Whether for lunch or dinner, in Kigali or the countryside, if you eat out in Rwanda you tend to be offered a buffet. Unless a restaurant caters specifically to foreigners you’ll simply be given a plate and directed to a table with a long line of traditional dishes: rice, potatoes, pasta, plantains, beans, cabbage, sautéed green vegetables, carrots, green beans, egg plant, cassava stew (isombe), meat stew and maybe sweet potatoes (though I’m told these are becoming less popular, at least in the countryside around Butare – no idea why).
My Rwandan friend Pie-Pacifique tells me that the name for a buffet in kinyarwanda is imvange, which literally means ’a bit of everything,’ and he says he remembers a song from his childhood that spoke of the importance of mixing starch, proteins and vitamins when you eat. The song is called inderabuzima, from indera, which means ’that which raises us up or nourishes us’, and ubuzima, which means ’life or health’. The song goes through all the good things you should eat to grow strong and healthy, and adds a line on the importance of drinking lots of clean water.
The trick to know when you enjoy a Rwandan buffet is that you are only supposed to dish up once. This is contrary to the Swedish smörgåsbord for example, where you take only a little at a time and keep going back. In Rwanda you pile it up once, and when I say you pile it up I mean you pile it up. When eating at the New Pamamu Le Vivre restaurant at the African Lodge (both recommended) on a recent visit to Butare I saw locals scooping so much rice on top of the pasta on top of the cassava stew on top of the beans that I feared it was all going to tip over before they reached their table.
It is, I have been told, bad manners to revisit the buffet, but totally acceptable to put so much food on your plate you make even American supersize portions look unambitious. Generally there are so many dishes lined up that even if you take only a little of each you will end up with a full plate. My own favourites are the beans (cooked or fried kidney beans), any type of plantain or cooked banana, and a well made isombe (a stew on crushed cassava leaves, flavoured with some meat). All dishes tend to be very mild in taste, so don’t forget to ask for some Akabanga, Rwanda’s own hot chilli oil.