Rwandan cuisine is based upon the staples that this highly agrarian society produces. Plantains, beans, legumes, cassava, and sweet potatoes make up the bulk of Rwandan dishes and meat is an uncommon luxury. I chose to cook a popular cassava leaf stew called isombe along with a dish of legumes and bananas. The recipes both represented the staples of Rwanda and proved to be a simple and delicious vegetarian meal. (After Macau I really needed something a bit lighter and less beefy and Rwanda proved to be just that.)
Served along with some freshly cooked ugali, isombe makes for a great vegetarian meal. It’s a type of vegetable stew with leafy greens, eggplant, bell peppers, zucchini, and green onions that is rounded out with the flavorful addition of red palm oil and peanuts. (Because the Africans love their peanuts and I do too!) Traditionally the stew is made with cassava leaves, but since those are almost impossible to get ahold of in the States, kale is a fine substitute. Isombe originated in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, but then spread to Rwanda where it has became a national favorite.
1 bunch kale, chopped (traditionally cassava leaves are used)
1 eggplant, chopped
1 green bell pepper, chopped
3 green onions, chopped
1 zucchini, chopped
1 bunch spinach, chopped
2 tbsp peanut flour or peanut butter
2 tbsp red palm oil
Cover the kale with water in a large pot and bring it to a boil with some salt. Cook until the kale is tender, about 25 minutes. Add in the remaining vegetables and cook for another 15 minutes until they are falling apart and almost all of the water has evaporated. (Add a little extra water if it becomes too dry.) Mix the red palm oil and peanut butter/ flour together and stir it into the vegetables. Remove the isombe from the heat and serve.
I’m not really sure about the Rwandan name for this dish of boiled bananas and split peas mixed with fried onions and red palm oil, but I found it on several Rwandan recipe sites, so it seemed promising.
1 cup split green peas, soaked overnight and drained
1 small onion, chopped
1 tbsp red palm oil
Cover the split peas in a pot of water and bring to a boil. Cook until tender, about 30 minutes. Add more water to the pot if necessary to prevent the peas from burning and lay the whole peeled bananas on top. Cover and cook for 10 minutes. Meanwhile, heat the red palm oil in a large skillet over medium high heat. Add the onions and cook until browned, about 8 minutes. Once the bananas are done, add them to the skillet along with the drained split peas. Fully mix everything together and cook until most of the moisture has evaporated. Remove the skillet from the heat, season to taste, and serve.
Isombe seemed like the perfect recipe the moment I laid eyes on it. I was initially a little concerned with the thought of mixing boiled bananas with peas and fried onions to make the second dish, but as always my fears were unfounded. It was delicious, a little weird, but delicious nonetheless. I hope you enjoy my little venture to Rwanda!