Tanzanian cuisine is incredibly varied (as you might expect from a place with over 120 different ethnic groups), but there’s one food you’ll see almost anywhere you travel in the country: ugali.
A simple starch made from cornmeal or corn flour, ugali is similar to a stiff polenta, or very thick cream of wheat. A generous serving of this Tanzanian staple accompanies most meals, serving as a simple, filling supplement to the main course, much like fufu in west Africa, or breads and pastas in a western diet.
Ugali and sukuma wiki (a traditional greens dish). Photo: Paresh Jai
Cooking ugali is simple:
Step 1: Bring some amount of water (and if you’re feeling daring, a teaspoon or so of salt) to a boil.
Step 2: Slowly add the cornmeal, stirring constantly to prevent lumps, until it thickens and pulls away from the side of the pan.
How much cornmeal you add depends on your preferred ugali texture, but a good rule of thumb is to start with a 2:1 ratio of water to cornmeal, adding more if you need it.
But making ugali is just the start: the real fun comes when you try to eat it!
Traditionally, Tanzanians will use three fingers to scoop out a small amount, then roll it into a ball and use their thumbs to form an indentation in the center. They’re left with a miniature ugali “bowl” that can be used to scoop up whatever else is on the plate, from meat stews and fish curries to vegetable side-dishes like sukuma wiki (an east African version of collard greens).
It may take a little while to get the hang of using ugali as your only utensil…but that’s just a great excuse to try out a fun ugali dish at home to whet your appetite (literally) for a trip to Tanzania!
Ugali would go perfectly with mchuzi wa biringani, a traditional Tanzanian eggplant dish:
4-5 small eggplants, chopped (salt, rinse, and squeeze dry before cooking)
2 large tomatoes , chopped
2 large potatoes, chopped
1 medium onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/4 c butter
1 1/4 c water
1/4 tsp cinnamon
1/4 tsp ground cloves
1/4 tsp chili powder
1 tbsp curry powder
Salt to taste
1) In a large sauté pan over medium heat, melt the butter
2) Add all the vegetables and the garlic to the pan and cook until the potatoes and eggplant begin to brown
3) Add all spices and water
4) Simmer until liquid reduces to a thick, sauce-like consistency
5) Serve with a hearty helping of ugali!