Kalo: Making a Big Come Back to Ugandan Dining Tables
Swallowing it directly without chewing!
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First published: April 10, 2007
If it is not history repeating itself, then it is the Ugandan society trying rediscover its past and heritage. How else can one explain the huge appetite people are exhibiting for hitherto long forgotten delicacies like kalo (millet paste)? These days, you will find these delicacies at just about any eating place in Uganda. The trend is such that many Kampalans are once again ordering food that was more popular with their forefathers. Having noticed this, many restaurants are trying to outcompete each other by claiming to be 'experts' at preparing traditional food. Never mind that many of them are failing miserably.
Most of the so-called traditional dishes are made up of luwombo (sauce steamed in wrapped plantain leaves) and served with mashed plantains and/or millet paste (kalo). But kalo is becoming ever more popular by the day, not only for its beneficial nutrients but also due to the new craze in traditional foods. Other Ugandans are returning to eating traditional dishes under the guise of healthy feeding. I visited one of the restaurants famed for preparing kalo to discover the secret in this delicacy.
Kembabazi Catering Services premises.
"Akalo Katsya sebo- the Kalo is ready Sir," quipped a medium sized chef to one of the regular clients at Kembabazi Catering Centre. Kalo is a prime item at this rather exotic looking restaurant's menu. Opening the doors to customers for lunch without kalo on the menu is like calling a Muganda to the dining table when there is no matooke (plantains), which is his mmere (food). Located in Naguru, a suburb of Kampala, Kembabazi Catering Centre is famously known for its pedigree of traditional dishes including kalo and its equally delicious accompaniments like eshabwe (a mixture of melted ghee and salt) and ferinda (mashed beans with ghee).
History of kalo
Historically, kalo is a delicacy among the ethnic agrarian tribes in the western part of Uganda including the Bakiga, Banyankole, Batooro and Banyoro as well as some tribes from eastern Uganda including the Bagwere. However, some traditions have it that it originated from the tribes of northern Uganda during the Gipiiri and Labongo Luo migration before spreading southwards. No wonder that up to this day, Ugandans are arguing over whose staple food kalo is. The Banyankore may hack you down if you dare say kalo is any other tribe's staple food. In fact, in Runyankore, it is not called just kalo but 'akaro ka ekinyankore' (the Ankole kalo).
Kalo (in the dish on the left) is a common feature on menus in Ugandan restaurants these days.
The cassava connection
According to Moses Byaruhanga, a senior chef at Kembabazi Catering Centre, millet flour is not considered suitable for a meal unless cassava flour is added to it in a ratio of 1:5 (cassava flour: millet flour) by weight of millet. The reason, Byaruhanga explains, is that millet on its own is not only coarse but it is also difficult to turn into a paste due to its 'stiff' reaction to water. Using his 'natural scientific' knowledge, Byaruhanga reasons that the cassava element brings both a sticky and a soft texture, making the mixture relatively easy to prepare. However, many traditionalists dispute this version of preparing kalo. Mzee Festus Kamomo of Kanungu in southwestern Uganda says the introduction of cassava is due to modern efforts in trying to make kalo more appealing to the young generation as well as trying to sell it to people who traditionally did not appreciate it.
According to Byaruhanga, kalo is extracted from dried millet grains either by using the traditional means of grinding with a smooth stone (known in some local languages as esiso) or using modern ways of a grain milling. In the past, any girl of 12 years and above was supposed to be knowledgeable about grinding kalo. The girls whose families did not own grinding stones, would carry baskets of millet to the neighborhood's grinding place and spend hours grinding the millet. On average, each would grind at least two basketfuls of millet (mixed with cassava) equivalent to about six kilograms each.
After grinding, the millet is ready for making kalo. According to Byaruhanga, the cooking of kalo starts with boiling water. The amount of water used depends on the quantity of kalo one wants to cook. According to Gordon Tabaro, Kembabazi Catering Services's operations manager, it is three litres of water to a kilo of flour. "With the water boiling in a pot, a handful of millet flour is sprinkled onto the water to create an initial reaction between the water and the flour," Tabaro demonstrates as he sprinkles a handful of millet flour onto the boiling water.
The arch over the entrance into Kembabazi Catering Services's premises.
Byaruhanga explains that the reason why a handful of flour is poured into the boiling water is to reduce the air in the water, which interferes with the paste formation by creating hard particles. After the initial reaction, the water is reduced by a half to create space for the flour. The deducted water is put into a separate container. Naturally, the flour swallows up the remaining water. Almost immediately, the flour forms a single bulging ball as the chef/cook stretches it up and down and from west to east using a wooden pestle. Often, more water is added.
According to Byaruhanga, it is considered a huge mistake to use cold water during this stage because the flour will become stiff and go bad. "The reason why some hot water is deducted and reserved separately is not just to create space for the flour but also for additional purposes in case more water is needed," explains Byaruhanga, adding that the actual mixing takes about 30 minutes depending on the amount of kalo you are preparing. According to Tabaro the cook will tell whether the kalo is ready if it turns elastic, capable of sticking to a pestle pulled away from it for longer than two centimeters and if it can peel off the pot or saucepan.
Readying kalo for the table.
After mixing and squeezing the kalo into a dome, a basket matching the size of this dome is prepared. Raw flour is sprinkled onto the walls of the basket before the entire blob of kalo is hurled into the basket. The raw flour is meant to prevent the Kalo from sticking onto the basket's walls.
Byaruhanga recommends that after cooking, it is good to leave the kalo covered up for 10-15 minutes before serving so that it tastes tender. In a family setting, the kalo is served differently especially in Ankole. There is a special basket (endiiro) used by the head of the family and other baskets for the rest of the family members. (By the way, it used to be a taboo to serve kalo on a plate or use a fork to eat this delicious meal.) In some settings, sliced pieces of kalo are held in one hand and one keeps pulling off a small piece, moulding it, using a thumb to make a hole in this piece to accommodate the sauce and then dipping it into the sauce. Some people will even pass it over their head before chewing it but they have to ensure they don't allow it to get cold.
Enoch Mutabaazi feasts on kalo.
Served with eshabwe, mashed beans and lately with boiled goats meat and green vegetables, this is a meal you should taste. Did I tell you that it is among the few delicacies that contain zinc? Well, ladies gentlemen out there, order for you endiiro (basket) of kalo today. Secret is not in chewing but in swallowing it directly without chewing!
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First published: April 10, 2007
Enoch Mutabaazi is a media practitioner at Ultimate Media Consult with more than six years experience in the print and electronic media. Since he majored in Broadcast Journalism at his graduate studies Mutabaazi first worked as a reporter at Uganda Television (now Uganda Broadcasting Corporation TV) before he discovered his multidimensional skills in writing and public relations at Ultimate Media Consult. He is currently the Production Executive at Ultimate Media Consult (U) Ltd and writes occasionally.