Matooke: Buganda's Mmere
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First published: November 21, 2006
A woman from western Uganda was surprised when she went to a market in Kansanga, one of Kampala's suburbs and asked for emmere, only to be told that emmere was over, despite the fact that there were potatoes and yams on display.
The word Mmere in Luganda as in several Bantu languages means food. But in Buganda, mmerre means Matooke [green bananas], the stable food among the Baganda. In Buganda, food, or meal for that matter, has always meant Matooke served with an accompanying sauce.
Sam Bogere, a businessman in Kikuubo (Kampala's equivalent of a one-stop shopping center) every afternoon goes to Luwombo, a restaurant located along this muddy, or dusty during sunny days, Busabaala road because of their specialty in preparing Matooke. Luwombo restaurant is famously known for its pedigree in preparing traditional dishes, which attract the young and old.
Bogere, along with other businessmen and office workers alike, trek the midday heavy traffic on Entebbe road and come here to have lunch.
Hajat Hannifer Nasuna 60, owns Luwombo restaurant. Despite the cold weather, by Kampala standards, beads of sweat are already littered onto Hajat's face.
"This is normally the busiest time of our working day," she says before adding, "Lunch time is just five hours away and the early comers will start trickling in."
Amidst the interview, she is busy shouting instructions to her 15 workers.
Meanwhile, Hajat's workers are busy in the kitchen compound, preparing the day's dishes. A group of girls is busy peeling Matooke, oblivious of my presence. Their attention is only attracted by a camera flash.
Nasuna is a seasoned chef having started the catering business in the late 60s. She has mastered the art of preparing Matooke in the traditional way and has passed on the skill to her young workers. "Although many of us like devouring a meal of Matooke in the various forms it is prepared, only few of us really understand what an elaborate exercise it is to prepare a 'good' Matooke meal, especially the mashed one," she says.
Perhaps that explains why many highly rated hotels and restaurants around Kampala are trying out the traditional dishes, including Matooke, in their buffets but often come short of really preparing authentic traditional dishes. This is because cooking traditional food requires some tact, secrets and traditional processes which big hotels don't either have the time, patience or knack for.
This should be the reason why less affluent restaurants like Luwombo still command a middle class clientele, despite the unfriendly location. Hajat, a Muganda by tribe, says that although many other tribes in Uganda now serve and produce Matooke, the most respectable cooks come from the Buganda region where Matooke is a staple food. "Preparation and preservation of Matooke has evolved through traditions, norms and values and all combine to make the cooking of the dish enjoyable and respectable," she says.
According to Omulangila (Prince) Jotham Kayondo, the preparation of Matooke in Buganda culture follows a laid down sequence from the time it is hacked from the mother plant to the time it is served on a plate.
Kayondo says that before getting the banana, the mother plant is slashed from the middle. The upper part is supported so that it comes down gently to avoid scratches on the bananas.
"After supporting the upper part down, the banana leaves are removed and spread across the floor of the garden to support growth of young plants. The harvested banana is carried home in its entirety. Traditionally, we remove one cluster from either side of the bunch so that we mix the mature bananas with young ones," narrates Kayondo who works in Buganda Kingdom's Bulungi Mwansi (welfare) department.
After peeling, the Matooke fingers are washed before being placed into the cooking pan. "After peeling, the fingers are tied up into a bundle of banana leaves, (wrapped into banana fibers forming a reef knot at the top), which is then put in a cooking pan with just enough water to steam the leaves," says Aisha Ndagire, of Luwombo restaurant.
Hajat Zuliyati Bbosa, who works with Buganda Kingdom's Department of Culture and Youth, says this style of cooking preserves all the flavors and cooks up the food like a pressure cooker, if not better.
She says that banana fibers are used like bandages when bundles of matooke are being wrapped up for steaming. Strips and chunks cut from the banana tree stem or cluster stem (locally known as ebikolokomba) can be used as a foundation at the bottom of the cooking pan so as to avoid the boiling water touching the bundle of the matooke being steamed.
When properly ready and tender, the bundle is removed and squeezed to get a smooth soft and golden yellow mash, served hot with all the banana leaves around to keep it hot.
Kayondo says that traditionally in Buganda, matooke is served using two-steamed banana leaves covered into the bundle during cooking.
"When serving dishes especially Matooke in Buganda culture, a wife kneels and uses two steamed tender banana leaves, (Obubezo), one in her right and another in her left hand. The right hand portions out a piece of mash and the left scoops it out for distribution," writes Wamala Muwanga in Buganda's official magazine, Entanda Ya Buganda.
Kayondo says in Buganda matooke is prepared with various types of vegetables, salty and bitter, which are better tied up in a separate bundle of banana leaves and steamed together with the matooke. Matooke is best served with ground peanuts sauce, a mixture of ground peanuts and smoked fish preferably African catfish (Mukene) and sliver fish (Nkejje) and/or smoked meat most preferably wild, when hunting was still a noble occupation. Other people find Matooke best with ground peanuts sauce mixed with small mushrooms (butikko).
Kayondo says that Matooke is food for hard workers, privileged people and much respect was attached to it preparation and preservation. Like many cultural practices however, matooke production and importance has also been changing. Some people prepare matooke without banana leaves, naked inside the pan, while some prepare it in Kavera (plastic bag) due to limited banana leaves in urban areas.
But none of these has changed the importance that people, especially in Buganda, attach to Matooke; preparing and eating it. A meal for a Muganda is nothing without Matooke, the Mmere (food).
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First published: November 21, 2006
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.