2. Family Recipe

Gloria Kiconco


I feel it when I am in a car driving on a highway and the car in the next lane is moving at the same speed. I look over and for a moment we are stationary. Two cars stranded in a timeless moment. It’s the same feeling when I look out at the telephone wires. They stretch into the future. They become a static line. Everything else changes. New trees replace old trees, a swamp appears and disappears. Thousands of lives flash past the window. Who is changing? Is it everything outside of this window or is it just me?

There are no old family recipes in my family. No grandmothers’ secret dishes. No special ingredients. The meals we make are handed down from mothers to daughters. This is not an act of preserving family history. It is an act of preserving the present family.

When my sister and I were younger, we cooked with our mother as was expected. So many meals passed through her hands. She tried to pass them down to us, but the only one that ever really stuck is a meal that is not really even a meal. Katogo. It can be breakfast. It can be a tea time dish. It can be what you eat between meals. It cannot be a meal.

My mother needs only a few ingredients: Peeled matooke, pounded g-nuts, water, onions, and salt. The pot is half full of water when she adds the matooke, the cooking bananas. She cuts and throws in the onions. Pours in the g-nuts. It boils, for twenty to thirty minutes. She adds salt. She boils out the excess water.

It’s time to eat.

When we are just the women at home; my mother, my sister, and me, this is what we eat. Because if my father comes, this is no longer a meal fit for a family, for men. This is our secret. With our mother there is no need for the decorum. On the charcoal stoves at the back of the house, a meal takes three hours to make. Katogo takes thirty minutes. We steal back time to ourselves.

There are things mothers cannot tell their daughters at the dining table. So they tell these secrets through the steam in the kitchen. They pass down codes along with recipes. My mother does not tell my sister and me about men and marriage. That is a job for a senga. My mother teaches us about money. She tells us about the worst jobs she ever had and how they almost broke her back. She tells us her dreams of starting businesses. She tells us how men may deter us from our dreams. She doesn’t tell us, but shows us, how fifty-five years of being a woman can wear you down. She shows us how a simple meal can give you the time and energy to piece yourself back together.

[1]

On the road to Rukungiri, as we hurtle down the highway to my ancestral home, I watch the world move into static. I can feel myself change. At the entrance to the city, I begin to disintegrate. I think of my mother deftly peeling matooke. This is how people take you away from yourself: They peel off your layers until you are malleable. Everything I have built myself up to be no longer matters when we reach the village. My schooling, achievements, wits, and words. I am just the gap-toothed kid with a lisp who grew up over there. Everything I know is traded in for what I don’t know. Everything I am is traded in for what I am not.

When you are preparing a meal, you survey the kitchen. You look at what you have and build it into meaning. In Rukungiri, the katogo is made with ebyenda for breakfast. The left over intestines from the goat slaughtered the day before are cooked till soft to match the matooke. Nothing is wasted.

My aunts make this in pots for the entire family. And when I say this I mean the sixty people, minimum, that stretch out in front of my grandfather. He surveys us like produce. His children survey their children. Some of us are law-abiding Christians doing well in school, or at work, or in starting a family. Some of us are not as promising. They are looking into what we don’t have. They fail to build meaning from negative space. We begin to agree with their findings.

The university holidays are long. My sister and I are in Kabale, in the cold and damp staff house my father occupies as part of his benefits. My classmates think I’ve travelled for the holidays because I don’t call. We make katogo almost every day for lunch.  

My sister switches on Bob Marley. She puts the matooke in water. I cut the onions. I throw them in early because she says it lets out the flavour. She sprinkles in the powdered g-nuts. She’s more worried about ratios than my mother. She adds the salt or I add the salt. We boil out the extra water. I cut a fat avocado. This is how we survive every day in Kabale where monotonous days melt into static. For us Kabale means months of being subjected to scrutiny. We are under the watchful eyes of God. The watchful eyes of men.The watchful eyes of neighbours who mark our coming and going. Who stop us if we leave the house in the evening to ask, where is a young woman like you going at this time?

In Kabale my sister and I argue. The town chips away our solidarity. In Rukungiri we lash out at each other. In Mukono, we lose weight and we lose colour. We live alone and make katogo for dinner, with avocado. Every city tastes different. In Nairobi I can be someone new. I don’t have a history. I change until I don’t recognize myself. I change until I realize I have options. Mukono becomes an option instead of a certainty. I move to Kampala where I duck in and out of places. I hide in plain sight. I blossom in anonymity. In Kampala I can test my options. I can reinvent myself.

Katogo can be directly translated to a jumble of foods. It is an unruly mix. The word leans towards chaos. Sometimes chaos is simply what is not yet understood. The flow and function of the city is chaos, until it is understood.

Chaos is the feeling of the world standing static even though I am in a moving car. Like the laws of physics floundered for a moment. It is the moment you miss a step. Now, take that feeling and stretch it across days. That is the absence of certainty within you. That is chaos, unless you understand yourself.

What my mother hands to us in the kitchen are the basic ingredients to a meal that staves off hunger and saves time. She also hands us the basic ingredients of self -care and self -preservation. How to sew yourself back together after you are peeled to nakedness. How to creep towards your dreams through public disapproval. How to make choices that are good for yourself. To remember that you have options. That even with a handful of ingredients, you can make a meal, no matter what other people call it.

In our new apartment in Kampala, my sister and I host a number of people. We are a katogo of people. A collection of moderately employed, artistic, semi-adults. We border on bohemian.

On the nights my friend Gerald cooks katogo; he uses a recipe he built on the foundation of my sister’s recipe. Which she built on my mother’s recipe. This is a new recipe for a new family we have crafted for ourselves.

Gerald flits from countertop to stove. He moves faster than I can follow. He’s listening to Lana Del Ray; he’s listening to Nina Simone, listening to Leon Bridges. He’s looking for the right music to guide the process. He settles on Aretha Franklin.

 

Ingredients:

1 bunch of peeled matooke

2 large onions

Half head of garlic

Chili (powdered or fresh, preferably fresh)

Black pepper, preferably freshly ground

Cumin

Curry powder

G-nut paste

G-nut powder

Salt

4 large tomatoes

Water

 

Procedure:

Peel the matooke and set aside. Heat a bit of oil in a deep pot. Chop the onions and garlic and add to the pot.

Add black pepper, salt, cumin, and chili (Optional – add turmeric or favorite masala mix or cayenne pepper or paprika, whatever you prefer) to the sweating onions and garlic.

When the onions begin to turn golden on the edges, add diced tomatoes with curry powder.

Cook until the tomatoes become mush and add half a cup of water. Simmer until the sauce is thick.

Add the peeled matooke. Mix.

Get 2 cups of pounded g-nuts and 3 tablespoons of g-nut paste. Mix in a blender or manually in a dish. Add one cup of water to the mix.

Pour the g-nut mix in the pot.

Add more salt, black pepper, chili, paprika, cumin.

Keep adding and keep tasting until you are satisfied with the intensity of the spices, especially the chili and black pepper. The more the better.

Simmer until the matooke is soft.

 

Serving instructions:

Eat with your family (define according to preference). Laugh about your separate but equally exhausting days. Serve with beer or Gerald’s sweet mojitos (recipe available upon request). Sit on the ground (because you don’t have furniture yet). Tune out your internal critic and the local drunk talking to your compound wall (They have their own issues to resolve). Laugh over the day’s humiliations. Add music to taste. 

 

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Gloria Kiconco is a poet and essayist based in Kampala, Uganda. Her works are available at otherandelse.wordpress.com

[1] Illustration by Mithila Baindur. Mithila is an artist living and working in Bengaluru, India.