Filmmaker David Cecil sings the praise of a team of Rasta Caterers intent on showing Ugandans that vegetarian foods do not have to be bland and boring.
The so-called ‘catering’ team was failing hard. To please some of the Europeans on our film shoot in rural Uganda we had asked for vegetarian food. So, every day, every meal, it was ugali and beans with nothing more than an artificial flavouring cube to make it palatable – which it never was. Our feature film was on the point of collapse and it was our poor diet that was chiefly to blame. In a fit of righteous rage, I sacked the cook and called the only people who could come to our rescue: Rasta Kitchen.
Rasta Kitchen is a Ugandan catering company with a deeply-felt, almost mystical commitment to enlightened eating. “What most people don’t realise is that food is medicine,” says co-founder Ife Piankhi. “Pharmacies offer a quick fix to medical problems, while food is an investment in your health, with no side effects.” Kaya Sanaa Mwakalobo, the other half of the duo, elaborates: “There are the magic ingredients – like garlic, onion and lemon – but these are not just for flavour. You put them in fresh at just the right time and in the right quantities and they become the most powerful immune boosters.” Another ‘magic ingredient’ in Kaya’s arsenal is tsombi or kisanvu (cassava leaves). He was surprised to find that they are virtually unknown in Uganda. “They give immunity against malaria and help with the processing of your foods. You just look at your urine and whatever comes out of you after eating and you will see the magic working.
Kaya grew up in Dar-es-Salaam and Bagamoyo, where the spices are rich and plentiful. This coincides nicely with Ife’s Jamaican heritage, but can alarm conservative Ugandans. “Most people here use fake flavor enhancers instead of spices. They eat too much fried food, junk food or just the same thing every day – a ‘mono-diet’. This brings obesity, diabetes, ulcers and so on. But now some people are starting to get it. Juice bars are opening up everywhere. Women are understanding that fresh fruit can help with skin problems and fertility. We want to show that you can eat healthy, tasty food on an affordable budget.” One of the Rasta Kitchen’s signature dishes is a spicy, coastal version of that humble peasant ingredient, mukene (omena), the tiny silver fishes that have a nauseating aroma of unwashed knickers. Using coconut and creamy vegetables, Kaya and Ife render them into a subtly pungent, protein-packed curry that is delicious and invigorating. Kaya laughingly shrugs off my opinion that there are some people who will never eat these stinky little fishes: “They have never tried it the way we cook it.”
Despite their self-assurance, Rasta Kitchen are pragmatic and adaptable. They have to be, for they are the catering equivalent of the A-Team: tackling missions that most sensible chefs would run from in terror. At Nyege Nyege Music Festival (Uganda) they were responsible for feeding hundreds of local crew and international artists over several days. “Everyone wanted different things, which just wasn’t possible on the budget we were given. There were complaints at first, but performers told us how energised they were on stage after our meals. What you eat affects your temperament and behavior. In pressurized situations you need the positive energy that good food brings.”
There’s another unique aspect of Rasta Kitchen: they are also musicians and creatives themselves. They see their culinary mission as enmeshed with the culture they love and support. There is always sweet roots reggae playing as the Rastas serve up their fare. “After a long day of film shooting or performing, people are stressed. Music and food transports you to a place of calm” says Kaya. But not just any reggae, Ife stresses: “It has to be 1970s roots reggae. The music of that era spoke of struggle and empowerment. Inspiration. That’s what Rasta Kitchen is all about – inspiration, peace and harmony.”
I can personally confirm that the gospel of Rasta Kitchen is not just blind faith. Fresh ingredients and a judicious use of spices make their meals nourishing and empowering without being heavy or overly rich. When they came to the rescue of our rain-sodden film shoot in rural Uganda, there was a palpable change of mood after every meal. The fact that these magical Rasta chefs loved what they were doing – and appreciated what we were doing – added a unique quality to every dish.