Travelling food that needs a visa

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Sukuma Wiki, Tilapia and Ugali Sukuma Wiki, Tilapia and Ugali By NapendaKukula, Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The bright green squeak and crack as the leaf is pulled from its staunch stalk never leaves me indifferent, especially when it’s being done in the name of a meal which I’m about to enjoy. The house was surrounded by them, so we never cooked too little. In fact, we always ended up with enough sukuma to feed the both of us for 2 days, or us and our friends and neighbours for one satisfying meal.

Maybe it’s not the leaf itself, but the mix of it with onions, tomatoes and ample seasoning which we added to it during the preparation. The leaf is the sturdy vehicle for other, familiar tastes which almost everyone, be they Kenyan Tanzanian, European, or nomadic, know and love. Whichever way I looked at it, I would have been happy eating it every day.

My Kenyan friends couldn’t understand me. Though they tolerated it as an accompaniment every now and again when it really was the inevitable choice of greens to accompany a roast chicken or beef stew, they would never choose it given other possibilities.

They had grown up in Nairobi suburbs being forced to eat sukuma wiki all week, and so it could rightly have just been called ‘all wiki’. They couldn’t even bring themselves to laugh about it, as it conjured up memories of harder times when there weren’t any other options of foodstuffs. It was either sukuma, or nothing.

The next day I wanted fish with my sukuma. Despite living by lake Victoria, it was surprisingly difficult to get fresh, whole fish cooked on demand. The last time I had gone to the fish market to pick myself up a portion of the day’s catch I realized that it was the fishermen’s day off, so I ate my sukuma alone.

That day, I went to one of my favourite hangouts, a pub-cum-restaurant, where the fish and the pork were both succulent, fresh, tasty and cheap, and the music was cheesy and consistent. When my tilapia came, with a side of sukuma and a satellite dish-sized plate of chips, I loosened my belt and prepared for the gastronomic onslaught. I was elevated a little closer to heaven with each bite of tender fish and salty sukuma.

My return to Europe just one week later brought me back down with a thud. At the supermarket I scoured the aisles looking for sukuma and asking the shop assistants if they could help me, only to be laughed at, and at one point even told by a Kenyan shop assistant “You can’t find that here my dear, here we have all of the good veg, no sukuma!”

At the fish counter the tilapia they had was dissected into bland, limp fillets which were barely recognizable, and they didn’t carry the traces of a lifetime spent in Lake Victoria, they barely remembered their brief cultivation in artificial fish farms.

Although it is a delicate-fleshed fish with a mild taste that lends itself well to most fish-based dishes, the tilapia fish is often rejected by the European market and is therefore not always the easiest to come by. It has one of the lowest import duty fees of all fish in the UK, and is also being increasingly produced in the south of the country, using artificial heat, or underground heated pools to grow them. Tilapia can grow to full size in just six months, allowing professionals to cash in in a flash.

But what do the East Africans of Europe do to satisfy the same cravings that I have? All too often they have to find alternatives. As with any migration, it leads to compromises and denial of certain key aspects of your roots. Chapatis you can cook at home, pineapples you can find in the supermarket (though they’re far blander and dryer than the home-grown varieties), but there’s no iconic ginger ale and sadly very little goat to be found, other than wandering the countryside.

Adjusting to a new country’s culinary customs is one of the hardest aspects of leaving your homeland and saying goodbye to the things you hold dear. Of course, financial struggles, discrimination, saying goodbye to loved ones and day-to-day difficulties outweigh this in importance, but not having your traditional foodstuffs can be one of the most all-invading and personal struggles, and one which brings together diaspora communities with the greatest fervor.

European and American expats in Africa often bulk-buy their favourite jams and cheeses on trips back home to last them the few months between trips, or make arrangements with luxury goods suppliers in nearby cities, but this isn’t always so easy to achieve when sitting on the other side of the migratory super highway.

Africans in Europe struggle to acquire home comforts in large quantities and there is a much smaller, less flourishing market for such trade. In London you can find ugali flour in certain specialist shops, but if you live in the north of the country you might have to make do with potatoes.

The system is one step short of asking for visas for food items, what with the amount of hurdles you have to jump through to bring edible goods in and out of certain countries.

As far as I know there’s only one true East African restaurant in the capital of the United Kingdom, which is a frightful statistic when considered in light of the fact that more than 200,000 Kenyans alone live in England (with the highest concentration being in the capital).

East Africa holds the secrets of an internationally unexploited cuisine, which remains a mystery to many. Tourists arrive in Kenya or Tanzania and almost without fail ask “So what’s the food like here?”

And often, though thankfully not in every case, “Do you eat, like, elephants and stuff?”

Certain chefs and independent restaurants are introducing East African ingredients or features to their menus, but there are very few examples of the area’s cooking traditions being pushed to the fore, and so the lack of native ingredients will continue until somebody says ‘enough is enough! Bring me some Lake Victoria tilapia and a bunch of sukuma wiki before I starve!’

Claire Baker

Claire Baker is an international nomad who has lived in East Africa, Europe, Latin America and... wherever the travel angels will send her.

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