Tag Archives: food

Eating Out

I’ve been busy getting used to China after moving here that I haven’t had time to actually write anything. I’m trying to get back into the habit so I don’t forget what I did as I figured things out. So here goes.

 

It was the boss’s birthday recently so he treated everyone to a day off to celebrate. Most of the day was spent at the local park where we played a bunch of team building games my friends and I developed for our Green Camps in Armenia. It was fun but nothing out of the ordinary.

 

Dinner was a little different. We all went to a sit down Chinese chain restaurant. Think something like a TGI Fridays or Ruby Tuesday’s in China and you get the picture. Eating out in China is a bit different than eating out in America or Europe. The first difference was that the table was round. That’s nothing too out of the ordinary, but not very common. Another difference comes in how the food is served. Everyone orders from a menu like always, but when they bring the food out it doesn’t go to the person who ordered it. The food is for the table.

 

What ends up happening is the table is stacked with dozens of dishes. Each dish has about enough food for one person to eat completely and be pretty satisfied. But the dishes aren’t for anyone in particular, it’s community fare. It’s a little different, but no different than many family style restaurants where the food arrives and people serve themselves.

 

The big difference is how you eat the food. There’s no filling up of plates and settling in. You could do that, you do get an empty plate, but it’s not what you’re supposed to do. Instead of piling your plate high with food, you reach across with your chopsticks and grab a bite of whatever you think looks good. Every bite you take you’re reaching across the table trying to get something. When eight people are around a table and you have eight arms and eight pairs of chopsticks pecking at the food, it gets a bit fun and chaotic.

 

I think there are a couple of real advantages to this style of eating. First, it’s really social. There’s no way for you not to interact with the others around the table. It’s all too common in American restaurants to have a good conversation interrupted by the arrival of the food. All of the sudden everyone is more interested in what instead of who is in front of them. The social benefits get even more interesting. The way you address the food is so different. It’s ‘Try the chicken,’ not ‘Try my chicken.’ There seem to be fewer barriers when eating communal food instead of individual portions.

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The other great benefit is less metaphysical and more immediate. It can help you lose weight. Overeating is common because many people eat too fast. What happens is they put food into themselves so quickly their stomach doesn’t have time to register it’s already full. When you have to make a small effort and spend a few extra seconds in between every single bite, the time spent actually eating during a meal drops. Your stomach has more time to process the food and by the time your stomach feels full you’ve probably eaten less than you would have at an American restaurant.

 

Eating this way isn’t just when you go out to eat. I’ve visited a Chinese friend’s home for dinner a few times and it’s exactly the same with less food. I think it’s the best way to eat a meal with others. Except for burgers and sandwiches. Those would get difficult to share.

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Washington Dulles International Airport

One good thing about arriving early for flights and long layovers is that it gives you plenty of time to sit around. So I’ll try to be productive and live blog my experiences flying from Washington DC to Los Angeles to Guangzhou to Wuxi. Also arrive early allows you to find the power outlets before they all get taken.

If there’s anywhere I can consider a home base, Dulles airport probably is it. I’m here often enough.

Up front the airport doesn’t look like much. If you have friends or family waiting with you a bit, you’re going to be bored. The main building for arrivals and departures is full of check in counters, a few benches, and a single restaurant. That’s right. If you want to have lunch with others before you leave, you don’t get a choice.

Once you get through security the whole place changes. After security you’ll board an underground train to head to the gates. At the terminals you’ll find all sorts of places to sit and eat. A personal favorite of mine since my college days is Five Guys Burgers and Fries. Not for someone trying to watch their weight, Five Guys burgers are a smorgasbord of greasy goodness. With the regular burger clocking in at two patties and whatever toppings you’d like, the junior burger might be a better fit for many people. The fries are also oversized, a regular serving is enough to feed two people with a bit left over. And the best part about it is the prices are not sky high just because it’s an airport.

Actually until I landed in LAX I never realized how nice Dulles actually is. It’s heads and shoulders above other airports. Decent and inexpensive food, lots of space, easy to find outlets, and wifi that actually works. It’s impressive.

It’s a travel truth that the earlier you arrive before your flight the quicker you’ll go through security. The day you arrive three hours early is the day it takes five minutes to get through. The day you arrive an hour early it takes fifty-five minutes to get through. Either you’re waiting or sprinting, never any middle ground.   So here I am waiting.

Exact Change

This is my first post from the WordPress mobile app, so I will make it short to see if its tolerable.

There was a time in Tarija, Bolivia when I was out with another Peace Corps volunteer. Since it was hit we wanted some ice cream; ice cream all over the country was amazing.

We get our cones and for the pair of us it came our to 10.5 bolivianos. I decided to pay since I had exact change. Normally not having exact change doesn’t bother me but at this time Bolivia was experiencing a metal shortage, so coins were good to keep. So paid with a tenner note and a fifty centavos piece.

The lady behind the counter asked me for change. It threw me off for a moment, I paid exactly what it cost. Then I put it all together. Exact chance wasn’t good enough. Well she wasn’t going to get any of my coins just because I was a gringo. I shot down her pleas and she gave me the stink eye. So my friend and I left and because of the evacuation we never got a chance to go back.

Well that wasn’t to terrible but it wasn’t fun either. I have stupid fingers so its hard for me to type on a touchscreen quickly. And the autocorrect can be kind of funky sometime. Trying to place a cursor somewhere specific had always been one of my major battles with my iPhone. I think I’ll just stick with a mouse and keyboard.

End of the Line

This is the final entry about Peace Corps’ evacuation of Bolivia in 2008. You can read part one, part two, part three, and part four. Or just keep on keeping on here if you don’t care about the build up.

So Peace Corps got us to Lima. They put the whole lot of us in a resort just outside the city. Four bed bungalows, good food, we were living the high life. Or we would be if we weren’t the most depressing lot of PCVs you ever saw.

We tried to occupy our time exploring the area which wasn’t so hot since we were in a small town on the outskirts of Lima. But a few things happenings do stick out.

I had the best Chinese food I’ve ever had (we’ll see if that stands when I actually move to China) was there. Some friends and I skipped out on dinner because we wanted to go out for drinks. We hadn’t had Chinese food in months because it doesn’t exist in Bolivia. We all sat down and were reading the menu in Spanish. Almost all of the dishes came con chaufa, ‘with chaufa.’ And near the end I could get beef or chicken chaufa on it’s own for like two dollars. None of us knew what chaufa was but drawing upon previous experiences with Chinese restaurants and the price tag for the chaufa, I made the logical jump that chaufa was some sort of eggroll. Probably a bigger one if you get it on it’s own. So I got two, a beef and chicken chaufa.

Our food arrives and lo and behold what do I get? Two plates of fried rice. The mounds of rice were the size of my head. The serving sizes all around were enormous. They served dishes that were twice as big as any normal human being would eat. Wasting food sucks, but there was no way we would have been able to finish all of it. They literally had to pull up a second table next to us just to put our food on.

Another restaurant story happened to a couple of friends. One evening PC hired a bus for us to take us into downtown Lima. Some of the guys went to Hooters because they had this deal, unlimited wings and beer for about $40. So while we were hunting out ceviche and pisco sours they were just crushing wings. At the end of the night it turned out there was some fine print. They had to eat a plate of wings and drink a beer, if they ever got two plates per beer or two beers per plate instantly it went over to having to pay for each beer and set of wings. Of course they didn’t know this and ended up with a $400 bill between the five of them.

At our ceviche place, the waitress asked us to speak English because we all learned rural Bolivian Spanish and she didn’t understand our dialect. That was pretty embarrassing.

Those were the highlights. The low came when the country director gathered us all together for a conference. There it was announced that Peace Corps was temporarily suspending the program in Bolivia. It was like taking your first blow in a boxing match. It wasn’t unexpected, but hurt all the same.

Later that night you wouldn’t be able to find any alcohol within five miles of the resort. We bought it all. Lots of tears and anger at Washington for screwing us. Solace was found at the bottom of a bottle.

Have you ever tried to deal with a hundred and forty hungover and pissed off PCVs? Not a job for the faint of heart. But deal with us the staff did. Suspending a program entails a whole bunch of paperwork and logistical nightmares. They walked us through it, holding our hands every step of the way. We were given the option to finish our service in Latin America (what most people did) or do a complete two years somewhere else (what I did, ending up in Armenia). They brought down counselors to help us deal with the rapid readjustment and in general went way out of their way to make us happy. Not like that was going to happen though. We all had friends in Bolivia we were leaving behind. Training groups that were like families were scattered across the globe with less than a week to cope.

Peace Corps said the program was evacuated for volunteer safety. Most of us think that’s a cop out reason. The commonest theory is that PC Bolivia was caught up in the Bolivia – America diplomatic scuffles and we were just a pawn. Washington took us out to spite Bolivia for some slight and Peace Corps is a whole lot less important than a DEA mission I guess.

Fouling the Food

In order to save money while I do much of my eating with food from grocery stores. It’s much cheaper than going out to eat and it’s nice to have so much more variety. Most of the time I have zero problems, but occasionally I make a mistake. So to celebrate I’ve made a list of some of my more memorable mix ups.

I bought the cheaper orangeade instead of orange juice or my sick friend. The worst part was it was my idea to get her OJ while she was in bed.

My friend send me out to buy some butter. I ran down to the local shop and found the butter section. Again to save money I picked the cheapest one up because butter is butter. Except when it’s pure fat to be melted on top of pierogies.

Topping that, a couple of friends of mine went out for ice cream in Armenia.  When you buy ice cream there it often comes in wrapped up blocks.  Well everyone got theirs and were heading out.  This was before we spoke enough Armenian to know what the shopkeepers were saying. One of my friends opens the ice cream and finds out it’s a stick of butter.  In order to save face he took a solid bit out of it as the shopkeeper watched on.  Like it was what he wanted the whole time.

I went out shopping while my friend was at work. I visited the butcher and got some chicken and as I was paying I noticed a pile of ribs for dirt cheap.  Like less than a dollar a kilo cheap. I’m a sucker for ribs. So I picked up about a kilogram and made them to go with the chicken. There wasn’t a whole lot of meat on them, but I figured that’s why they were so cheap. I served the food and my friend’s roommate informed me the meat was so cheap because it was meant to be served to pets, not people. Still tasted good.

At the shop there was a can of beer I hadn’t tried before. I picked it up and popped it open when I got back. Turns out it was an awful, awful ginger flavored beer. To top it off there wasn’t even any alcohol in it.

Another time I mixed up some lemonade tasting beer with real beer. It also was disgusting. But at least it can get you drunk.

I wanted to buy some mustard so I ran to the local store. They didn’t have any regular condiments. So I had to settle for this garlic sauce that was like three times more expensive than ketchup or mustard would have been. That was a downer.

I once mistook mustard for toothpaste. Did you know you can buy mustard in squeeze tubes in Germany? Real cheap too.

But my absolute favorite happened in Warsaw. I went to a meat shop to buy some chicken. I pointed it out in my non-existent Polish and had it wrapped up at the counter. I paid for it, picked it up, and left. A few hours later when it was time to prepare dinner, I unwrapped it and I was shocked and amazed to see a pile of sliced ham. I guess I just picked up some other person’s package. I still wonder if they noticed it before they tried to prepare their lunch or dinner.

Nor Tari

For many places around the world New Year’s is outshined by Christmas.  Thankfully not so in Armenia. New Year (Nor Tari) is far and away more popular and central to the Armenian culture.

Local kids selling shots of vodka to those that pass by.

Local kids selling shots of vodka to those that pass by.

Nor Tari isn’t much like Western New Years Eve; there’s a lot of drinking, eating and socializing. Actually that is pretty similar to NYE around the world but Nor Tari cranks it up to 11 by lasting more than one night. Normally it starts on December 31 watching the ball drop on TV like everyone else in the world and continues until the Epiphany on January 6.  That’s a solid week of celebration.  And it’s not like Carnival in Brazil.  The biting cold winter of the Caucasus mountains means everyone is staying inside to eat and drink.

Even without the holiday it’s still a great idea.  The winters in Armenia suck hard.  Most houses are stone houses with crummy insulation.  Only one room is heated.  Going to the outhouse often means battling ferocious winds, ice slicks and snow drifts.  I once did laundry and my fingers almost froze solid hanging my things out to dry.  My pants actually did freeze solid.  So with all the cold misery winter brings why not have the biggest party of the year then?  Make winter something to look forward to instead of dreading.

Three generations of host family.  Grandmother, aunt (far left), mother (far right), and sister.

Three generations of host family. Grandmother, aunt (far left), mother (far right), and sister.

The center of Nor Tari are friends and family. Just like Christmas in other countries, this is the big time for far flung family members to return home for a few days as well as visit everyone in the surrounding villages. And since hospitality is genetically wired into Armenian culture, friends and family means food. Sometimes people will coordinate and have large dinners at a single house. Sometimes people go off by their lonesome. Men visit their neighbors for some vodka. Women visit their friends for wine or coffee and cake. What ends up happening is that for a week there’s a constant stream of people going to and fro. And they’re all inviting each other to come along. I haven’t tested this theory yet, but a known serial killer would be invited inside for dinner during Nor Tari. It’s just that open.

Handmade Armenian cakes.

Handmade Armenian cakes.

The men drinking their vodka.

The men drinking their vodka.

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As the biggest celebration of the year, most Armenian families save up just to throw a lavish spread. Some of the more consumptive families take out loans to throw a part big enough to impress their friends. But that happens more in the city than in the villages. In the villages people throw parties, but it’s expected that you’ll be expecting so many visitors over the days that throwing one huge party is a waste.

As an American I was lucky enough to experience Nor Tari twice. Both years I was invited to dozens of homes and drank dozens of shots and ate dozens of pounds of food. A normal day would involve waking up, eating some left overs that an Armenian mother forced me to take from dinner last night, take a shower, and then visit three or four houses of people I knew. It was far and away the best time in Armenia. Being a foreigner I was treated like a rock star. I may have visited four houses a day, but in each of those houses I was the only foreign guest they’d ever had. Pushy with getting me to eat on a normal day, the Armenian women would have pried open my mouth with a crowbar and just shoveled food in if I tried to refuse. And the men would bring the cognac to go with the meal and keep me hungry. After eating, drinking, talking, dancing (depending on how much drinking happened) I would beg to be excused and make my way to another house to do it all over again.  To be honest, after experience Nor Tari I don’t really enjoy other celebrations.  They’re just not as awesome.

World famous cognac.

Pro-tip:  If you’re ever asked to make a toast to Armenians, make one out to all the women who worked to provide all the excellent food.  They really appreciate it and their efforts are often taken for granted in Armenian society.

Rural Cepelinai

While I was visiting my friend Toma in Klaipeda, she made plans for us to go see her family out in the country. She wanted to introduce me to her parents and siblings and show me where she grew up. Never one to turn a chance like this down I immediately agreed.

Her mother and father met us at the train station in the afternoon. During the ride Toma was excited to inform me that her mother had ordered cepelinai for dinner. There’s a restaurant in her village that’s famous for it’s cepelinai, she told me. They’re delicious, huge, and cheap.

Her parents met us at the train station to give us a ride back to their house. I was getting pretty amped for lunch. We stopped at the house just long enough to drop our bags off then set out to the restaurant to bring the food back.

Two mouth watering cepelinai.

Two mouth watering cepelinai.

It was finally time to eat, Toma’s mother had set the table and served out everything. It was heavenly. A cepelinai is basically nothing more than a huge egg made of meat and potatoes. Hidden inside is a delicious core of ground meat seasoned just perfectly surrounded by a shell of mashed potatoes. I’ve eaten a lot of food while traveling and cepelinai is one of the best I’ve ever tried.

I enjoy cooking so I asked Toma’s mother if she knew how to make the cepelinai. Toma translated for us because her mother didn’t speak English and I can speak Martian better than Lithuanian. Of course she knew how to make them. All Lithuanian women do. Cepelinai are a special dish, very time consuming and difficult to make so they only come out for special occasions. Like visiting Americans I guess. She described the process to me and I thought that was the end of that.

We spent most of the next day working in their fields harvesting potatoes for the winter. It was a bit chilly out but the work kept us warm. The mother left a bit early and when the rest of us returned to the house she called me over. I walked into the kitchen and it was ready for some serious use. There were pots and pans and ingredients strewn all over the place. With a whole bunch of hand gestures and three or four words of English she indicated her and I were going to make cepelinai.

The process was very time consuming. Together we made enough to feed six people and it took close to four hours. It’s surprisingly easy to get past a language barrier with someone as talkative and outgoing as my friend’s mother. We held a number of good conversations ranging from my family back home to where me and Toma met to their family history complete with photo albums and other trinkets.

To make cepelinai you need potatoes. Boil, chop, then mash them up like you’d do for regular mash potatoes. After that you want to take around three quarters of the mashed potatoes and squeeze the liquid out with a cheese cloth. Pour off the excess water and the white liquid you collect is potato starch you need to save. This step takes the longest, it helps to have an extra set of hands. Put a little of the starch to the side. Mix all the potatoes in with the starch. Now it’s time to start making the cepelinai. Take a bit of the potatoes and flatten it in your hand. Then add a bit of the ground meat mixture you made ahead of time. Since this is such a long process many people make the meat earlier in the day, maybe the night before. You add the meat in the middle of the flatten potatoes then wrap the sides around to make a football shape. Or zeppelin shape, where the name comes from. Dip your finger in the starch set aside, brush the whole thing to help it stick together. Boil them in a large pot of water, it might help to add more starch here to prevent them from galling apart. When they float they’re ready to eat.

Cepelinai are often served with a white gravy. Just chop up some onions and bacon and fry them up. Add sour cream (this is heavy peasant food) to the pan with some black pepper and allow it to heat up.

Dinner with the family.

Dinner with the family.

Armenian Hospitality

As a Peace Corps Volunteer I was lucky enough to spend two years living and working in the small Caucasus state of Armenia. I’m not going to extol the glories and the utter hardships of Peace Corps, that can be a topic for another piece (PC is not all ‘fortune and glory’ by a long shot). No today I’m going to talk about what makes Armenia great and why it ought to be a place you visit.

As a tiny landlocked nation in the Caucasus Mountains Armenia is off the radar of most tourists. There isn’t much of an infrastructure for travelers outside of the capital, but that just adds to the charm. Seventy years of Soviet rule then one of the bloodiest post-Soviet clashes didn’t do it any favors either. But through all this Armenia has so much to offer to the adventuresome traveler. It’s a land of beautiful mountains, rugged terrain through the entire eastern part of the nation. Roads wind through the passes and peaks like a schizophrenic river. Or a snake, but that’s pretty cliched. As the first country to adopt Christianity back in the third century, the landscape is dotted with ancient churches. One of the most wonderful things about the churches is that they were often used as fortresses as well and as such were built on tops of mountains. So it’s an adventure just to get to them. Even in this day and age there are many churches five, six, seven hundred years old that you need to hike a bit to get up to. If there’s one downside to Armenia it’s not very handicap accessible just yet.

However all this pales in comparison to the Armenian people. I’ve had the fortune to travel a decent amount and while I’ve been treated pretty well wherever I was, Armenians take hospitality to a whole new level. It is absurd how many times I was invited by random people to their house for coffee or vodka. It got to the point where if I knew about a couple of Armenians opening a bottle of vodka, I would get personally offended they didn’t invite me to join. I know that my Armenian language skills played a big part in this, they loved seeing an American able to hold a conversation; but all my foreign friends in the country who didn’t speak Armenian and the travelers I met always raved how nice they were treated. I can tell you Armenians are welcoming people until I turn blue in the face, but I think it’ll be more interesting for both of us if I recall a story that just proves this point.

One day I visited a friend of mine in a nearby town and I was hitchhiking back to my village (sorry PC Armenia staff, but Goal Three). A man in his mid-fifties named Armen stopped after he saw me waving my finger; a bit like you’re hailing a cab with your index finger horizontal and wagging it downwards. I used to use the old thumb deal which worked for me until I was told by an Armenian that I should do it the other way since that’s how locals hitch rides. So I hop into the ubiquitous Soviet Era white Lada and we’re on our way. We exchanged a few pleasantries and he was a little surprised that I spoke Armenian. Less surprised than I would be if he spoke English. We went through the standard rundown every Armenian has ever asked me during a first meeting. ‘What’s your name? How old are you? Are you married? Where are you from? Why are you here?’ Without fail those five questions will get asked and answered in the first five minutes of conversation when meeting an Armenian. I don’t recall a single time I met someone and was not quizzed on my relationship status. After that we chatted about just normal stuff, weather and other small talk. We’re approaching a town called Noraduz, famous for being the biggest collection of Armenian khatchkars in the world. I had already visited the town before to see the cemetery, something I’ll write about later, and told Armen about my trip there and how I enjoyed it. He decided at that moment that I had to have coffee with him. Armenians love their coffee and inviting someone over for coffee is just what you do. It’s a super strong and black blend served in tiny little cups that are a bit bitter than shot glasses. Like an espresso maybe? I don’t drink a lot of coffee and I just wanted to get home so I turned him down. He was having none of that. Armen telling me how great his wife’s coffee was and planned on making me enjoy his hospitality come hell or high water.

I finally acquiesced. Normally I really enjoyed spending time with Armenians, but you have to remember I would be invited to someone’s house on nearly a daily basis. After a while you just wish you could say no. We pull up to his house and I help him unload the car. He introduces me to his wife, also in her early-mid fifties and directs me to sit down at the table. Armen went to wash up and returned asking me one of my favorite questions, ‘Do you drink vodka?’

‘Of course I do,’ I replied feeling much better about this excursion. I’m not a big coffee drinker but getting tipsy with older Armenian men was far and away one of my favorite experiences there. It wasn’t the booze as much as the stories. Maybe it was the alcohol that made them feel like they could talk about their lives more than just over coffee or dinner. But all my great stories I’ve heard from Armenian men, especially about their time in the Soviet Army came when alcohol was involved. I doubt it was the alcohol that loosened their tongues but more the fact that women normally don’t drink with men in Armenia and army stories are ‘guy talk.’

Armen brings out a bottle of vodka and a pair of shot glasses. His wife was flitting in and out of room asking about me every few minutes, interrupting her husband talk about the Noraduz cemetery and how much of a shame it was that the Azerbaijani authorities bulldozed a large set of khatchkars in Nakhichevan. We keep on doing shots and I’m feeling a bit loose and enjoying the company. Our conversation takes a whole bunch of twists and turns, covering everything from Obama’s refusal to recognize the Armenian Genocide as a genocide to why I’m not married just yet and how I should find a nice Armenian girl and settle down there.

And then all of the sudden the wife comes through the door with a huge platter of food. While her husband and I were chatting and drinking she had prepared this enormous meal for us. I would like to say I have no idea why, but I know exactly why. Armenians love visitors. It’s probably the same in many cultures of the region, but I haven’t been able to travel there much yet. Armenians do whatever they can to make a guest happy. It’s something in their national psyche. If a guest has a bad time at your house it means you’re a bad host and by extension a bad person. So this woman who I’ve never seen before baked a whole chicken, fresh bread, made a nice large vegetable and cheese platter because her husband brought home some random American to drink with. And to tell you the truth, it was awesome. I was a bit drunk and really could use some food, especially since I still had a bit of traveling to do.

So now the wife finally joins us to eat, she pulled out a bottle of wine and poured herself a shot glass of it to sip on. Rural Armenia doesn’t get many visitors so I assume the wine was to celebrate that fact. No pressure on me right? I might be the only American they’ll ever meet. We eat and drink and at least I had a really good time. It looked like they did too. I hope so. Dinner is over and the vodka is finished so I thank them for their hospitality and tell them I need to leave. Armen however is not done killing me with kindness. Instead of letting me walk the ten minutes to the main road (the exercise would have been nice after the alcohol) he drives me in his car and helps me flag down another ride. He absolutely refuses to leave, even after I told him three or four times I would be fine, until I get into another car. A pair of Armenian guys in their thirties stop for me, Armen starts talking to the driver just to make sure they knew exactly what I was doing and where I was going. Nothing I couldn’t handle, but it was nice of him nonetheless. And then we took off, I chatted with two guys some and got home.

This is one of my favorite memories of the two years I spent in Armenia But it’s not unique. I have dozens of other examples of times I was hiking through the mountains and came across an Armenian family who invited me in for lunch. Or when I took some friends to see a 15th century church and we were absorbed into a large group of people paying their respects to dead relatives by visiting each grave while drinking and eating (how I want to be remembered). It was so common I took it for granted. Not being there any more makes me realize how much I didn’t appreciate their generosity. Too many times I would think, ‘I just don’t want to speak Armenian right now.’ You never know what you have until it’s gone, that’s what everyone says. I’m happy I got to experience Armenian hospitality and look forward to the day when I can return once again. This time I’ll appreciate it to the fullest.

Eating in Jinja

There are two ways to describe Jinja. The first is as the ‘spring break of Uganda.’ The other can be considered as a ‘tale of two cities.’ First and foremost, Jinja is the second largest city in Uganda after Kampala. A good amount of people live here. But Jinja is also a very touristy and NGO oriented town. Westerners come and stay in droves, especially during the summer. This has led to an interesting balance. One sector of town on Main Street is dedicated to foreigners. It’s full of art shops selling African souvenirs to bring home and tour companies. But for our purpose we’re going to focus on food. You can always tell where you are by the food you eat.

Bacon and egg sandwich from Flavours

First is a restaurant called Flavours. It is a nice cafe and bar catering to foreigners and rich Ugandans right off of Main Street. It does movie nights on Wednesday, has plenty of comfortable seating (even a couple of couches in the back to get close with a special someone), serves good western food, offers free wifi and even has a website. There’s a crowd there just about every evening having a couple of beers or even a cocktail and some dinner. The prices aren’t even that bad if you’re a tourist. The bacon and egg sandwich with proper bacon and wheat bread only clocks in about three dollars. But you’ll never see a Ugandan school teacher or market stall owner eating there.

Rice, fish and chapat from Auntie Night

Second is a place with no name. Literally it has no name. It’s a wooden and corrugated metal shack in the middle of a local market. The only way to find it is to visit the market and happen to come across this one fixture as opposed to all the other ones selling lunch at the same time. The woman working there, Auntie Night is wonderful. Since I was the first and maybe only foreigner to eat there, she calls me Mr. Patrick and remembers my order. Every time I order there it’s the same, a big plate of rice, hunk of fish in soup, and a chapat (flat-breadesque side). It’s so much food that I barely need to eat breakfast and never dinner when I wolf it all down. A quality, simple meal for a dollar and a quarter. Every day school children and various other Ugandans take their lunch break there.

There’s actually a third type of food that doesn’t fit into the tourist scene or the local scene in Jinja, Indian food. Uganda is home to many Indians who own businesses and shops here. The majority of the large companies are Indian owned, and Jinja has a large contingent from the subcontinent. By far the best is a place named Moti Mahal. I would say it’s the best food in Jinja. Expensive (again for Uganda, not western prices), but the best food in Jinja. The atmosphere is great, really quiet with candles on the tables, all that jazz. A proper meal, curry with unlimited rice and nan and a variety of side sauces and a drink will run about ten dollars. When you visit read the menu thoroughly because this deal with unlimited rice and nan is only found on the very last page and the first time I ate there with some friends we didn’t see it and our bill ended being twice what it would have been if we asked for the meal deal.

No matter where you end up going and on what budget, the service is always top-notch. At Moti Mahal they’ll make your food exactly how you order it. At the prices they charge they almost have to be willing to tweak the recipe to please your taste buds. At Flavours I was upset once because one of the servers asked me to leave after I had bummed off their wifi long enough only ordering the cheapest tea on the menu. I told a friend who told the manager who sat down with me to apologize and make things right. I wasn’t going to get the server in trouble so I didn’t give up any details, but the discussion was nice. And one time I took some friends to see Auntie Night for lunch. The fish was a little smaller than normal, but that’s to be expected when you eat fish caught literally three hours ago. She felt bad that the fish was small and gave us a discount on our meal for it. We would have paid full price no matter what but since I had been there enough she wanted to do right by us.

Eat around, sample all the food available. I try to save the tourist and nicer restaurants for special occasions or when I need an emotional recharge. Eating at them costs much more than the local food, but my main concern is doing it too often will make it lose its charm.