Today, our culinary journey is to find food in Rwanda. Rwanda is a landlocked mountainous country in the African Great Lakes region bordering Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Uganda, and Tanzania. Its high elevation has earned it the sobriquet “the land of the thousand hills”
Rwanda sustains on subsistence agriculture. So, the food in Rwanda are mainly made from locally grown fresh ingredients like potatoes, beans, corn, peas, millet, plantains, cassava, and fruit.
Rwandan foods differs historically from ethnic groups to geographical regions and has the influence from neighbouring countries as well as past German & Belgian colonization.
The Rwandan diet is largely vegetarian. So a vegetarian culinary traveller will be so happy to tour Rwanda!
Meat is a rare addition. But meat is now quite popular in urban areas but seldom eaten in the countryside. Locals near lakes eat fish. Rwandans often eat fruits for snacks. Avocado, banana, mango, pineapple, and papaya are abundant in Rwanda. Food in Rwanda is neither spicy nor hot!
Rwanda’s restaurant standards are high. The servings are large and the prices are reasonable. Rwandan chips are one of the best on the continent. Rwandans also like to try out bold flavour combinations that you would never imagine.
So my dear culinary travellers, let’s dig in to learn about 22 Traditional food of Rwanda, staples, dishes, drinks, snacks, desserts, condiments and a beer.
1. Ugali (Corn or Cassava Porridge)
Ugali is made by boiling maize(corn) or cassava flour in either water or milk until turns into a porridge. This white bland Rwandan food can be thought of as similar to rice. It doesn’t have a taste on its own, but when paired with some curry or sauce, it sops up curry’s flavours to feel tasty inside the mouth.
Ugali is Served as a ball taking up most of the space on the plate. A small section is torn and mixed with other food on the plate and then eaten together. Ugali is commonly consumed for main meals throughout Rwanda. Almost all the restaurants, houses and cafes have it. Rwandans pair Ugali with Matoke, Isombe, Agatogo, stewed beans and many more.
This is a staple food in East Africa. The traditional way of making them is quite labour intensive. First, dried cassava or maize is pounded using a mortar and pestle and then when cooking, they have to continuously stir it until turns into a porridge. This staple is also pronounced as Bugali, Ubugali or Ubugari.
2. Isombe (Pounded cassava leaves)
This staple food of Rwanda sneaked its way from the Democratic Republic of Congo to Rwanda. It is made with cassava leaves.
First, cassava leaves are pounded to a paste and then boiled until becomes tender. Then cooked with beef or chicken stock and spinach, onion, tomato, eggplant, bell pepper and garlic. Peanut butter or palm oil is added if a thicker paste is wanted.
Isombe can be eaten alone. But usually served with rice, bread or beans. Cassava leaves can also be substituted with kale or collard greens.
3. Matoke (Steamed and mashed plantains)
This is the first Rwandan food I will be talking about that is made from bananas or plantains. But I can guarantee, there will be plenty more! Because Rwandans grow bananas and plantains in plenty and have found many ways of eating, drinking them! Rwandans call bananas “Igitoki” or “Igitoke”.
Matoke is a popular dish that is made from a short, starchy banana variety known as East African Highland bananas. This can either be prepared in the traditional method known as ‘Umunyinjye’ where bananas are steamed while wrapped in their leaves. Or you can simply boil and mash. It is much like potatoes when cooked. So it is usually found in soups, stews and wraps and also as an alternative to potatoes in Rwanda.
4. Agatogo (Plantains stew with meat and vegetables)
Agatogo is a stew made with goat meat and plantains as the main ingredients. First, the goat or whatever the meat is slightly cooked and then the plantains are added along with tomatoes and other chopped vegetables and let to boil in water for some time.
If you want the vegetable option it can be ordered too. This is best paired with rice or bread.
5. Stewed Beans
One of the main staple food in Rwanda is this stewed bean dish. It is the kidney beans variant! You will find this staple cooked and served with many other Rwandan traditional cuisines. These kidney beans are grown in large quantities and found everywhere in local markets.
You first have to soak these dried kidney beans in water overnight to soften. Then the next day the water is drained and sweated onions and grated tomatoes are added and allowed to warm through for some time. Then a little water is added and left to simmer for few hours to obtain the creamy texture when eaten.
6. Igisafuriya (Chicken with plantains and vegetables)
Igisafuriya or Igisafulya is another dish we can taste plantains in it. This stew-like dish is made from the chicken as the main ingredient.
First, chicken thighs are fried and then all the other ingredients like tomato, onion, vegetables, potato and plantains are added to a pot with chicken and cooked together.
The word “Igisafuriya” means the pot in Rwanda’s Kinyarwanda language. Therefore the name “Igisafuria” has emerged because everything is cooked together in a single pot.
7. Kachumbari (Fresh tomato and onion salad)
Fresh Tomatoes, onions, chilli pepper & coriander come together, bathed with lime juice, salt & pepper to make this super simple salad.
When you try barbecued meat on your next Rwanda food trip, don’t forget to enjoy it with Kachumbari. It is a very popular side dish for summertime grilled meats or fish among Rwandans. It is best tasted cold. Kachumbari is served as a side dish with Ugali or rice as well. This food in Rwanda is popular in most other East African countries as well.
8. Brochettes (Barbecued meat on skewers)
The brochettes made with goat meat or beef enjoyed with Pili Pili sauce is a very popular Rwandan go to food as a snack or a meal. Meat chunks are attached on skewers with onions, chilli and sometimes other vegetables, then marinated in local spices and is finally cooked over a charcoal grill.
Head to many locals bars in Rwanda and you will find brochettes with a local flair. You can find brochettes made with goat offal, pork, chicken, and fish and there are newer varieties made with mushrooms as well. So you the vegetarian can taste the brochettes too!
9. Ibirayi (Rwandan version of French fries)
This is the Rwandan version of the french fries that comes with a little difference. That is in the way of making! The locals make them by taking young unpeeled potatoes and slicing them into halves first. Then boil with spices added water. And again deep-fry them until turns golden brown and crispy.
These fries are made with sweet potatoes as well. It is also pronounced as “Ibiraya” or “Ikirayi”.
10. Akabenz (Barbacued Pork)
Akabenz is the barbecued pork enjoyed topped with lime juice. Most commonly served in bars and go well together with a cold beer. You have to eat with bare hands due to the small size of the pieces. Locals pair this with boiled rice too.
And a nice rumour among Rwandans is to how this dish got its name. They believe the snout of the pig resembles the Mercedes Benz logo! or this is the best meat dish you find in Rwanda, as the best car Rwandans believe, is Mercedes-Benz.
11. Grilled Tilapia
When it comes to fish the local favourite is the Tilapia, nicknamed “The Big Fish”. Tilapias grow easily in Rwanda’s lakes.
The whole tilapia is grilled in a charcoal grill until flaky and served with onions, garlic, carrots and celery. The best way to taste is by picking small pieces with your fingers. There you can avoid swallowing a bone accidentally as well!
This big fish is usually enough for two to three people. Some restaurants will give you the options to select the size of the fish. It usually takes about an hour to prepare.
From the big fish, next, we come to this tiny fish Sambaza. Sambaza is a fish that grows in the lakes of Rwanda and local fishermen catch them using traditional methods.
This tiny silver colour fish is deep-fried as a whole and served with a lime slice and a dip like mayonnaise or Rwanda special Pili Pili sauce. Usually served as a starter in restaurants. Some restaurants serve a battered version as well.
Also, Rwandan households cook this as a curry to be eaten with Ugali or rice.
13. Pili Pili (Super Spicy Hot Sauce)
If you find a small sauce bowl besides most of your meals in Rwandan restaurants, then it should most probably be Pili Pili sauce.
This is an intensely hot sauce that you should be mindful of when eating. It is because it’s made with super hot scotch bonnet chilli pepper. Other ingredients are grated onions and tomato. All of them are cooked in oil until the thick semi-solid sauce is formed.
This condiment is used to marinate meat or fish or added to the pot when cooking or used as a dipping for many dishes like Sambaza and Brochettes. Also pronounced as “Piri Piri” or “Peri Peri” by some people.
14. Akabanga (Hot chilli oil)
Rwandese cuisine is typically not that hot and spicy. But if you want some kick they have got you covered too. This hot chilli oil is extremely hot and is recommended only to add few drops to your food, from the eye dropper bottle it comes with.
Akabanga was originated in Rwanda and is made from local scotch bonnet pepper(a small yellow chilli). Not only its killer spice, but it adds a deep flavour to stews, soups and other dishes as well. Roadside vendors sell hard-boiled eggs with topped Akabanga oil drops.
Akabanga, this Rwandese hot chilli oil is found in almost every restaurant and household in Rwanda and gaining popularity abroad as well.
15. Mizuzu (Deep- fried Plantains)
With plenty of plantains and bananas growing in Rwanda, their people have found many ways to prepare them. From staples to curries we talked about, this plantain based food in Rwanda is eaten as a dessert and a snack.
Ripe plantains are chopped into thick slices or chunks and deep-fried until turns golden brown. Then glazed or drizzled with honey and served.
Many restaurants in Rwanda often serve this with a scoop of ice cream for you to have a sweet and crunchy treat.
16. Mandazi (African Doughnuts)
The African version of the American doughnut is the Mandazi. Though not sweet as a doughnut, it still carries a sweet taste that you can’t resist by eating only one!
These African doughnuts are made by deep-frying egg, sugar, milk, butter and baking powder mixed dough made to either round or rectangular shaped pieces. Mandazi is crisp on the outside and soft on the inside. Often found in cafes and street food vendors throughout the country.
This is a traditional snack in Rwanda and commonly paired with a mug of Rwanda black tea or coffee. It is also made coated with toppings such as honey, peanut butter or sugar to be eaten as a dessert. You can enjoy the plain-version for your breakfast as well. They are used to sop up savoury curries.
17. Umutsima (Corn and cassava cake)
The perfect healthy alternative to the wheat cake is the corn or cassava made Umutsima, the Rwandan version of the cake. This mixture is gluten-free. So a piece of good news for the gluten-free food traveller!
You will find many sweet or plain versions made out of this mixture. Rwandans make Umutsima for weddings or any other special event or occasion.
Groundnuts are grown in Rwanda as a part of their subsistence agriculture. It is also a very popular snack among Rwandans and found on the streets. The common varieties are roasted-chilli and honey-glazed ones. But creative mixtures from fruit slices to tender meat chunks are also found. A sauce called G-Nut sauce very similar to peanut sauce is also made and used in household cooking.
19. Ubuki (Banana Honey)
Rwandans make use of bananas in numerous ways which we can never imagine. Another of them is honey. Ubuki or banana honey is the local source of honey for Rwandans and it has a special place among the other traditional food in Rwanda.
It is used as a natural sweetener for drinks and as a topping for snacks and desserts. Rwanda’s local commercial drinks made from Ubuki has a special label to distinguish them from imported drinks made out of sugar or other sweeteners.
20. Ikivuguto (Fermented whole milk)
One of the most famous soft drinks all around Rwanda is this fresh and fermented whole milk Ikivuguto. You can understand its popularity by the number of milk bars(cafes) seen everywhere around the country which sometimes only sell Ikivuguto.
Though there are factories that make pasteurized Ikivuguto, homemade ones are still popular. First, the cow is milked and then the fresh milk is poured into a jar and covered with a lid and set aside for two to three days. During this time natural fermentation happens and the milk will be ready for drinking at the end of the period.
Ikivuguto is available in various thicknesses and sourness. It is creamy, buttery and sour. Usually served in milk bars with snacks like cakes, pastries, egg rolls and chapatis.
Ikivuguto is a frequent member of the Rwanda diet and is very common to drink with meals like Ugali, Umutsima, sweet potato, cassava and stewed kidney beans. Pronuonced as “Ikiviguto” or “Kivuguto” as well.
21. Icyayi (Tea)
The most common hot beverage in Rwanda is tea. There two variants available in Rwanda for us to try.
First is, Rwanda’s locally grown black tea that is served in the normal way as we drink everywhere. It is served separately with milk and sugar if you prefer. But locals like it plain.
The other is the African tea which is made by boiling all the ingredients together in a pot. It is milky, sweet and sticky.
So if you gonna taste tea in Rwanda, inform them beforehand what type you want.
Icyayi is commonly drunk together with snacks like Mandazi and sometimes with daytime meals. Some call it “Icayi” or “Chai”.
22. Urwagwa (Banana Beer)
Another fantastic addition to plantain/banana based cuisine in Rwanda is this traditional local beer Urwagwa. This is made using East African highland bananas which are widely grown in Rwanda.
First, bananas are plucked when they are green and just starting to ripen. The traditional method is then to dig a hole in the ground and to set a controlled fire until ripen. But nowadays simply kept near a fire to ripe. Then riped bananas are peeled off and mashed to release their juices. This juice is then collected and roasted sorghum flour is added as natural yeast. It is let to ferment for 24 hours and then the beer is ready to drink!
This Urwagwa beer holds an important position in traditional & cultural ceremonies in Rwanda. It is equally popular at weddings as well.
This beer-making tradition is passed down from father to son and is popular in all parts of the country and the capital Kigali.
Rwandan cuisine is a vital part of their culture. So it makes sense, the best way to discover Rwanda’s culture is through the food in Rwanda. So, Rwanda can basically be considered as an emerging culinary tourism destination. Also, Rwanda is on the Forbes list of the 20 best places to travel in 2021. And for sure it will continue to hold its position for many more years to come.