourself. This is a dish intended for the working man, strangely devoid of the abundant vegetables found in markets, its' primary focus is on calories.

The starches on the plate are simply referred to as “food”, asking a restaurant "what food do you have?" is asking them what's in stock for the day, after which you can pick and choose which ones you want. Whether you pick one item or all of them, they are always guaranteed to fill the entire plate!

This photo features a pretty comprehensive list of "food" - the plate on the right. Starting from the white item clockwise: posho-maize flour, matoke-starchy banana, cassava, taro, sweet potato, and pumpkin.

If you ask for food with meat, it will usually come with a broth / sauce, which will help add flavor to the starches.

This is one of my favorite meals in Uganda. It is always wise to ask the restaurant what meat is good today. In this case, they advised me to have the fish, tilapia, just caught. As an extra step to having fish, I had to decide if I wanted "head or tail", front half or second half of the fish! My understanding of tilapia was limited to the frozen, white, tasteless fillets found in the freezer section. This fish was from a different realm. Meaty, tender, flavorful, especially in the tomato based sauce. The fresh passion fruit was pretty delicious too.

The price range of such a typical meal varies from $1.5 - $4, depending on location and if it's a "buffet" style service. Juice and water are typically about 75 cents. Quite a deal!

2.  Some of you may "bug out" at this next item due to the amount of crunchy protein involved. Twice a year in Uganda and Rwanda, giant flying insects invade the city. In November, it is grasshopper, nsenene, and in Rwanda, white flying ants. Thus, the only logical thing to do is of course, to capture them and eat them. And given that it only occurs biannually, these are considered delicacies.

Grasshoppers are sold toasted or alive for you to take home to cook. There is a belief that smoking them will ward off ghosts.

RIP grasshoppers. They did not die in vain for I enjoyed them! A salty, nutty bite of pure protein.
Fried ants. These ants were so popular at my table that I couldn't get a picture in until it was almost done! Similar to grasshoppers, also tasted nutty. They too are smoked first, to ward off ghosts and to singe off the wings. These have a meatier texture to them.

3. Third on the list is....giant fruits! Fresh fruit is abundant in these lush E. African countries, but it's always fun when I find a "monster" fruit. If there were state fairs here, I think the competition could be quite intense. It's also nice to see fruits not be uniform. These fruits aren't sorted by any factories or processing centers. They go directly from the plant/tree to the market!

Giant papaya; enough to feed half a dozen people.

Avocado the size of my face. I feel spoiled by the abundance of avocados here.

4. One of my best discoveries has been a combo of two things I enjoy - milk and honey! Rwandans believe that milk and honey will make a woman beautiful. Given how much I smile when I drink this combination, I would agree!

While milk is available in supermarkets, I enjoy frequenting what I have deemed "milk bars" around Kigali. It is exactly as it sounds, a place where you can hang out and drink milk!

Rwanda has "milk zones" / "milk bars" where one can go in for a warm or cold mug of "fresh milk." A lovely addition is a dash of honey which sweetens up the milk just enough.

5. Lasty item on the list has the "premium name" of "Rolex" but is actually a cheap street food. I can guarantee that every Ugandan has had a rolex. No, it's not a knockoff brand of the watch, but rather a popular street snack. I've had it countless times, but somehow, don't have a good photo of it (it's THAT good). It's the ultimate street food, cheap, greasy, and easy to eat on the go.

It's essentially a roti / crepe (called a chapati in East Africa) with an omelet wrapped inside, along with tomatoes and onions. It's rolled up into a delicious stick configuration for easy walking and eating.

In Uganda, there are plenty of street vendors who serve up this delicious food. It's fun to stand and watch them make it live, though you have to tell your mind to ignore the shocking amount of oil that goes into making it. Now that I live in Rwanda, a much cleaner, government regulated country, street vendors are almost nonexistent. However, chapatis and rolexes still exist on restaurant menus. 
Rolex vendor. Chapit - the "pancake" of the rolex has Indian influences.
There you have it! The end of our culinary journey in East Africa. Of course, this is a very small slice of all that East Africa has to offer! The foods are filling, but could do with more diversity and sometimes, flavor. These are meals for the working man, designed for function, not taste.

Alas, with the availability of fresh vegetables, one can always dish up something at home. It may not be a Three Michelin star country (i.e. worth a trip just to taste the food), but the five items above are a must try if you are here! 

For more about my adventures as a Kiva fellows, visit my blog

About the author

Ran Fan

Ran was born in China and grew up across three continents. Her immigrant background made her acutely aware that her family’s access to more opportunities is a privilege. She has served as an AmeriCorps Scholar and achieved the President’s Gold Award of Volunteering. Academically, she is a proud Wolverine with a business degree from the University of Michigan. Professionally, Ran spent four years at American Express, working in the internal consulting group advising the CEO/senior executives on corporate strategy projects, followed by business planning for a multi-billion portfolio of global merchant accounts. Now she is ready to return to her roots of serving the community. She was inspired to become a Kiva Fellow after meeting many hardworking entrepreneurs during her travels. She has witnessed firsthand that “talent is distributed equally across the human race, but opportunities are not.” Ran is excited to be a part of a ripple effect of change, starting in Nairobi, Kenya. Post fellowship, Ran hopes to pursue social enterprise opportunities focused on the underbanked.