10 Foods to Try in Rwanda

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Rwanda may not be as renowned as a foodie destination as some of its continental brethren—think South Africa or Morocco—but this land-locked nation in the heart of East Africa nevertheless packs a memorable culinary punch. In a country that’s incredibly fertile yet too mountainous to lend itself well to large-scale agriculture, farm-to-table dining is the order of the day. This is especially true for the majority of lower income Rwandans, many of whom rely on subsistence farming for much of their diet. As such, meat is a delicacy often reserved for special occasions, and naturally occurring crops including bananas, beans, avocados, and cassava reign supreme. And to wash it down? Urwagwa, a traditional beer made from fermented bananas. 

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Алексей Филатов / Getty Images

Not so much a Rwandan delicacy so much as a staple encountered across sub-Saharan Africa, ugali is nevertheless a major player in many Rwandan meals. A stiff porridge made from maize flour and softened in boiling water or milk until it takes on an almost dough-like consistency, it has a pretty bland taste in its own right—not unlike eating unseasoned rice or couscous. When served as a starch accompanying the country’s rich stews and sauces, however, it becomes a filling addition that’s guaranteed to both satisfy and provide much-needed energy. In traditional Rwandan homes and restaurants, ugali also takes the place of utensils, being used by diners to mop up the rest of their meal with their fingers. 

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If you have a passion for peanut butter, you’ll love ikinyiga, another Rwandan delicacy made with the peanuts that grow naturally in its humid, tropical climate. To make ikinyiga, the peanuts are first softened in boiling water and then ground until their own oil transforms the resultant mush into a smooth paste. The paste is then used to create a soup or sauce, with the exact ingredients and consistency varying from chef to chef. Often, additions range from eggplant to okra and bay leaves, which slowly release their flavor when left to simmer over a low heat. Ikinyiga is often served with matoke and/or ugali, with the latter providing the perfect dense consistency for soaking up its rich flavor.  

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Also known as matoke in neighboring Uganda (where it also enjoys national dish status), igitoki shares its name with the banana cultivar from which it is made. This banana is unique to the African Great Lakes region, and unlike the bananas we’re used to in the northern hemisphere, is typically harvested while still green. The flesh of the raw igitoki is white, but turns yellow when steamed in a pot of water over the fire. Chefs typically use the bananas’ own severed stalks to keep them clear of the boiling water. When soft, the flesh is mashed so that the resulting dish resembles mashed potato—but with a much sweeter flavor. Igitoki is typically served as a side to a larger main meal. 

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pots of Isombe

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Rwanda really is a paradise for vegetarians, and isombe is another plant-based staple that features frequently on traditional menus. Simply put, it is a dish of pounded cassava leaves; but the actual process for making it is a lot more complex, often taking several hours to complete. First, the cassava leaves are added to a pot of cold water and brought to the boil. While they simmer away, other vegetables are prepared and added to the mix—examples include onions, spinach, and green peppers, although the exact ingredients may vary. Next, palm oil and peanuts, salt and spices are added for flavor, before the resulting stew is deemed ready to eat. As usual, it’s most commonly served with ugali

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Rwandan food specialties including sambaza and plantains

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As a country without a coastline, seafood is not prevalent in Rwanda except in the more upmarket restaurants of Kigali. Those with fish cravings are most likely to encounter freshwater tilapia or sambaza, a particular delicacy of Lake Kivu. If you’re headed to this African Great Lake in far eastern Rwanda, you will see fishermen heading out at dusk to cast their nets by torchlight in hope of catching thousands of these tiny, sardine-like silver fish. They populate the lake’s deep waters; and the menus of its waterfront restaurants, which serve them deep-fried by the handful. Crunchy in texture and both salty and sweet in flavor, sambaza are typically served with a dipping sauce of peanut, mayonnaise, or spicy pili pili

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Another meaty staple (although it can be made vegetarian as well), agatogo is a plantain-based stew filled with chunks of hearty beef or goat. Plantains, as the starchy, savory cousin of the banana, make this dish particularly filling, especially when augmented by tomatoes, onion, garlic, and generous quantities of green leaves (sometimes cassava leaves, sometimes wild spinach). In fact, they’re so filling that rumor has it this dish is known as “hangover stew” by the Peace Corps. Meat may sometimes be substituted for fish, or left out completely when dietary requirements or financial constraints apply. Like many Rwandan dishes, agatogo is given a final flavor kick by a sprinkle of ground peanuts, added just before serving. 

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Prefer your vegetables crunchy and with as little preparation as possible? Kachumbari is the side dish for you. The name “kachumbari” is a Swahili word, but the dish’s origins are Indian—it was likely brought to the coasts of Kenya and Tanzania by the traders of old and gradually moved its way inland to Rwanda, Uganda, and Burundi. Essentially, kachumbari is a salad made from diced, raw onions and tomatoes, often with chilli peppers and/or cucumber thrown in. Lime or lemon juice is also used as a kind of vinaigrette to bring out the vegetables’ fresh flavor, making this dish a delicious accompaniment to barbecued meats, stews, and even plain old ugali or rice. 

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Also known as igisafuliya or igisafrya, this dish takes its name from the Kinyarwanda word for “pot.” It’s so called because like the Moroccan tagine or the South African potjiekos, it is prepared in a single pot placed over the fire for a long time to allow the ingredients to cook in their own juices using minimal water. The exact ingredients are as varied as the chefs in charge on any given day—although typically chopped meat (chicken, goat, beef) and vegetables (potatoes, plantains, peppers, onions, tomatoes, beans, or even bananas) take center stage. The meat is seared in hot oil first, before the vegetables, spices, seasoning and a limited amount of water are added to create a rich, flavorful stew with plenty of liquid. 

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Meat lovers need not despair; although many of Rwanda’s most iconic dishes are vegetarian (and often even vegan), meat is still widely available in most restaurants. One particular favorite is most commonly seen at roadside food stalls—the brochette, a French term likely introduced into common parlance during the time of Belgian colonization. Brochettes are raw meat and/or vegetables, cooked over an open fire. The exact ingredients depend primarily on what’s available at the time, although common meats in Rwanda include beef, goat, and chicken. Closer to Lake Kivu, chunks of tilapia may be substituted. Chilli oil is a popular basting choice, so be sure to check if you’re not a fan of spicy food. 

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Got something of a sweet tooth? Rwandan cuisine has plenty for you, too. Among the most popular is mizuzu, a very simple, cheap sweet treat made from deep-fried slices of ripe plantain. Although typically savory rather than sweet, plantains caramelize when fried and take on a delicious golden brown color. For added sweetness, they can be drizzled with honey or sprinkled with sugar. Either way, mizuzu are best enjoyed warm and go beautifully with a post-meal cup of rich Rwandan coffee.